Have another credit slot to fill? Intimidated by all those professors with fancy graduate degrees and gray hairs? Check out this semester’s crop of Student Forums, where student leaders guide their Wesleyan colleagues through curricula and activities that they have designed themselves. There are fewer forums this semester than last, but these five courses are sure to stimulate your learning experience and contribute to campus culture.

Food Justice & Sustainability at Wesleyan and Beyond
Student Leaders: Jennifer Roach ’14, Rachel Weisberg ’15, Kathryn Hardt ’15
Faculty Sponsor: Director of the College of the Environment and Chair of the Environmental Studies Program Barry Chernoff

The dedication of many University students to food justice and sustainability is well-known, both around campus and nationwide (we’ve been named “Most Vegan-Friendly College” in the Small Schools category by Peta2—twice), and this course is sure to bolster awareness of those issues within the community.

Hardt said that one of the class’ primary goals is to consolidate the food activism movement on campus, which includes reaching out to people who are not already involved.

“I have been involved in WesFresh, a student group that involves food activism on campus, and felt [that] to have a whole class that’s really centered around food, and approaching it from all different angles and all different disciplines, to be an introduction to food systems and food issues, would be a really cool opportunity to pull in even more students who have experience or maybe don’t have experience,” Hardt said.

In addition to motivating students through coursework (the class’ final project will involve presenting on a food item and tracing its origins), one of the forum’s major goals is to promote food activism at the University. Hardt outlined two of the activist projects that the class will embark on later in the semester.

“Food Day is October 26, I believe, so we’ll be planning as a class some kind of awareness, action thing for that,” she said. “And then the second project we’re going to be working on together is using one activist group that works with campus…food that has what they call a Real Food Calculator, which is basically a system of auditing your food purchases in the dining hall…. We’re going to be looking at Usdan’s purchases and evaluating them for how many local and fairly produced products we’re buying and how we can improve.”

Signing and Spatial Cognition
Student Leaders: Miranda Orbach ’15, Emma MacLean ’14
Faculty Sponsor: Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology Margot Weiss

After Wesleyan’s American Sign Language II course was cut last year due to budget issues, several students involved in Wesleyan’s ASL community took it upon themselves to provide materials from that class’ curriculum in a new setting. Students in this forum will continue to develop ASL linguistic skills while teaching sign language sessions at MacDonough Elementary School, just a few blocks off campus.

According to Emma MacLean, in addition to functioning as a linguistics class, this forum will use scientific research to look at how communication through a visual language affects the development of cognitive skills.

“We’re gonna start with deaf people who have had almost no language input at all, and then are introduced to sign, and how that changes the way they visualize and can articulate things,” Emma Maclean said. “There are some crazy, incredible stories about people who are given language and how they’re given words and are like, ‘Oh, everything has a name,’ just really incredible things that we totally take for granted. And then moving down into how using a spatial grammar and the reinforcement of that in daily life can change your ability to do other things. There have been studies that show that deaf kids have a better sense of space because the grammar that they’re using is based in space. And that can also be transferred into hearing people who sign.”

Emma MacLean also mentioned research citing that developing sign language classes in schools with low socioeconomic status can boost test scores in other areas, which is the basis for the teaching program at MacDonough. Students will pair up in teams and go to the school to teach children in hour-long sessions, giving kids engaged learning sessions that will hopefully encourage higher concentration across all subjects.

“The kids who have a lot of energy as kindergarteners and first graders tend to sit pretty still when you ask them to make their language physical,” Emma MacLean said. “All of a sudden, there’s a place to put your energy.”

The Humanity of Medicine
Student Leader: Catherine MacLean ’14
Faculty Sponsor: Chair of Science in Society and Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies Joseph Rouse

Those interested in nabbing an MD know that the amount of empirical information you must stuff in your brain to be accepted into—let alone succeed in—the brutal, trial-by-fire of medical school is no joke. While all of that stuff is really important (you wouldn’t want your life in the hands of a doctor who doesn’t know exactly how your body works), according to Catherine MacLean, these pressures of memorization and performance can detract from students’ conceptual, philosophical engagement with medicine.

“Medical practitioners are fallible human beings, but they are asked to be super human,” Catherine MacLean wrote in an email to The Argus. “Medicine is an institution like any other, and it can and should be studied with the same interdisciplinary, critical eye that we study any other institution with.”

Students in the forum will discuss readings about the institution of medicine and how it functions within different communities, and the cultural factors that must be taken into consideration when treating a patient. In addition, students will have the opportunity to engage with medicinal practice through the arts. Theater performance and creative writing will give members of the forum a broader, more humanities-minded perspective on medicine than what they typically gain from their coursework.

“I hope students learn a little more about what getting into medicine might entail, and that they are able to make a more informed choice about their paths after Wesleyan,” Catherine MacLean wrote. “I also hope that when they head into medical professions, they use the awareness they’ve gained in this course to be a more well-rounded, compassionate, and purposeful practitioner. That is a somewhat lofty goal. As long as everyone feels it was time well spent, I’ll be happy.”

Cantonese for Beginners
Student Leaders: Alecia Ng ’14, Vanessa Chen ’16
Faculty Sponsor: Adjunct Associate Professor of Asian Languages and Literatures and East Asian Studies Xiaomiao Zhu

Cantonese is one of the most widely-spoken Chinese dialects, resembling the more common dialect of Mandarin, but in effect a completely different language. Widely spoken in Hong Kong and Macau in addition to some areas of mainland China, Cantonese hasn’t been offered at the University until now.

Ng said that the idea to teach Cantonese came about through her own informal tutoring in the language with her close group of friends.

“I started this forum because I kind of taught my friends Cantonese for the past two years at Wesleyan, and all of them were saying, ‘You should start a forum so we can get credit,’” Ng said. “Because, I mean, once a week, I was teaching them, and I like teaching different languages.”

Ng described the coursework as rigorous introductory-level Cantonese exercises that will emphasize speech over writing, so as to avoid alienating participants with no fluency in Mandarin.

“We’re thinking about having a lot of games and conversations, and having people do 30-second or one-minute presentations,” Ng said. “As long as they can make a conversation with other people, that’s what we’re hoping [for]. We’ve received a lot of inquiries, so we’re pretty excited about the whole thing. It’s actually going to be a lot of work, the way we’re planning it, and I hope that won’t scare people off.”

Cheng added that the course will include a number of small group discussions that hone members’ conversational techniques. She emphasized that she hopes the forum participants will be able to speak using basic Cantonese upon the forum’s completion.

“Even though it’s for beginners, we still want them to leave our forum knowing certain words, being able to at least communicate on a first grade or kindergarten level or something,” Cheng said.

Small Scale Agriculture in Theory and in Practice
Student Leaders: Anna Redgrave ’16, Catherine Walsh ’16
Faculty Sponsor: Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Science in Society Gillian Goslinga

Originally envisioned to launch in its current form last semester, this course was edited to a mostly-theoretical version after it became apparent that a remodeling of Long Lane Farm was necessary in the spring. Now that Long Lane is back in action, the class can combine theoretical work with a practical approach to farming.

The theoretical side of the class will start off with readings from Helen and Scott Nearing, a couple who moved from New York to Vermont in 1932 to start their own farm; Wendell Berry, a key agriculture theorist who writes about the dangers of industrial-scale farming; and Eliot Coleman, who wrote “The New Organic Grower,” a practical guide to organic farming. Additional theoretical works will refer back to these texts for an in-depth look at the current state of farming and its possibilities and implications.

Walsh commented on the current course’s potential to raise interest in Long Lane within the campus community. According to Walsh, the forum is designed to continue in its current iteration indefinitely, which will give all aspects of the farming process a few more helping hands in the years to come.

“Part of the mission of the class is that we want it to be a gateway for people who’ve heard about the farm, maybe are interested in learning more about where their food comes from and growing their own food,” Walsh said.

  • Pierre

    I love forums