When freshmen arrive on campus each fall, the newness of college often triggers a mixture of fear and fantasy. Homesickness and anxiety over rommates and grades compete with excitement over the prospect of new friends and novel ideas. So before classes even begin, new arrivals undergo a week of programs and events aimed, for the most part, at putting them at ease. Students are introduced to the complexities of living safely and tolerantly with their peers, are given a taste of the University’s academic smorgasbord, and are set loose to have a bit of good, clean fun.
For most students the transition to college academics is the most nerve-racking part.“Students come to Brown largely with a very narrow conception of the intellectual universe,” explains Dean of Freshmen Armando Bengochea. “High school means one course in science, one course in history, one course in math, maybe a language course, and if it’s a really good high school, they might take an economics course. It’s hard to make sense, suddenly, of the new intellectual universe that they’re going to be part of.”
On the last day of August this year’s 1,432 new students filed into the Pizzitola Center to hear Professor of History Jack Thomas ’61 Ph.D., Professor of Biology Anne Fausto-Sterling, and Professor of Anthropology William Beeman describe their respective disciplinary areas. The students then split into small groups for seminars taught by a tag team of faculty. Topics ranged from the search for extraterrestrial life and the study of goddesses to the appreciation of math and poetry.
The purpose of the seminars was to showcase faculty while demonstrating the varied perspectives produced by an interdisciplinary approach. At the Animals in Science and Literature seminar, for example, professors Donald Jackson of biology and William Crossgrove of German studies took turns analyzing the story of the tortoise and the hare. Seen from biological and literary viewpoints, they explained, the fable takes on extra, layered meanings. Particularly instructive was Jackson’s description of the scientific underpinnings of the turtle’s slow, steady, energy-conserving approach: many turtles, he explained, burrow into lake bottoms in the fall and shut down their metabolisms until March. “This shutting down,” he said, “allows them to make it to the finish line—springtime in this case.”
Fortunately, the week isn’t all work. Events such as a Jell-O eating contest, a talent show, a tug-of-war, and a semiformal dance allowed students to relax and blow off a little steam, so that by the time the class of 2004 walked through the Van Wickle Gates for Opening Convocation on a cold morning at the end of the week, most of its members were already settled into their new lives. Broad, confident grins replaced some of the nervous smiles, and many students walked in pairs or in groups of newfound friends.
Sitting on the grass of the Green, the students heard Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Meera Vis-wanathan remind them of what lay ahead. The pursuit of knowledge, she insisted, will require them to “go beyond the merely necessary work” to “harness all of your energies and gifts toward some greater goal as you commence this new life.