Learning to Learn

By Emily Gold Boutilier / November / December 2002
June 28th, 2007

"Call your mother." It's a strange request from an associate professor of sociology, but when Ann Dill addresses it to fourteen freshmen gathered in the basement of Rhode Island Hall in early September, it has an academic point. It's a lesson in how to think like a sociologist.

Thinking like a sociologist isn't always easy at 9 a.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when SO 30: The Nature of Community meets. Students tend to arrive sleepy, some with wet hair and others with breakfast in hand, making the tiny classroom smell like shampoo and fresh coffee. The broken clock beside the door perpetually reads 9:20. At the start of the semester Dill explained that the course would combine the study of sociological research with an analysis of personal experience; calling home is a way for the class to apply their families' experience to the conclusions in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, which the students have been reading and are now discussing.

Putnam's book argues that civic engagement has all but disappeared. Today, he says, no one wants to join a bridge club or the League of Women Voters, and where once people joined bowling leagues, now they'd rather bowl alone. The result, he says, is a social-capital deficit that threatens every aspect of society. The claim seems to especially rile the class: "He attributes everything to a generational lapse, which is really offensive," one woman says.

"Yeah," agrees a classmate, "it's about our generation!"

Dill explains that the author is actually referring to her generation, the same generation to which these students' parents belong: the baby boomers. Putnam believes that the Greatest Generation was the most civic-minded one. Dill asks students to find out how civically involved their parents were as young adults. Did they join the Rotary Club, a bridge group, the PTA? Did they work for a political campaign or vote in an election? Or do they mirror the statistics in the book? At the next class, Dill announces, they will discuss what they've learned from the phone calls and connect it to Putnam's thesis.

THE NATURE of community is one of fourteen fall courses in a new University-wide program of freshman seminars - an early response to President Simmons's belief that classes have become too large at Brown. The initiative offers seminars in disciplines from applied mathematics to classics, from biology to Hispanic studies. Enrollment is limited to twenty. With nine more seminars scheduled for the spring semester, close to a third of the class will have had the opportunity to take one this year.

The issue of class size arose out of research conducted by Dean of the College Paul Armstrong two years ago. Armstrong found that the student-teacher ratio at Brown, which is ten to one, is among the highest in the Ivy League, and that the problem often hits freshmen the hardest. In the fall of 2000, he learned, only half of all freshmen took a course with an enrollment of fewer than twenty students. What's more, 64 percent of freshmen took at least two courses with enrollments higher than seventy-five. "That's not the ethos of Brown," he says.

Armstrong proposed the seminar program to President Simmons, whose vision of education is of close contact between teachers and students. "When you're sitting across a table as a first-year student," Simmons told the BAM last year, "and you have somebody look at you and not let you off the hook, then you cannot hide. I think it's probably safe to say that the kind of thesis a student writes as a senior and the kind of self-confidence that student has as a thinker after leaving Brown is very much dependent on having that kind of opportunity early."

The new program, says Armstrong, who is himself teaching a seminar on E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, "helps us live up to our sense of ourselves." Armando Bengochea, dean of freshman studies, says the seminars are "uniquely suited to allowing students to find their intellectual voice." Unlike other seminars, they're limited to freshmen. Students also form a relationship with a professor that could last for four years.

For this reason the deans asked that whenever possible, departments use permanent faculty to teach the seminars. (This year visiting professors are teaching five of them.) Next year Armstrong intends to double the number of seminars offered and to limit them to fifteen students. The plan is to offer sixty courses in 2004. Though the program was put together by Armstrong's office, individual professors and departments design each seminar. Some were especially eager to participate. The history department, which had a similar program already in place, is offering five seminars, the most of any discipline.

DILL IS THE LAST to arrive for the next session. "so, what did the parental units say?" she asks.

One student volunteers that her mother sponsored a club for teenage girls. Another mother formed a Greek dance club. One started a preschool. Another protested the war in Vietnam.

"Our parents are a pretty slim demographic," says one woman, noting that Putnam lists the college-educated as more likely to be civically engaged. A classmate adds that Putnam focuses on activities like joining a church or club but leaves out other forms of civic engagement - joining a co-op, for example. Dill, who lets the students do most of the talking, jumps in. She explains that Putnam's examples reflect a set of theories called structural functionalism. The argument is that communities work best when people participate in groups that reinforce societal norms. Other sociologists, Dill continues, support the conflict theories, which maintain that society works precisely because people challenge the status quo.

And so it goes. Dill seems to enjoy the contact with freshmen, whose excitement about college is still fresh. She had already designed an introductory-level seminar program for the sociology department, and had offered The Nature of Community last year as one of its courses, but only about half of the students had been freshmen. Dill, the mother of a college freshman herself, seems to feel it is also her job to introduce students to the ins and outs of college. During the first few class sessions this semester, she fielded questions about what font size to use in papers and whether to bring the book to class. "They had to get past the notion that they were reading to remember and regurgitate," she says, "and to understand that what I really wanted them to do was to be critically analytic."

In the classroom Dill is often surprised at the unexpected turns her students' thinking can take. "I know what I want to cover," she says, "but I leave room for serendipity." The discussion of parental phone calls, for example, leads to an examination of social changes that can be attributed to a generation gap. One student cites high voter turnout among senior citizens. Is turnout high because the elderly have less to do, he asks, or do people who are currently older come from a generation that has always voted in large numbers? Dill says that the latter appears to be the case. She then asks students to think about cause and effect in statistics. When an area gets electricity, she says, birth rates drop. Why? One student suggests that couples are watching TV instead of reproducing. Another wonders if people lose interest when they see themselves and their spouses in brighter light. Or, a classmate asks, could it be that something else is the cause of both? Dill replies that the correlation between electricity and birth rates has been shown to be spurious - both are related to urbanization.

Later in the semester the students will write a paper applying the course material to their own experience. Classroom discussion often turns to the students' new campus community as well. The students debate the merits of the Third World Transition Program. They wonder whether those who abstain from alcohol at parties are targets of oppression. They talk about the election for freshman representatives, asking if candidates who live in smaller dorms are at a disadvantage.

"I want them to understand the complexities of community life," Dill says. "That understanding has to come not just from reading about it, but thinking about it in the context of their own lives and the communities they're part of."

Emily Gold Boutilier is the BAM's senior writer.

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November / December 2002