Learning in Community Means…


We’ve just finished August Term, an intense 3 week introduction to college for first-year students. It’s more than just an extended orientation, if by orientation you think ice-breakers and social mixers. Along with learning the layout of the campus, the city, and getting acquainted with fellow first-years, it’s a rigorous class that introduces students to the kinds of readings, questions, writing assignments, and in-class discussions that characterize the vibrant intellectual life of a small liberal arts college.

College comes from the Latin collegium, which means partnership or association. Collegium comes from collega, which means colleague or partner, from the prefix col- together and the root legare, to be bound to or connected to. Which is to say, college means learning in community. And, if you will permit me, learning in community means all members are both teacher and student.

This blog post, then, is not about professors guiding students through difficult texts/concepts or the art of Socratic dialogue (though these indeed characterize learning here); instead, it’s about community, about professors working with students, teaching with students. And even more, it’s about Transy professors being amazed by the poise, confidence, and talent of our students. It’s about them teaching us.

Each August Term class has an August Term Scholar, a junior or a senior who returned to campus early in order to co-teach and mentor in-coming first-years. In our last day of class, my August Term Scholar, a Biology major who two summers ago was selected to be part of Yale’s Interdisciplinary Bioethics Summer Institute, lead our class through a series of philosophical thought experiments to illustrate the difficulty of ethical consistency when wrestling with such questions as whether or not humans should use animals to grow new ears or whether we should attempt to de-extinct species like the passenger pigeon or the wooly mammoth. It was a discussion germane to the class, but one which I, someone fully planted on the literary side of the humanities, could not have addressed with the same clarity and authority as he, in his quiet and unassuming way, did.

Other August Term professors have recounted similar stories. A concert pianist and professor of music praised the Scholar who taught with him for showing students how to read carefully a scientific article from a professional journal. A literature professor shared how his Scholar enriched their class discussions by bringing to the table her expertise in art history. A professor of theater told me of how over the spring semester the Scholar who worked him developed a number of hands-on activities to help bring history alive. For example, she came up with the idea of having students create their own Cabinet of Curiosities based on historical research and personal interests. This activity used an ancient method of organizing knowledge into a visual system in such a way that the class members both shared something about themselves and connected these personal revelations with the historical and philosophical content of the class. These are just a few stories of how our Scholars worked with us to make August Term a unique learning experience by bringing their talent, creativity, and breadth of knowledge to the classroom.

Before coming to Transylvania I taught at a large research school, a place where I rarely knew students beyond the one semester they had a class with me. Here, in turn, I have known my August Term Scholar, now a senior, since his first year on campus. Transylvania is a place where learning happens in community, where professors work closely with students on research and teaching. It’s a place where part of our continuing education, that is the continuing education of professors, happens because our students are curious, engaged, articulate human beings who come ready to learn and to share what they learn.