In my opinion the strength of the educational experience that we offer at Gustavus emanates from our identity as a liberal arts college. This is the part of the mission statement that I feel most deeply. It emphasizes the education of the whole person – not just that we seek to make our students expert in their major and conversant across disciplines, but that they will become curious, thoughtful, caring people who continually strive for a serious understanding of who they are, what the world is and ought to be, and how they will make a conscious connection between themselves and that world.
Will Freiert often says that someone just “gets it” – in other words they truly understand the purpose of the liberal arts and they put that understanding into practice every day. A particular aspect of the liberal arts – the overlap between teaching and research – permeates my thinking now. Knowledge and the search for understanding cannot be broken into separate and distinct activities called “research” and “teaching,” nor are they conducted by two completely different species known as “student” and “professor.” My research begins with an attempt to understand something and ends with the teaching of what I have found to my colleagues and students, and my teaching should inspire the students to go out and do research, discovering answers (and more questions) that are not yet imagined.
My belief in this idea has resulted in assigning myself the research paper in many of my upper level classes – participating in my own courses as both student and professor. Thus, I developed my idea on Plautus’ use of the formula amabo (I will love = “please”) in the class I taught on Roman drama. I did each stage of the paper and presented it in class just as I was asking them to do. I followed a similar procedure working back through the basic research for my presentation on the graffiti from the Pompeian brothel when I taught the Classics capstone seminar on the topic of love, sex, and marriage in the ancient world.
Last spring, my colleague, Eric Dugdale, asked me to submit a proposal for a book on Pompeii to a series which he is editing. The series is entitled Texts and Contexts and is designed to introduce a topic or author, through a discussion of the primary sources, to a college age audience. At first I was worried that the sort of thing that Eric wanted, a general guide to the various primary sources from Pompeii, had already been done and that I would only do it worse. Then I began to think about my frustrations with all the books that I have used (or could use) for my course on Roman art and archaeology: they are too crammed with information for the sake of information, they do not delve into bigger questions, they leave little room for students to reach their own conclusions. So I began to imagine the sort of book that would do the sorts of things I hope to accomplish in class. I proposed to Eric that the book would focus on domestic space in the Roman world, would explore how the arrangement of domestic space expresses and shapes the values of their society, and would be organized in such a fashion that the earlier chapters would prepare the students to do their own “reading” of Roman domestic space with evidence that they had not already studied and discussed. He thought this sounded like a good idea.
I think I’ll take a few days off and start this project next week.