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An Idea to Revive Intellectual Life: Freshman Advising/Reading Groups

The best of experiences and the worst. Well, not really the worst, but not what it could have been: I had Jim Wright as my freshman advisor. We didn’t get much done in the course of three or four awkward meetings. He was slow moving and didn’t have much to say, and I was an unsure ‘shmen in awe of a Dartmouth Professor. We both loved history, and I guess that we still do, but we found no common ground with that subject in our half-hour meetings.

And the best? I’ve sat in on term-long discussion groups with Economics Professors Meir Kohn and Doug Irwin, where a dozen or so students read and talk about a book chapter by chapter. Light reading, no credit, but honestly interesting discussion. Paul Christesen in the Classics department has run similar groups. The atmosphere is pressure-free, students get to know each other and a new professor, and conversation continues after the meetings.

By the by, such discussion groups are not unique to Dartmouth. At Harvard Law, professors have held reading groups with second- and third-year students for many years. Recently, members of the first-year class asked if the faculty could hold reading groups with them, too. The Dean’s call went out, and 40 members of the faculty responded: one session per week throughout the term. Participating faculty members get a stipend of $500 per semester (less than most of them charge per hour for consulting), and students enjoy the intellectual camaraderie of a professor outside the realm of classes and grades. They get no credit (upper class students do get a single credit), and there are no exams or graded papers (at either level).

Let’s take these two ideas, put them together, and create a better third one. It’s time for the Dartmouth faculty to re-engage with undergrads. Many professors still put in time as freshman advisers, but the whole faculty needs to spend more time with students to understand and influence undergraduate life.

How about having all freshman take part in small discussion/advising groups during freshman fall? One meeting per week, say Monday evening, for two hours: the first hour to discuss a book that the group is reading, and the second hour to chat together about life at the College and the other things that students currently discuss with an adviser. Perhaps groups could be organized by major preference? Or, better still, by living arrangement, with students from the same hallway meeting together with a faculty member.

Why would this model work better than the current faculty advising system? First off, talking about a book is an ice-breaker for students, faculty members, and the group as a whole. No need to plunge into Wittgenstein; professors should choose the right book to get a good conversation going in the first hour. Then, in the second hour, the group could broach personal issues such as social life at the College, academic planning, and careers. Getting to know a professor close up would be an added bonus for the clueless ‘shmen — and after a term of meetings that involved real discussions, they would know the faculty member far better than via several uncomfortable one-on-one meetings. And after that, who knows? Small social groups have a way of growing into more important relationships — which is what a residential college is all about.

Addendum: Freshman advising is often the subject of criticism, and rightly so. One oft-repeated suggestion is having upperclassmen work directly with ‘shmen. My sense is that this does not happen often enough now. Why not? The answer is easy: because freshmen are segregated in their class-specific dorms. It wasn’t that long ago that there were no freshman dorms at Dartmouth. In the days of dorm continuity, students of all classes lived in the same dorms, played intramural sports together, and naturally began friendships that included advice on subjects great and small — and all that without the need for a bureaucratic mentoring program managed by yet more, expensive staffers.

Addendum: Michael Adelman ‘10, who will be graduating from Harvard Law next month, writes in with several observations:

I just want to add a voice of support to today’s post suggesting freshman reading groups at Dartmouth. I am a Dartmouth ‘10 currently finishing his third year at HLS, and the reading group system has led to innumerable opportunities for me at law school. The reading group I took my 1L year was with a professor who later became one of my advisors and recommendation writers. Since then, I have taken one my second and third year (I would have taken more, but the student demand always outpaces supply, even with the large number of faculty who donate their time to reading groups).

The reading groups are exactly as you describe: a low-pressure environment that provide an opportunity to engage with faculty both on the assigned readings but also on their other scholarship and mutual interests.

The only quibble I had with the suggestion for implementation of readings groups at Dartmouth (which I understand is not a full, detailed proposal) is that the readings groups work best when there is a common interest in the material, e.g. theories of causation in tort law or privacy and internet law. The beauty of the groups is that students are drawn by an intellectual attraction, not a random grouping such as residence cluster. In forming the groups, the key is to retain the emphasis on the reading portion; the serendipitous ancillary benefits of student/professor socialization will spring up naturally.


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