Community Beyond The Classroom

by Isaiah Berg | 11/12/08 3:59am

The Dow has been plunging faster than a GPA during pledge term. The situation in Afghanistan is messier than a breakfast bomb and probably tougher to swallow. Corporate America is shedding jobs like ... alright, enough of the obnoxious Dartmouth analogies. What I want to say is that I'm nervous about the future. I am definitely the first person to ever worry about the future, so therefore I feel it is my obligation to sort out what parts of the Dartmouth education will successfully move us from here to there.

We know that we are here at Dartmouth to prepare for an uncertain future. Nobody knows this better than sophomores and juniors who are continuing the scramble to choose their majors, especially this week. Education is designed to equip us and prepare us for this future. Scholarship, however, is only one side of this academic coin.

The other side encompasses mentorship and friendship, which are a pivotal part of our education, especially when those relationships involve a student and a professor. Quite frankly, I don't think there is enough of this type of interaction at Dartmouth, and we have immense potential to make our relationships with professors a stronger cornerstone of the Dartmouth experience. The relationships we form with professors will be the wellspring of strength that we draw upon in the years to come.

Dartmouth is supposed to be a liberal arts college with the resources of an Ivy League university -- a place where you can have world-class faculty, and to allude to a phrase involving cake, "let them teach you, too." We do a pretty good job as far as the standard metrics of class size and course offerings are concerned. What isn't as well measured or supported, however, is interaction outside of the classroom.

I'm not going to suggest that we take courses such as "Being a Good Friend 52" or "Creative Thinking Without Standards or Accountability 85." What I do suggest is that we encourage students and faculty to engage more frequently with each other outside of the classroom. We have the Faculty Engagement Program and sizeable student programming funds devoted to similar efforts. Unfortunately, I still don't feel that these needs are being met for most students.

This term, I've been participating in a reading group with professor Douglas Irwin of the economics department. We've been reading and discussing Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" as a group. It has been one of the most worthwhile academic experiences of my time at Dartmouth. I have yet to take a course from professor Irwin, and I had no prior knowledge of Adam Smith or similar moral philosophers. But through this reading group, I have fed my curiosity about the subject and formed a personal relationship with professor Irwin. This is the stuff of legend -- the exact thing a liberal arts education should be built around.

We need to get students and faculty more connected. Currently, most students would tell you that that they are the ones who initiate contact with their professors outside of the classroom. After all, wouldn't it be kind of strange if a professor randomly chose you for a dinner invitation? Student initiative shows dedication and commitment, but Professors should meet us halfway by continuing to be accessible and trying their hardest to be unitimidating.

With new building projects and initiatives in the works, we have immense potential for building a more integrated student-faculty community. Food Court isn't my idea of faculty friendly; I have yet to find any professors with whom to strike up conversation about Nietzsche while I'm waiting for my grilled chicken parm. A dining space or cafe that would allow the paths of students and faculty to informally cross would be a welcome addition and a laudable first step.

Expanding reading groups and outside-of-the-classroom programming is another step in the right direction. Every department should capitalize on student interest and promote learning through the intimacy of a reading group. Imagine if you could pursue your interests in everything from the canon of Western literature to the roots of Marxism to theology to the foundations of classical liberalism -- all without the pressure and limits of an academic course.

If you build it, they will come. Offer an intimate learning experience and enhanced opportunities to connect with faculty, and students will respond. We are here for an education, after all. The best teaching of our lives is to be had outside of the classroom.