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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

These news items about residential colleges and the renewal of university life are posted for readers of the Collegiate Way website. To receive an occasional digest of this news please add your name to the monthly Collegiate Way mailing list.

The Time is Out of Joint

— Residential colleges are educational societies but they need not be (and perhaps should not be) curricular societies. University people, whether faculty or staff, who think “educational” is synonymous with “curricular” will never understand the residential college idea.

As educational societies, residential colleges are particularly suited to teaching with-out the curriculum, a favorite topic here at the Collegiate Way. Teaching with-out the curriculum is teaching that fits into no departmental or disciplinary category. It is integrative—because it reaches across boundaries—and it is usually occasional, in the etymological sense, because it is driven by the events of daily life in the college and the world.

Successful teaching with-out the curriculum depends upon a pre-existing community of people who already know one another and who can be called to attention on short notice. And it also depends upon a pre-existing vehicle for communication with that community: a newsletter, a blog, a website, a blackboard, a loud voice, telepathy, or email.

Teaching with-out the curriculum is usually occasional because daily life itself is a long string of occasions—small and great, expected and unexpected, recurring and unique—any one of which can serve as the lede to a lesson. To teach from occasions in an integrative manner is to take these local ledes and make them global by linking them to a hundred other localities near and far.

The linking, integrative function is the heart of the whole idea. Students are notorious for compartmentalizing their campus lives: what happens in the physics classroom stays in the physics classroom; what happens in the art studio stays in the art studio; what happens in the noisy dining hall is inaudible and touches nothing. The educational life of a residential college should take all these campus compartments and turn them inside out so they touch one another and connect to the world.

To teach with-out the curriculum in your own college community just seize an occasion, hold on, and branch. The web is an ideal medium for this because it naturally allows linking and branching, but a good teacher can do it in any medium. If your end product seems like it maybe could fit into some particular formal class period, you haven’t branched widely enough. Go back and reach again.

Today is Leap Day, the calendar day that only comes once every four years. But because it does come once every four years, that means that in a typical four-year course of study, as found at most American universities, every residential college student will leap exactly once. Each leaping group of students will be unique, having no overlap with leapers before and leapers after. Perhaps each group should be instructed to write letters of report, to be handed down from one collegiate quadrennium to the next, thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done—surely a worthy ambition on such a time-conscious day.

[Arms of Pope Gregory XIII]Leap Day itself is a sufficient occasion for teaching with-out the curriculum in a hundred ways. The calendar, the orbit of the earth, the papacy, Julius Caesar, contemporary poetry—any of these could serve as a starting point from which to spin, branch, hook, and join. (The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England, home of the Royal Observatory and the zero-line of the world, has on its banner, “Sea, ships, time and the stars.” Is that not lovely? Every college should have such a worthy motto, as the Collegiate Way has advised before.)

The best teaching with-out the curriculum usually links the occasion at hand in some personal way to the community itself. So as an evolutionary biologist, I might mark this Leap Day by noting that it is the 50th birthday of a 200-year-old geologist.

Hugh Falconer was born this day, February 29th, in 1808 in Forres, Scotland. That rocky, mountainous country has produced many great geologists, including Falconer’s older contemporary, Charles Lyell, the greatest of them all. (And were we face-to-face, as we should be in our college, at this point I would set my copy of Lyell’s Principles on the table before you.)

[Hugh Falconer, born this day]Falconer came of age during one of the most brilliant periods in the history of science, and perhaps in all of Western intellectual history. Lyell and a hundred other contemporaries were assembling the timeline of earth’s deep history (thanks to the unrelated work of the railroad builders who were driving the Industrial Revolution), and “the species question” was in the air all around. “If only the Geologists would let me alone,” cried the sensitive John Ruskin, “I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.” (And here my copy of Ruskin’s Praeterita joins Lyell on the table.)

As a young man Falconer studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh, the leading center of medical education in the English-speaking world at the time, where Charles Darwin had come to study shortly before. Darwin had found medicine not to his liking and soon transferred to Christ’s College in the collegiate university of Cambridge, where, in between beetle-hunting expeditions, he toyed with the idea of becoming a country parson. (A volume of Darwin’s Correspondence now joins Lyell and Ruskin, opened to the letter that Darwin sent to Falconer when presenting him with a copy of the first edition of the Origin of Species.)

Like Darwin and every other great naturalist, Falconer was a great collector, and the Falconer Museum in Scotland remembers his life and work as well as the benefactions of his brother Alexander to the people of Forres. Does you college have a museum? If it doesn’t, wherever do your muses come to rest? The Falconer Museum is celebrating the 50th/200th Leap-Day anniversary of its geological namesake by inviting people around the world to send birthday cards. Now there’s an idea that any collegiate society could adapt to its own nefarious purposes.

“Scientist” was not yet really an occupation in the early 1800s—the word itself wouldn’t be coined until 1833 by the deep-thinking neologist William Whewell, another member of this same circle—and so the medically-trained Falconer signed on as a surgeon with the British East India Company in the hope of seeing the world, or at least some noteworthy part of it. Like Darwin on His Majesty’s Ship Beagle and Huxley on Her Majesty’s Ship Rattlesnake, our leap-child Falconer labored in the service of Empire, in his case by excavating fossil vertebrates from the Siwálik Hills of South Asia and evaluating the suitability of the Indian climate for the cultivation of tea. (Where would residential college life be without him?)

[Bust of Sir Walter Scott at the Falconer Museum]Fine, fine, you may say. But you’re the literary type, and you think all this science stuff is … boring. Well, if you were to pay a visit to the Falconer Museum and scan the facade, you’d find over one of the doorways a bust of Sir Walter Scott, Hugh Falconer’s countryman and the author of the famous Waverley novels, perhaps the most popular works of fiction in the whole of the nineteenth century. Geology and historical fiction (along with bagpipes) are among Scotland’s greatest contributions to the world. It’s no leap at all to see them both as children of the same time-conscious age.

Presiding over another doorway into Hugh Falconer’s museum is a bust of someone who united the literary and scientific cultures of early nineteenth-century Scotland better than anyone: Falconer’s fellow geologist Hugh Miller, a native of the Highland town of Cromarty. Miller was a masterful prose stylist, very popular in his day, and known as much for his writings on Scottish life and politics as for his paleontological work in the Old Red Sandstone. (He once remarked that he always carried extra copies of the Scottish conservative newspaper with him on expeditions, for use in wrapping fossils, because it was good at preserving old things entire.) Miller’s favorite paleontological discovery, the Asterolepis of Stromness, was at the time one of the earliest fossil vertebrates known. (And here Miller’s Footprints of the Creator joins Lyell, Ruskin, and Darwin.)

[A Leap Second]The mapping of deep time that began in earnest with Falconer and Miller and the others of their generation—geologists, stratigraphers, paleontologists, systematists, and early evolutionary biologists—was and continues to be one of mankind’s greatest intellectual accomplishments. And while I would never deny the cleverness of Pope Gregory’s astronomers, nor their successors who have added Leap Seconds onto Leap Days and Leap Years, I think our leap-child Hugh Falconer would immodestly share my belief that the geological imagination is far superior to the calendrical imagination, his own Leap Day birth notwithstanding.

Calendrical time is mechanical; geological time is historical. Calendars just present us with a series of niches into which we can fit the world’s events. But the reconstruction of those events long after they have passed, from the testimony of the rocks in the Siwálik Hills and the power of reason in the human mind—that is the greater accomplishment.

Falconer’s countryman Hugh Miller would agree, too. “Geology is the most poetical of all sciences,” he wrote in his Scenes and Legends of the North of Scotland, published in Edinburgh while Falconer was digging in Asia; “and its various facts, as they present themselves to the human mind, possess a more overpowering immensity than even those of Astronomy itself.”

For while the Astronomer can carry about with him in his imagination, a little portable Orrery of the whole solar system, the Geologist is oppressed by a weight of rocks and mountains, and of strata piled over strata which all his diligence in forming theories, has not yet enabled him completely to arrange. He is no mere intellectual mechanician, who calculates and reasons on the movements of a piece of natural clockwork; the objects with which he is chiefly conversant, have no ascertained forms, or known proportions, that he may conceive of them as abstract figures, or substitute a set of models in their places; his province, in at least all its outer skirts, is still a terra incognita, which he cannot conceive of as a whole; and the walks which intersect it are so involved and irregular that, like those of an artificial wilderness, they seem to double its extent. The operations of his latest eras, as his science exists in time, terminate long before history begins; while, as it exists in space, he has to grapple with the immense globe itself, with all its oceans, and all its continents. Goethe finely remarks, that the ideas and feelings of the schoolboy who tells his fellows that the world is round, are widely different in depth and sublimity from those experienced by the wanderer of Ithaca, when he spoke of the unlimited earth, and the unmeasurable and infinite sea.

A leapless lesson on the wanderer of Ithaca will follow, after a few more revolutions of this round world.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2014