Professors critique each other in University Seminars

by Lydia Gensheimer | 11/11/02 6:00am

Fifteen professors are gathered around a table, feverishly exchanging ideas and in the midst of a hot debate. They're at a class that's not a class, but rather a meeting of one of Dartmouth's 17 "University Seminars."

The University Seminar program was established in 1975 with the intent of drawing together professors from different disciplines while exposing professors to peer critique of their work.

A typical seminar involves a presentation -- sometimes of a work in progress -- by a Dartmouth professor, followed by a discussion of the presentation over dinner. The seminars are often in the Hanover Inn.

Some, like the medieval studies seminar, occur as frequently as once a month, while other groups meet once a year or not at all.

"The teacher is always performing before students, and I wanted to stop that. I wanted the faculty to be among their peer group -- not among adoring students, but in front of peers who could be nasty," said Peter Bien, English professor emeritus and founder of the seminars.

With the program description buried on page 639 of Dartmouth's manual of Organizations, Rules and Courses, the University Seminars are obscure -- most Dartmouth students are unaware of a program that many professors hold in such high esteem.

Seminar leaders said that the University Seminars play an important role in Dartmouth's strong research tradition.

"The University Seminar in northern studies is an institution around here," said Oran Young of the Institute of Arctic Studies. "It's one of the most successful things that the northern studies program does."

While the seminars were originally formed strictly for the faculty, students can now occasionally attend if invited by a professor.

"Whenever there are students who are working closely with us and who have a well-defined interest in the topic, we say 'come along,'" Young said.

The uniqueness of the seminars seems to lie in their interdisciplinary nature.

"People around the university are ordinarily divided by discipline -- economist talks to economist, historian talks to historian -- but there are certain topics that are cross-cutting, that don't fall into a specific department," Young said. "The University Seminar provides a mechanism for people around the campus to meet from time to time around a common interest that draws people from a lot of different disciplines."

Seminar topics range from "feminist inquiry" to "topics in neuroscience," and each one can cover a wide scope of subject matter. The northern studies seminar hosted discussions ranging in topic from the political system in Greenland to the outbreak of juvenile diabetes in the north.

"What I am most excited about, as concerns the University Seminar, is the volumes that result from it," said English professor Donald Pease, organizer of the American studies seminar. Many books that have been published as a result of the Dartmouth seminars.

In 1993, a book entitled "Cultures of U.S. Imperialism" was published that became the basis for an international American Studies Association meeting in 1998.

"A Dartmouth University Seminar became the seed for a change in the forms of knowledge that Americanists focus on," Pease said.

Bien established the lectures after being elected to the five-year position of Third Century Professor in the Humanities in the mid-1970s. Included in the appointment was $10,000 per year from donations by Theodore Geisel '25, otherwise known as Dr. Seuss.

Bien used half of this money to establish the Composition Center and the other half to set up the seminars. After Bien retired, the provost's office assumed responsibility for the University Seminars program.