First-year thought matters: FYE students exhibit projects a semester in-the-making

Posted by Andrew Cantor

In May, the college admissions office notified the First Year Experience program that there would be more than one hundred unanticipated extra first-year students attending the college in the fall.

Beau Breslin, director of First-Year Experience, managed to enroll every first-year student into one of the 46 intimate Scribner Seminars, while other classes were forced to over-enroll or deny additional students.

The Scribner Seminar, a required first-year program which evolved from the Liberal Studies 1: Human Dilemmas course, has an enrollment cap of 16 students, and this year, only five seminars were over-enrolled with one extra student.  Breslin decided to add one more seminar this year, teaching it himself, to keep class sizes near the desired cap of 16 students.

The Scribner Seminars are four credit hours, with three credit hours dedicated to interdisciplinary study and "creative thought," and the other credit hour left open-ended for each professor to help acclimate his or her students to college life.

Breslin said the college is the only liberal-arts school in the area that offers an intimate, interdisciplinary experience like the Scribner Seminar.

With the most diverse sampling of seminars available in college history, the professors along with their students and peer mentors, made use of the unique academic and social freedoms afforded this year.

Each professor, with an initial $500 budget, took their students outside of the classroom and into the larger community for a practical application of the ubiquitous college maxim of "creative thought."

BUZZ – The Visual and Material Culture of Caffeine

Professor Mimi Hellman

"This seminar infiltrated my life," Layla Durrani '14 said. "I was in Burgess [Café], getting a cup of tea that was called Victorian English Breakfast, and it started off a memory. Why is there a picture of a cottage on the wrapper? When I bought this $1 tea, I was participating in a larger event."

The "larger event" Durrani is referring to is a critical "reading" of the visual design of caffeinated foods and beverages. In the BUZZ seminar, students studied the history of caffeinated product design, from 18th century Victorian tea sets to the modern Flash-based Starbucks website.

"Tea is sold through associations with a generalized, exoticized image of Asia that ignores cultural differences; an M&Ms campaign attempts humor through an ahistorical mash-up of communist imagery; Coke makes a pitch for xenophobic patriotism and traditional gender roles," Mimi Hellman, professor of the seminar, said. "Most consumers do not recognize these attitudes… You have to learn how to look."

The semester culminated with the class designing and curating an exhibit in the Scribner Library, where groups analyzed four case studies on the visual presentation of caffeine.

"My group studied Coca-Cola ads in the '40s during the war," Joe Marto '14 said.  "We skimmed through an archive of old ads, and then had Media Services reproduce them for the exhibit. It was very professional."

The Music Between Us: The Culture of Musical Creation and Consumption

Professor Gordon Thompson

Veteran Music department Professor Gordon Thompson has taught "The Music Between Us" Scribner Seminar twice before.  Thompson's seminar previously surveyed a wide range of genres and the way music affects individual personality and culture. This year, he added an element of arts administration to the syllabus, and had his class produce the annual campus-wide Beatles tribute concert in November, Beatlemore Skidmania, held for the first time this year in the new Arthur Zankel Music Center.

Thompson's students decided to donate ticket profits to Skidmore Cares, a college-based charity that donates food, money and school supplies in the local community during the holiday season.

"Skidmore Cares usually only raises a few hundred dollars, but we were able to raise a few thousand in ticket and T-shirt sales," Cody DeFalco '14 said. "[It] gave me perspective on the [music] industry… It was completely new to me."

The course texts included Thompson's own book on the infrastructure behind the ‘60s British pop industry and essays on "a rave club in Detroit, ‘tween females referencing Britney Spears in their personality formation, jazz clubs in Kansas City and Chicago, music festivals and karaoke," which gave his students a comprehensive review of popular music culture.

"I'm always experimenting with my pedagogy, adjusting with different students and learning from what works and what does not," Thompson said.

Thompson's pedagogical method this semester proved successful as his seminar produced by far the largest Beatlemore in the events' 10-year history, along with a considerable donation to charity.

Ways of Seeing: Image, Text, Illumination

Professor Michelle Rhee

"The seminar changed the way I view museums after we had to curate our own small gallery," Kate Jestin Taylor '14 said. "I realized every little detail has a purpose… it was so difficult, but also rewarding."

Professor Michelle Rhee's seminar studied the delicate relationship between text and image, which her students then applied at the end of the semester in curating an exhibit in the Tang Teaching Museum.

"It's a power dynamic we're in. Both text and image seem to be perpetually vying for your attention," Rhee said.

Rhee's assigned reading included the cult classic word and image publication  "The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects," by Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, along with Art Spiegelman's graphic novel, "Maus."

With the $500 budget provided by the FYE, the class took a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and received a private tour on text and image artwork. The seminar also picked pieces from the Tang's collection, and then curated their own exhibit in the Winter Gallery.

Human Dilemmas

Professors Sheldon Solomon and Sue Layden

The college offers 11 Human Dilemmas Scribner Seminars, and professors Sheldon Solomon and Sue Layden are taking advantage of its shared curriculum and large student group to mentor and guide inner-city high school students.

Arisleyda Urena '96, principal at the Academy for Language and Technology in the Bronx, approached Breslin around a year ago to create a partnership between the college and the public high school to connect her students to a college-prospective program. The majority of students at the school are first generation Americans, recent immigrants or English language learners, who do not necessarily have the resources or education for college.

In October, the high school students took a bus to the college, read the same texts as the Human Dilemmas course, attended a lecture by Solomon and ate lunch with Human Dilemmas students.

Professor Janet Casey also video conferenced a lecture to the high school students back in New York about activism.

"We spoke with Arisleyda right after the lecture. All the students were very inspired," Layden said. "They took the activism very seriously."

Layden and Solomon plan on continuing the partnership between the high school and college in future.


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