September 5, 2001

Assemblies Discuss North Campus, Book

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The new Community Commons on North Campus was the site of last night’s “Assemblies Annual Advance,” an event bringing together the members of the Employee, Student, Graduate and Professional, and University assemblies.

“The Advance is an opportunity for us to get to see friends after the

summer, to make new acquaintances, to share some stories, and to get ready” for the work of the coming year, said Prof. Don Tobias, policy analysis and management, the chair of the University Assembly, as he opened the evening.

The event was centered around the book “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared

Diamond, which all freshmen were required to read this summer. Assembly

members and affiliates of the Assemblies were assigned to dinner and discussion groups to discuss the initiative, providing them with opportunities to meet people from other facets of the University.

“The intent of each part of the Advance is to meet and interact with people

they’ll be working with throughout the year,” said Hope Mandeville, director of assemblies.

President Hunter R. Rawlings III saluted the event organizers for choosing the book as the theme for the evening, “because I think it is in keeping with the spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish on North Campus,” he said.

Rawlings referred to the Residential Initiative, which houses all freshmen on North Campus and places an emphasis on a common freshman experience as well as extending learning beyond the classroom.

“For a large University to be effective with undergraduates is not the norm,” Rawlings said. “And at Cornell I think we certainly are doing that.”

Mixed reactions met the decision which required new students to read “Guns, Germs and Steel,” first proposed by Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin last spring.

“Any new idea at Cornell is received with a dose of very healthy skepticism,” Rawlings said yesterday.

However, he noted that more than 200 faculty, “quite a few staff members,”

and 150 upperclass students volunteered to read the book and facilitate last week’s discussion sessions.

Martin said that even a negative reaction to the book promotes conversation. “I think it has certainly turned out to be true that many people haven’t liked the book. And I said at the time that if a lot of students actually hated the book, that in itself would be a bonding experience, something they people will remember throughout their lives,” she said light-heartedly.

Two speakers presented their views of the book to the audience.

Prof. John Henderson, anthropology, praised Diamond’s factual accuracy but

disagreed with many of his arguments. Diamond argues that differences in the development of human societies are due to their environment.

“My real problem with it is conceptual. It only makes sense if you believe, as Diamond certainly does believe, that societal development follows one single trajectory,” he said.

Tracy Mitrano, policy advisor and co-director of Computing Policy and Law

in the Office of Information and Technologies, likened Diamond to English scientist Francis Bacon.

“Both men demonstrated prodigious intellectual talent and ambition. Both men were synthesizers, both where risk takers,” she said.

After the presenters spoke, the audience broke into discussion groups that

expanded Diamond’s theory by focusing on such questions as “how are

incoming students shaped by the Cornell environment” and “what role do the

assemblies have in shaping the Cornell environment.”

One group commented on how an all-freshman North Campus provides a “better sense of community.”

“Something has happened to them to make them feel more at ease in the

class,” said group member Prof. Charles Walcott, neurobiology and behavior.

“I can only sense that students who come in together and are living in the

same space and have already engaged intellectually with other students must

feel more in the game of what being here is all about; so that that first time they group to talk to a professor in a class is not actually the first time they’ve ever met a faculty member,” Mitrano said.

Rawlings asked a discussion group if there is a downside to the new residence halls, such as jealousy from the students who are not in the new dorms, or a lack of interaction with upperclassmen.

Brooke Yakin ’04, a member of the Student Assembly Finance Committee, said she thinks having all freshmen on North is a positive change from her freshman year, when “if you had a project group you’d never want to work with anyone who lived on West. It was basically two different sets of freshmen.”

Josh Roth ’03, Arts and Sciences representative for the Student Assembly (S.A.), said living on West campus freshman year helped him learn about clubs and activities, but “I really didn’t feel like a member of the residence hall,”

whereas his friends on North campus made closer connections with their dorm friends.

“We do have a fair number of freshmen seminars being taught up here. Part

of the idea was to bring the professors to the students,” Rawlings said.

“I personally was hoping that I would be able to teach my writing seminar

up here,” said John Sebastian, a member of the Graduate and Professional

Assembly. Last year, his small room in Uris Hall was, he noted, “anything BUT

conducive to the kind of environment I was trying to set up in my

classroom. This is supposed to be their chance to have a small class where

they can really get to know the people [and] they can’t even see half the

people in the class, never mind the instructor. I felt in my own teaching

that the environment does have a major effect on the class dynamic.”

Many participants said the role of the assemblies is unclear in the University.

“It’s also perceived, I think, as being something that requires a substantial amount of time and has no effect. And faculty are highly allergic, as I think we all are, to investing a lot of time and effort into something that will have no effect,” Walcott said. “I think that was a very positive thing to do that we can celebrate. But what’s the next one? I seems to me we need to give some thought to that,” he said.

Many assembly members praised the night’s event as a good opportunity to

interact and engage in discussion.

“The key now becomes to continue this dialogue in the future not next year, but next week,” said S.A. international student liaison Michael Matly ’03.

Archived article by Heather Schroeder