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Freshman Writing Class Bridges
Disciplines, Cultures, Epochs
November 8, 1999

A dozen students sit cross-legged on the floor in pairs facing each other, daubing paint on each other's faces. Several more are at the edge of the classroom taking notes, and one is documenting the occasion on video camera.

On a screen, as a backdrop, a silent black-and-white movie jerkily depicts a man with a weather-beaten face winding twine around and around the shaft of an arrow, paddling a canoe up a river, and straddling a bucking steed.

The assignment the students are engaged in is part of a freshman writing class, English 105, an ambitious attempt to blend the sciences and humanities while teaching undergraduates to think critically and hone their writing skills.

The class is taught in two sections - one with 12 students, the other with 23 - by a pair of teaching assistants, Kurt Heidinger, a Ph.D. student in English studying American environmental literature, and Ricardo Rozzi, a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, who is studying conservation ecology and environmental ethics.

Encountering Other Cultures
The two are attempting to recreate an encounter between a Viennese anthropologist, Martin Gusinde, and the Yamana people of Tierra del Fuego in the early 1920s; the film is a documentary Gusinde made at the time. Nearly a century previously, during the famous voyage of the HMS Beagle, Charles Darwin also met with the

Yamana, whom he regarded as an extremely primitive people - even as animals - and his encounter with them played a crucial role in the development of his evolutionary theories, particularly "the descent of man."

"Our intention is to create an experience that requires strangers to meet in a non-familiar, unusual, thought-provoking way and to re-enact an event where the anthropologist Gusinde was painted by the Yamana," says Rozzi.

Gus Ververis, a freshman majoring in computer engineering, enjoyed the painting ritual. "It was fun, better than a lecture," he said.

Fun, yes, but also - Rozzi and Heidinger hope - instructive.

Based on the painting ritual and interviews in pairs, each student then wrote about the other person. Later, they exchanged their essays and read what was written about themselves.

The results were not always what they expected. "We think we can bring home the idea of cultures writing about each other, how much they can understand about each other and how much gets lost," says Rozzi. "It's very difficult to articulate different worlds."

Blending Disciplines
The course, offered for the first time last year, grew out of an interdisciplinary working group on environmental issues, which also resulted in the Teale environmental lecture series. "The split between the humanities and the sciences is a fairly recent phenomenon. Once, both disciplines were united under the heading of philosophy," says Rozzi, who this month had an article published in BioScience about the links between evolutionary and ecological science and environmental ethics.

Rozzi and Heidinger developed the class with support from the Institute for Teaching and Learning, and their approach is an example of the hands-on learning the Institute encourages.

The curriculum includes study of the myths, religions and belief systems of two ethnic groups from South America and two from North America, as well as Western scientific evolutionary theories, environmental ethics and literature, and nature writing.

But despite the unorthodox approach, the class also adheres to the more conventional requirements of English 105. During the semester, the students read, interpret texts, participate in class discussions and continue to practice writing, including producing four six-page essays. Conversation during class turns, at least in part, on topic sentences, introductory paragraphs and selecting pertinent quotations.

Critical Thinking Skills
Just weeks into their first semester at college the students, who were randomly assigned to this experimental class, recognize that the class is not just fun. "This is harder than my other classes. It's a lot of work," says Dana Truncellito, a freshman. "There's a lot of thinking involved," adds David White, another student in the class. "It's not something where there are exact answers."

Another aim of the class is just that - to give the students experience in critical thinking at the very beginning of their undergraduate careers. But Rozzi and Heidinger hope for still more: "We want them to end up not just with a critique but with understanding," says Rozzi. "We believe that by focusing on the environmental narratives that cultures use to define their relationship to nature, we can bridge scientific and humanistic ways of understanding."

The teaching assistants found it was not enough simply to state their case, however. They had to find creative ways of making those connections.

"Last year, we taught about the history of Darwin's encounter with the Yamana people of Tierra del Fuego just from texts, but students thought it too abstract, too distant, too old to be of any concern to them," says Heidinger. "Yet Ricardo and I think it's one of the most important intercultural exchanges in modern history. Darwin is shorthand for Western science. He and the Yamana had radically different ways of understanding and of giving value to natural places and creatures, and we want to learn from both sides."

The face-painting class is one of the strategies Heidinger and Rozzi adopted to help students understand that. By participating in a ritual with a stranger, the students experience something of what Darwin and Gusinde went through when confronted with an unfamiliar culture.

Several weeks later, the discussion ranges from Darwin's historical encounter with the Yamana to the environmental implications of single-crop cultivation in Chile at the end of the 20th century, with Heidinger and Rozzi gently prodding the class to reexamine concepts such as civilization and progress.

Rozzi thinks the freshman year is the ideal time for this sort of innovative approach to teaching and learning: "Students entering the University arrive with less than rigid plans for life and living," he says, "and are open to exploring multiple forms of intellectual adventures."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu