Posted on Friday, December 20, 2013
Each year, as first-year students matriculate into Hobart and William Smith, they also enter Geneva, the community of 13,000, which by graduation will become home for them.
Kevin Dunn, associate professor of political science and chair of that department, says, "There's a common thing we hear as faculty: seniors on their way out, lamenting that they never really got to know Geneva until it was too late."
In light of that comes Dunn's first-year seminar, "You Are Here," which not only introduces students to the Geneva community but also prepares them for the kind of learning they will encounter at HWS.
"If you are self-reflexive about the place you are in," Dunn says. "You can be self-reflexive about scientific, socio-economic, political, civic and cultural productions. Looking at the same place through different methods and lenses of inquiry yields a richer understanding of place and of interdisciplinary learning."
Now in its second iteration, "You Are Here" was initially conceived by Dunn, Associate Professor of Art and Architecture Nick Ruth, and Associate Professor of English Anna Creadick to (1) engage students in Geneva's history, present and future and (2) create a first-year seminar that was truly in its essence interdisciplinary.
To that end, the seminar engages first-year HWS students in local histories and landscapes through a series of formal and informal assignments; traditional expository writing is practiced in tandem with more creative assignments, such as oral histories, blogs, mapping and self-published "zines."
Dunn also enlisted a series of guest lectures-other HWS faculty and staff, as well as local leaders-for their expertise in the sciences, architecture, history, writing and research that comprise this multilayered understanding of place.
As students get to know Geneva through these various academic lenses, the course features experiential learning in the form of neighborhood tours; site visits to local institutions like the Geneva Historical Society, the Geneva Neighborhood Resource Center and the Finger Lakes Institute; and a mapmaking assignment that begins with students getting lost in Geneva.
"Every guest lecture, every reading, every class meeting is thought out in terms of the goals of the course," Dunn says. "The course incorporates lots of different pedagogical approaches to the ways in which knowledge is acquired and interrogated."
Coursework also includes service-learning component, in which students volunteer at local schools and organizations like America Counts, the Geneva Boys and Girls Club and Big Brothers, Big Sisters, so students are "out in the community on a weekly basis, having regular interactions with Genevans, to gain a deeper awareness and appreciation of the community," Dunn says.
"Before taking this class, place was just the setting, the location on the map," says Cindy Famutimi '17. "But we've started to examine the history of the place, the people, what the city produces, everything that makes the city what it is."
"You can live in a place or really get to know it, and in our seminar, we're really getting to know it," says Kelsey McElwain '17.
Paige Pierce '17 echoes the same sentiments: "If you go to college in a town or city for four years you should know where you are living. Knowing where Geneva came from and where it is headed as a community has given me a greater appreciation for it. Even though the town faces economic hardships it still has newcomers and locals willing to try new ideas and businesses. People in Geneva are taking risks."
As the semester came to a close and the prospect of returning home for winter break drew near, students reflected on the questions the course has built toward: Who or what makes a place what it is? What is your role in making this place? What do our surroundings tell us about who we are? Where do psychology and geography intersect? How can such relationships be mapped?
"Place is building a sense of community and awareness of where you live," says McElwain. "There are a lot of layers to it-environmental, social, economic-but for me ‘place' is being able to get out in the community and socialize and enjoy where you live, to have a home."