Over dinner this past Monday, 19 Seniors gathered around a table in Paresky Commons and actively debated the merits of the Supreme Court case “Marbury v. Madison” and the modern role of the judiciary as part of the “Justice, Law and Tyranny” colloquium.
The new Senior seminar offers students an opportunity to gain perspectives on the three controversial themes in a multidisciplinary setting, through the Abbot Independent Scholars Program.
Christopher Jones, Instructor in History and Social Science, decided to create a seminar course focused on exploring the definition of justice after David Fox, Instructor in English and Art History, organized a Senior seminar last fall that studied Bob Dylan’s life and work.
“I think any multidisciplinary course expects or hopes that the students begin to draw connections between disciplines after spending a great deal of educational life within disciplinary boundaries,” said Jones. “We want them to think in new creative ways about how disciplines can work with each other. We want them to think about ways in which a single disciplinary thinking is limited.”
The class is exploring the relationship between justice, law and tyranny in the contexts of history, jurisprudence, literature, drama, film, philosophy, science and economics, according to the course description. The students will have the opportunity to study topics such as judicial review, the American penal system, gendered resistance, the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 and the ethics of stem cell research, for example.
The seminar meets on Monday and Wednesday evenings. During each seminar class on Wednesday, one or two of the 13 instructors involved in the colloquium gives a lecture and moderates a class discussion based on the lecture and texts assigned for that class. The Seniors meet over dinner on Mondays for student-led discussion, which is intended to help students draw connections between disparate seminar classes and connect the classes to the larger course themes, according to Jones.
At the end of the course, the students will pair up with teachers to further explore a subject of their choice in a research project.
“I am interested in studying the intricacy of the judicial system and the function of the Supreme Court in relation to other subjects,” said Amanda Zhu ’13, one of the students in the course.
The weekly discussions factor importantly into the course, and students guide the bulk of each week’s conversation, according to Jones.
“[The student-led discussions] are very enthusiastic. Everybody’s really eager to contribute their opinions, and they are all really into the subject,” said Zhu.
The course’s first meeting was led by Thomas Hodgson, Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies.
“Mr. Hodgson raised very basic yet important questions like ‘What is justice? What is good?’ and ‘What is bad?’ He tried to get us to define the simplest things that will be crucial to this course,” said Zhu.
According to Hodgson, he wanted to enable students to make connections between different disciplines by raising some common questions about justice, law and tyranny and to help students to define abstract concepts such as “morality” and “authority.”
“Without a common language to start with, some shared questions can head in a bunch of disconnected directions and not have a cumulative weight or an overall depth at the end,” said Hodgson.
“One of the things that is clear is that you can’t get very far in any of these topics and issues that are related without bringing bunch of traditionally separate field of studies into the picture,” he added. “The course invites teachers from a whole bunch of departments to make their own contribution to the overall course, so it’s an open question about what the students’ experience will be.”
Jones said, “I presented my ideas about justice as a historian. What I hope is that in the subsequent weeks, students will remember the things I taught in my class and begin to sort through it to put together what justice means from a historical context and from other disciplines.”
“I haven’t taken a lot of classes that were so open-ended and student-led when I came into the course… the open-ended questions are very interesting, but very overwhelming at the same time, because there are so many ideas floating around,” said Zhu.
As the seminar is technically an independent project, teachers do not get paid additionally for teaching the course.
“The only burden is that all the teachers volunteer to do it, and it does take a great deal amount of time to prepare and teach a two-hour lesson,” said Jones.
However, Jones hopes to see the continuation of similarly multidisciplinary and colloquium-style courses in the future.
The faculty participating in the course are Deborah Chase, Instructor in English, Stephanie Curci, Instructor in English, Fox, Jeremiah Hagler, Instructor in Biology, Matthew Hession, Instructor in History, Thomas Hodgson, Instructor in Religion and Philosophy, Leon Holley, Instructor in Biology, Jones, Tom Kane, Instructor in English, Elizabeth Meyer, Instructor and Chair in Classics, Diane Moore, Instructor in Religion and Philosophy, Head of School John Palfrey, Christopher Shaw, Instructor and Chair in History, and Flavia Vidal, Instructor in English.