Unbeknownst to many students sifting through WesMaps during Drop/Add period, the Wesleyan course catalogue does not show the full breadth of what each department has to offer. Each semester, numerous student forums are listed with a baffling variety of topics. Taught by upperclassmen with prior experience in their subject and supervised by a faculty advisor, student forums are offered credit/uncredit for a whole or half credit and have long been a popular means to gain more exposure in an academic area beyond the focuses of traditional professor-led courses.
With 16 forums approved for the spring semester of 2015 in 13 different departments, there is no shortage of options for students looking for courses beyond their traditional department offerings.
The majority of these forums consist of seminar-style classes that attempt to delve more deeply into a particular topic than courses taught by professors in the department.
J.J. Mitchell ’15, leads the history forum The Palestine Question: Locating Palestine in the Historical and Contemporary Imaginative. Like many forum leaders, Mitchell designed her course around a contemporary issue in which she had significant previous experience.
“I first had the idea of offering a forum on the history of Palestine in my freshman year at Wesleyan,” Mitchell wrote in an email to The Argus. “I had just spent much of a gap year living in the West Bank. “
Mitchell noticed that students avoided discussing the subject on campus, mainly because they didn’t feel they had adequate knowledge of it.
“When I got to campus, I discovered that almost anyone I encountered shied away from the subject,” she wrote. “The most common response I received was, ‘I don’t know enough.’”
Eventually, she helped found a student group called Wesleyan Students for Justice in Palestine, the goal of which is to help students find resources to educate themselves on the conflict in the Middle East.
To aid her in the process, she enlisted the help of John E. Andrus Professor of History Bruce Masters, who regularly teaches courses concerning Middle Eastern history, including the development of Palestine and Israel over the past 100 years.
Masters now acts as Mitchell’s advisor on a history thesis about British colonial rule in Palestine during the 1920s. Mitchell explicitly intends to use the forum as a way to address topics central to her thesis, but beyond the scope of Masters’ foundation course.
“I think one of the great things student forums give Wesleyan students is the ability to mount more experimental explorations of topics than the ones traditionally provided at the University, notwithstanding the stranger course offerings on WesMaps,” she wrote.
This specialized focus is intentionally reflected in the title, which evokes questions with which many history students will be familiar.
“I wanted the title to start off an internal dialogue, even before the class had met,” Mitchell wrote. “Obviously, there are a number of provocative notions it raises: first, what is the Palestine question? Is it a geopolitical one? An existential one? And then, how is that question lived…[and] where does that leave those for whom a memory or an idea reigns over the place as it exists today? I thought these questions, so far as they problematize the normed framework of an Israel-Palestine debate that construes the two as equal actors with comparable existences, would provide a good starting point to introduce students to the class.”
Other forums continue in a similar academic vein, such as Between the Bars: Prison Conditions in Modern America, one of two sociology forums being offered this semester. Led by Matt Fine ’15, the course aims to examine academic theories of justice and confinement as well as their ramifications for the American prison-industrial complex.
Fine, a sociology major, has experience from several years of involvement with the Center for Prison Education (CPE), which offers classes and sometimes even University credit to prospective students in several Connecticut prisons.
“I got involved with the Center for Prison Education when I was a junior,” Fine said. “I started as a research intern. [The forum] used to be offered every year as a student forum, but people kind of stopped doing it. They wanted to revamp it.”
Fine himself has taken on the duty of designing the course, with help from colleagues at the CPE.
“We have a rough structure of the syllabus, because of the syllabus that my supervisor at the CPE gave me,” he said. “But that’s based on a Yale Law [School] course, so we’re aiming to make it more accommodating. Some things are getting cut out and moved around. I’m trying to make it more of an open thing, cut down the theory a bit.”
The class, however, is intended to be academically rigorous, dealing in depth with the issues that prisons pose in an American context.
“There’s a lot of issues with the prison industrial complex—unfair targeting of black and Hispanic people, the war on drugs, [and] mandatory minimum sentencing,” Fine said.
Instead of emphasizing theory, the course will examine the experience of life in prison. At the beginning of the course, students will read about theories of punishment, but the forum will soon switch its focus to ethnographies and memoirs about prison life. The forum will also discuss current media dealing with the prison system, including the popular television show “Orange is the New Black.” For Fine, this approach is crucial in differentiating the forum from social science courses dealing with prison-related issues.
“You could read [theory about prison in] basically any intro Soc. or intro Gov. class,” Fine said. “There are lots of books like ‘The New Jim Crow,’ which are super interesting, but we’re not going to deal with them. And there’s this aspect that isn’t exactly ignored, but nobody really touches on the experience of actually being in prison.”
The curriculum is deeply entwined with Fine’s own academic interests, and is immediately relevant to students in light of highly visible protests against police brutality held on campus and around the country over the past few months.
“I think there will be a cultural shift sometime in the near future where we have to rethink the way that law enforcement and captivity work in our system,” Fine said. “I’m interested in how these theories relate to what’s happening on campuses right now with movements like Black Lives Matter.”
While these forums are structured much like traditional discussion-based classes, others are designed to be untraditional in their approach, addressing academic questions through the lens of popular culture or media. Among these is Gender, Race, and Culture in Disney Movies, a psychology forum co-taught by majors Taylor Dauphin ’15 and Edrianny Rodriguez ’15. The course, which aims to address representations of these issues throughout the Disney canon, was prompted by both students’ experiences with Professor of Psychology Robert Steele, who eventually became their forum advisor.
“I took the Harry Potter class, which is in the Psych Department,” Dauphin said. “Me and Edrianny both had a class with [Steele] together, ‘Cultural Psychology,’ so I spoke to him about it. He said, ‘Yes, if I could teach the class I would. I can’t do it, but you definitely can, and I’m there to support you.’ So now we have a faculty member on board, we have no excuse not to do it. It didn’t really take much selling.”
Both leaders had previously viewed Disney movies from an academic perspective, as well.
“We talked about a few Disney movies in [Steele’s] class,” Dauphin said. “We watched clips of ‘Mulan’ from two different songs and talked about how they represented gender. It was ‘I’ll Make a Man Out of You’ and ‘You’ll Bring Honor to Us All,’ where the women are dressed up like geishas. They’re just so gentle and the men are tending the fire and hitting each other. We had a discussion about watching those movies as kids. What does that do when you think about what you’re supposed to be as a little boy or a little girl?”
The two also described their shared cultural and social history with Disney movies, which they see as fertile ground for discussions about issues of gender, race, and culture.
“We watched ‘Maleficent’ one day, and we were with a bunch of our friends and we started talking about Disney movies,” Dauphin said. “We thought, ‘Wait, there are so many problematic things,’ but we talked a lot about how much Disney has developed in this feminist wave that society is going on too. And we thought, ‘We should have a forum on it. It’s senior spring; why not?’”
The course aims to follow Disney movies chronologically, with each class consisting of a screening of a Disney film followed by discussion of these major themes.
“We decided to do one class a week for three hours,” Rodriguez said. “Most of the movies are an hour and a half, so we’ll spend half of the class watching the movie and the other half discussing the controversies that come up within the movie.”
The syllabus itself, however, is still under revision with the help of the students.
“We sent questions out before we decided who would be in the class just to make sure that we had a lot of different groups represented,” Rodriguez said.
“When we were trying to figure out who gets into the class, we asked which movies people were excited to watch and why,” Dauphin said. “Someone brought up ‘Aladdin,’ because of the issues between America and the Middle East, and how Disney represented their culture in that movie. I didn’t even think of that! But I think we have a really good list of people to discuss with.”
Far from managing the discussion on behalf of the other students, Dauphin and Edrianny hope to approach the class from the perspective of peers.
“We talked a lot about whether we should watch the movies first, and we came to the conclusion that we want to maintain a level playing field,” Dauphin said. “As their peers, we don’t want to seem like authority figures in the class. We want to have discussion points, but I feel like if we prepare too much it would be us lecturing to them. I’ve watched every Disney movie multiple times, but I know I’ve missed things. I’m excited to hear what other students have to say about them, as problematic as parts of them can be.”
“When you watch it in an academic mindset you watch it differently, so we wanted to preserve that with us and the other students,” she said.
A forum led by Mike Greenwald ’16 and Arthur Halliday ’16 touches on a young franchise similarly beloved and ubiquitous among the student body: George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, adapted over the last four years into HBO’s “Game of Thrones” series. The forum was prompted by a discovery that Greenwald made early in his time at the University.
“The cool thing about Wesleyan is that we have this huge library,” Greenwald said. “I had never gone beyond the books before I came here, but I realized that in Olin you can get these extended canon books that are called ‘The Tales of Dunk and Egg,’ and they’re available in Olin. I read them, burned through them, and got them to Arthur, and that’s when we started talking in a more serious way about the storyline.”
The forum, as suggested by the name, addresses running themes throughout the books.
“Each class is designed so that there’s a theme, but the class is a written and discussion based class,” Greenwald said. “So there’s a guiding question for each week, and people will have to be prepared with a response. They’ll get increasingly complicated as we go on.”
The course themes, which include femininity, temperance, and marriage facts are indicative of Halliday and Greenwald’s experiences as students of the College of Social Studies (CSS). The two were adamant, however, that the course has attracted broad interest outside their department.
“We don’t assume that you’ve already taken Gov. theory classes, but we do assume you’re interested in learning about it,” Halliday said.
“From being a part of [CSS] we both have a considerable interest in political theory, and there’s lots of interesting parallels you can draw between them that are relevant,” Greenwald said. “The fun of the story is that it’s unpredictable, but when you learn a little bit more about feudalism, about absolute monarchy, you realize that [Martin] works [these themes] into the plot, and that makes it a tool for learning about them.”
As of the first week of courses, their forum had the longest applicant list of any forum, with 60 students having applied by the day before the final roster was decided.
“The way that the applicant list looks right now is a pretty wide range of majors,” Greenwald said. “We have people in film, CSS, Classics, religion, et. cetera. There’s also a pretty good gender breakdown. But we are prioritizing people who have read all of the books.”
For those eagle-eyed fans that noticed an unfortunate misspelled word, “Hodor,” in the title (Family, Power, and Hodar), Halliday noted his mistake with a grimace.
“I was the one who filled out the form, as Mike was in Nepal,” he said. “And as my teachers since first grade have been telling me, I have really bad handwriting, so they must have confused the second ‘O’ with an ‘A’. So, yes, the title is ‘Hodar.’”