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Learning Community

Exploring the American Dream: the creation of a first-year learning community

By Barbara Schulz Smith, associate professor of psychology and Bridget M. Newell, associate professor of philosophy

Learning community models to be introduced during the 2004-2005 academic year:

Fall 2004
History and Economics Learning Community
taught by Dick Chapman, Susan Cottler, and John Watkins

Explorations in Language and Writing (ENGL 110-02 and INTR 100-05) taught by Elree Harris and Ginny DeWitt

Exploring the American Dream I (Phil 300Q-01/ PSYC 300GG-01) taught by Bridget M. Newell and Barbara Schulz Smith. First-year students only, first of two semesters.

Spring 2005
Gender and the Workplace
(ECON 412P-01/GNDR 300T-01/PSYC 300OO-01) taught by Dick Chapman and Janine Wanlass.

Exploring the American Dream II (PHIL 300W-01/PSYC 300NN 01) taught by Bridget M. Newell and Barbara Schulz Smith. First-year students only; second of two semesters.

Imagine that you are a first-year student at Westminster College. One of your first classes is Exploring the American Dream I. You go to class wondering what it will be like and whether any of the friends you made at freshman orientation will be there. When you enter the room, you are greeted with a friendly, "Welcome to your first-year learning community."

Oh yeah, this is a learning community...but what exactly is that? You seem to remember that someone told you that learning communities are designed to ensure that you have the opportunity to develop a more in-depth understanding of the subjects you study. You also remember hearing that learning communities are meant to help you become more "connected" to other students, to your professors, and to the broader community in which you study. But really, what does that mean?

What will happen in this learning community? Will this class be any different than others you'll take? Yes, emphatically yes, say your professors. (That's right, professors; there are two of them.) They introduce themselves and tell you they are thoroughly excited to be one of Westminster College's newest first-year learning communities. Their enthusiasm is rather scary, but you're already sitting, so you can't get up and run now.

They say they have lots in store for you this year:

You will not sit passively in class listening to a professor drone on and on. You are expected to take part in lively and sometimes heated discussions (and somehow you are to learn to feel comfortable with disagreement and uncertainty).

You will examine issues of diversity through the lens of the American Dream: What is the American Dream? To what extent does the American Dream hold true for all Americans? Do class, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and/or immigration status impact the attainability of the dream?

You will not take tests. At first this sounded like your own version of the American Dream, but now you are somewhat concerned. Instead of taking tests, you will write several papers. No more guessing T or F or A, B, or C.

You will see movies, go out to eat, attend lectures and community events with other members of the class and with your professors. That sounds like fun, but what's the catch?

You will develop a project that responds to a community-based need and relates to issues discussed in class. Sounds daunting, but hey, you won't need to worry about that until next semester.

Your professors will help you learn what it takes to succeed in college. That sounds helpful, but what are they saying about having to turn off your cell phone?

The class you have been imagining--Exploring the American Dream I & II--is a two-semester learning community that will be offered at Westminster during the 2004-2005 academic year. The concept for this class evolved from a development process that began in October 2002 when we (Smith and Newell) attended the American Association of Colleges and Universities' Diversity and Learning Conference. During one session we discussed the impact a first-semester course could have on introducing students to more sophisticated ways of understanding contemporary issues relevant to class, race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and immigration status in the United States. We had noticed a troubling lack of understanding of these issues in our classroom discussions and thought that raising awareness of these issues early in students' college careers would position them to critically analyze new concepts and experiences through "diversity-focused lenses."

We then began to develop an interdisciplinary course for students in the first semester of their first year of college. Our goals were to focus on diversity and provide a more rigorous introduction to college-level work than they might expect. To encourage students to become more responsible for their own learning, we planned for a "decentered" classroom which would allow for a multi-directional exchange of ideas, not a one-way delivery of information from professors to students. To help students develop their writing skills and to ensure they became familiar with the language, methodologies, and conceptual frameworks of psychology and philosophy, we decided the course would be writing-intensive and the majority of the texts students read would be primary sources.

One of our first challenges was to learn to integrate contemporary work on diversity issues, contemporary research on diversity issues in psychology, and contemporary approaches to diversity issues in philosophy. Given that we had never collaborated to develop an interdisciplinary course before, we had lots of work ahead of us. However, after one long, hot summer and many iced lattes and mochas, we had developed a course we were both eager to teach.

In the fall of 2003 our class was filled with lively, opinionated, open-minded, self-disclosing, enthusiastic, thoughtful students who learned to critically examine their understanding of diversity issues and the American Dream. We had vigorous debates, quiet contemplative moments, and insightful and not-so-insightful discussions that both taught and challenged us.

By November we were able to see changes in our students' mindsets and the potential--or need--to expand the class to include more out-of-class activities and a service-learning component. We also knew that a more integrated approach would help students cultivate a deeper understanding of diversity issues and the methods and practices contemporary philosophers and psychologists use when they address diversity.

Our students also seemed to be interested in spending more time on the issues addressed in class. Often they would tell us that they continued class discussions outside of class, and some students told us that they would have loved the opportunity to extend our course from one to two semesters.

Fortunately, we were informally assessing our class and its future potential during the time that the strategic plan was being finalized. Since one of the initiatives highlighted in the plan was the development of learning communities, we were confident in pursuing our idea to further develop the class into a learning community.

At this point, we have identified the critical elements that must be included in our learning community. This community will center around a two-semester class, Exploring the American Dream I and II. This format will enable students to explore diversity themes in more depth while also completing the social sciences and philosophy/religion liberal education requirements. Including guest speakers throughout the year and incorporating a service-learning component in the second semester will provide the opportunity for students to make real-world connections to topics studied in class and to learn more about what they and others can do to address ethical, social, and political issues related to race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender, and immigration status. Student-faculty field trips, social gatherings, and specially designated learning community office hours will help to establish and maintain the sense of community we envision for our first-year students.

At this point, we are looking forward to the challenges and rewards that come with any new endeavor in an academic setting, to learning about successes of other Westminster College learning communities. We feel that the effort involved in planning and implementing these communities will be rewarded with the creation of the kind of learning environment that will help to further distinguish Westminster.