Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008-2009

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All-alumni band Clap Your Hands Say Yeah rocks Tempel Green during Fall Weekend. Photo by David Tusia

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Home Schooling

What happens when you teach where students live?

By Julie Wernau


You can´t sleep through David Canton´s freshman seminar, Real Sports: Race, Racism and Sexism in American Sport History. Canton, an assistant professor of history, is the sort of professor who wakes you up.

One Tuesday morning, a few freshmen shuffle into the Jane Addams House common room cupping hot tea from the dining hall. One tea drinker in slippers plops her bag near the fireplace before settling onto a couch. Another student unabashedly drops his bare feet on the coffee table.

Canton´s seminar examines the history and contributions of black athletes to American professional and collegiate sports. It investigates the anthropological discussion on race and athletics, the “superior black athlete” myth and its impact on American society. Students explore the relationship between race, ethnicity, class and athletic opportunity.

Canton started the class with a film that asks viewers to question their preconceptions about race, genetics and sports. The film asserts that while genes may be responsible for the melanin in a person´s skin, other attributes (physical prowess, sports ability) are often wrongly attributed to racial genetics.
Though no scientist has found a genetic link between physical abilities and race, Canton says scientists continue to search for evidence that race is a determining factor.

“We´re not going to waste time, your generation, and continue studying these things,” Canton tells his students. “Let it go.”

For Canton´s part, teaching inside a residence hall is a brand-new experience. The common room is right in the middle of it all — adjacent to the dining hall and dorm rooms in all their glory. Instead of the students coming to him, he is coming to the students. And he loves it.

Apparently the students do, too. Last year, freshmen whose seminars met in common rooms gave the experience higher marks overall than those who met in a conventional classroom. The positive difference was greatest for three factors: interaction with faculty, quality of classroom discussions and development of key learning skills. The common room students were more likely to report improvements in their ability to read and think critically, synthesize information, and develop arguments.

In Canton´s class, he asks why a man can be “busted as you know what” and still be respected as an athlete but women are expected to be “gorgeous.” Women´s basketball, Canton says, was changed from the traditional rules to make it more “feminine” — no stealing allowed to prevent women from looking as aggressive as men. And while most people today are comfortable with female bowlers, tennis players, gymnasts and swimmers, basketball, boxing and ice hockey are still considered “masculine.”

“At the end of the D-A-Y, we still have to make sure that she´s a woman,” Canton says.

He also asks why it is so uncommon for men to be cheerleaders.

“Why do we have women cheerleaders? Why should my daughter bounce around for some knucklehead kid?” Canton asks.

One male student in the class talks about his experience in high school playing field hockey — traditionally a women´s sport. A female student tells of a boy in her high school who was on the cheerleading squad. Another student asks why, if women want to be equal to men, he is still expected to pay for dinner on a date.
The discussion soon takes on a personality of its own. Instead of the teacher asking the students, the students are questioning the teacher and each other. Comfortable in their own element, the students keep Canton on his toes.

Women stay home after giving birth, while men are the breadwinners, Canton says, parroting society´s traditional gender roles. “Is that natural, or is that a construct?” he asks.

“It´s natural,” one male student says. “Men don´t have babies. If you want to breastfeed, doesn´t the woman have to stay home?”

“I´d like to be a stay-at-home parent,” another male student adds. “That´s why I came to college, to find me a sugar mama.”

The class breaks into hysterics.

“Marriages come with these gender assumptions,” Canton says, “and that´s why they fall apart sometimes. I´m preparing you.”

Back to the Future: Two alumni report on how the freshman experience has changed


39 years ago
When I was a freshman, a common room had a sink, a two-burner cook top and an electric teakettle. Professors used to be much more formal in dress and language; slang was rarely heard. If I had a problem, faculty members had office hours. If there was nurturing and encouragement going on, it wasn´t always apparent.

When I had the opportunity this fall to observe a freshman seminar, some of the changes floored me. The common room of Harkness, where the class, Women, Madness and Power, takes place, now features love seats and upholstered chairs. Andrea Rossi-Reder, associate professor of English and associate dean of studies for freshmen and sophomores, offered her students more encouragement and emotional warmth than I remember receiving years ago. Library tours and other efforts to help freshmen understand and adjust to college are scheduled and spontaneous parts of class; for example, a discussion emerged when students said, “We´re really confused. What are self-scheduled exams?”

Almost all 16 freshmen in the seminar live in Harkness. At 9 a.m. they filed in with paper plates carrying their breakfasts and cups of juice or coffee. They were reading Jean Rhys´s 1966 novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Like my classmates, some students were talkers, others silent note-takers; the content was not far removed from the kind of learning I remember from freshman English class. Rossi-Reder and her students discussed close textual reading, symbolism of objects and symbolism of actions, foreshadowing, character development, the mores of society in the novel.

After class, one student praised Rossi-Reder, saying, “Andrea is a wonderful teacher and is so down-to-earth.” She thought the library tour was helpful to her research in other subjects. And she added, “It is a bit too much hand-holding, but I think that´s a good thing for the first semester of freshman year, when everything can be a bit too overwhelming to deal with alone.”

Many of my best friends, 35 years since graduation, lived in my freshman residence hall. We found each other, and we created our own society. I applaud the College´s plan to enhance common rooms, both for living and for learning. Face-to-face interaction in the place where you live is important. I´m glad the College is finding ways to create those interactions. — Peggie Ford Cosgrove ´73

5 years ago
I have a keen, albeit closet obsession with science fiction, so naturally I chose to sit in on Sci-Fi, Cyborgs and Soviet Life, taught by Christopher Colbath, adjunct assistant professor of Slavic Studies. The course, which examines science fiction in Russia and the Soviet Union, posits that the communist society created in the Soviet Union was, in many ways, a work of science fiction.
Armed with a caffeinated beverage I slipped into the newly renovated Windham common room one Monday morning, confident of my ability to blend in as a student, but still unsure of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. Walking into the common room, I was struck by the drastic changes in décor, including new light fixtures, overstuffed, inviting couches, and brand-new rugs. I was also startled by the demographics. At a school with a seemingly unshakable 60-40 female-to-male student ratio, the class was comprised of one young woman and 11 young men. It soon dawned on me the course´s subject matter likely had something to do with that.

After the students settled onto the common room couches, Colbath screened a brief clip of the 1924 silent film Aelita, one Soviet director´s attempt to make a high-budget science-fiction blockbuster during an economically and politically unstable time. After the film, Colbath engaged us in a 30-minute group discussion touching on the film´s intersecting political and social themes. The students were particularly impressed by the wealth of political undertones in a movie that had been panned by critics as a high-budget, crowd-pleasing flick that contributed little to the period´s revolutionary ideology. To us outsiders, everything from the “primitive” monarchic political system of the Martian colony in the movie to the avant-garde costumes seemed like a commentary on the political revolution that was sweeping across Eastern Europe at the time. One student pointed out that the innovative style of the costumes represented just how encompassing the revolution was supposed to be, essentially re-designing everything from political interactions to the “look” or style of a people.

The exchange of ideas between Colbath and the students made me nostalgic for the classes I so thoroughly enjoyed as an upperclassman, where students tend to be guided, not dominated, by the professor. — Joanna Gillia ´07

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