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ISSUE 121 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/11/2008

New 'Con' programs proposed

By Lauren Melcher
Staff Writer

Friday, April 11, 2008

Ten years ago, St. Olaf was one of the first academic institutions in the nation to offer a learning community centered around the study of Asian cultures and language. The new Asian Conversation will debut next fall with a class of 24 students, across all major disciplines.

Assistant professor of political science Kathy Tegtmeyer-Pak explained the new program to faculty and staff at a Center for Integration in the Liberal Arts luncheon last Wednesday, and answered questions about the revamped conversation. Professors Shelly Dickinson and Bruce Borovsky also share plans for a new Science Conversation, which will be presented to the faculty for approval in May.

Both conversation programs will be open to sophomores, and they consist of two semester-length courses and a required interim course. Unlike the American and Great Conversations, students will not live together during their first year, but the Asian and Science Conversations will share the Conversation program's overall emphasis on interdisciplinary study and group work.

The discussion among faculty at the CILA luncheon focused on questions relating to financial support and faculty development for the new courses. The directors of both programs are applying for grants to finance the classes, since most will be team-taught or lie outside of faculty members' usual area of teaching (a factor in determining faculty salary and administrative costs).

The new Asian Conversation will integrate language studies in Chinese and Japanese with courses that study "the journey of people, goods and ideas," Tegtmeyer-Pak said. The sophomore-standing requirement will enable the program to integrate more language into the courses than was possible when most participants were first-years, taking their first classes in Chinese or Japanese. The change also reflects a desire among students to join conversation programs after coming to St. Olaf, which professors discovered during a recent student survey.

During the interim term, students will conduct first-hand research in China and Japan, interviewing students at their host universities about family migration experiences. The students will spend three weeks in the country of their language, with a one-week rotation to the other country, where the other students will host them and guide the group on day trips. Tegtmeyer-Pak said the interim course, and its integration with the surrounding semesters, is evidence of how the department is "working very hard to design these classes in an interdisciplinary way." Tegtmeyer-Pak also stressed that the program is not designed solely for Asian studies majors, but for anyone who is interested in combining their language study with a general education focus on Asian culture. She is excited that the incoming group is equally split between majors and non-majors.

The proposed Science Conversation will also be open to students of all majors, and will focus on the "history of, doing of, meaning of, and impact of science," according to Dickinson, an assistant professor of psychology and director of neuroscience. The program's design reflects a perceived need for "better-educated citizenry on scientific matters," said Dickinson, using the example of the future congressman who might benefit from a background in science when voting on issues like stem cell research or ethanol subsidies.

Plans are still being reviewed by the Curriculum Committee, but the proposal includes three courses, all to be team-taught by professors in natural science and social science or theology/philosophy fields. "We believe this reflects our unique position to explore the intersections of science and religion, according to St. Olaf's mission," said Borovsky, an assistant professor of physics. Semester-long courses will cover the relationship between science and religion in history, as well as technology and society.

The program will fulfill two of the new general education requirements in science, but not all of them, Dickinson stressed. Both the Asian and Science Conversations offer multiple GE credits, which are awarded at the end of the sequence due to the interdisciplinary structure. If approved by the faculty, the Science Conversation would probably start with a sophomore cohort in fall 2009. St. Olaf has been a leader in interdisciplinary learning communities since the launch of the Great Conversation in 1981.

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