September 17, 2001

C.U. Celebrates Writing Program

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Thursday evening, Cornell students and faculty gathered for dinner in the Statler Hotel’s Roe Room to celebrate the University’s newest venture into literature; Sophomore Writing Seminars.

The initiative is an extension of the Freshman Writing Seminars, funded by a $5 million grant for endowment awarded to Cornell by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and matching funds from Cornell.

“The initiative’s core purpose is to offer sophomores small classes in gateway courses to the majors on topics with which participating faculty are strongly engaged,” wrote Prof. Jonathan Monroe, comparative literature, and director for the John S. Knight Institute for Writing in the Disciplines, in an e-mail.

Each seminar will hold a maximum of 15 students and will be taught by a tenured professor. The program currently consists of two courses, “Imagining the Holocaust,” and “Dark Matter: Topics in Astronomy and Astrophysics.”

Four courses will be offered in the fall semester, two in History and two in English, one of which, “Poetry and Poetics of Difference,” will be led by Monroe.

“All of [the courses] will involve collaboration across the disciplines focused on questions of ethics,” Monroe said in an e-mail.

Finding a common thread to string together this semester’s courses was a challenge at first. Faculty met over the summer to discuss the aim of each class.

“Our classes are two opposites,” said Prof. Martha Haynes, astronomy. “Fortunately, we are willing to explore.”

According to Prof. Stephen Donatelli, comparative literature, and new coordinator of Sophomore Seminars, the atomic bomb exists as a connection point for both classes, and could serve as a point of future discussion.

The classes will continue to meet and mingle, if not on a regular basis, at least at the beginning of each semester. The dinner provided an intimate atmosphere for the students to talk with their professors, which is in conjunction with one of the programs main objectives: is to aid sophomores in meeting professors.

“There has been a high amount of satisfaction with the Freshman Writing Seminars because they are small,” said Monroe. “There is a drop in satisfaction in sophomore year because students don’t have these smaller classes. The Knight Institute wanted to provide sophomores with smaller classes.”

Each class discusses their respective topic, with an ear to the common theme of ethics. According to Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English, and leader of the Holocaust class, his students will be reading a number of literary works, progressing from diaries and memoirs to fictional accounts of the Holocaust, to realistic novels and finally allegorical texts.

“We will be engaging ethical issues such as how should one behave? At what point is one reduced to survival of the fittest? When is it alright to take vengeance on the perpetrator?” said Schwarz. “We will also be looking at the literary works as a texts to see how they affect and shape us, and how approaches to the Holocaust have changed over the years.”

Haynes’ astronomy class, though new to the Knight Program, is not a new course. In fact, Haynes’ has taught this class in conjunction with her husband, Prof. Riccardo Giovanelli, for 12 years.

“We did not change the structure of the course to accommodate the program,” said Haynes. “We focus on a topic of current interest in astronomy that we don’t know the answer to.”

Haynes insists that physical scientists have to know how to write, and the course does not ask the students to write anything that has not been asked of a physical scientist in the past.

Within the next few years the Knight program will continue to expand. After the fall semester’s four Sophomore Seminars, ten seminars will be offered in the 2002-2003 term, 15 in the 2003-2004 term and by the year 2006, 30 Sophomore Seminars will be open to students. The grant from the Knight Institute will pay for 13 seminars and Cornell will provide funding for the remaining 17 seminars.

As an appropriate ending to the evening, coffee and cake was served. The students quieted their chatting and the professors addressed the gathering with a few words on their class. Schwarz concluded his speech with a quote from “The Cure at Troy,” Seamus Heaney’s retelling of Sophocles’ “Philocetes:”

“Human beings torture one another.

They get hurt and get hard.

History says, Don’t hope

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed-for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up

And hope and history rhyme.”

“History can speak,” said Schwarz.

“We are exploring something very important that may be a revolution in cosmology in the 21st century,” said Haynes.

Reaching across academic borderlines is no easy feat. The Sophomore Seminar program has provided Cornell with a vital new arm with which to reach across the disciplines, provide sophomores with a different kind of class, and give all a chance to examine this question of ethics and dig a little deeper.


Archived article by Rachel Einschlag