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South Mountain College allows students to chart their own course

South Mountain College's intellectual discussions, like this one that Ben Wright is leading in his Seminar course, go well beyond the boundaries of a classroom.

At first glance, Ben Wright’s Thursday afternoon class on the third floor of Linderman Library appears as any Lehigh class might—chairs filled by students listening, participating, observing.

But this is unlike any class Lehigh—or most other institutions—offer. The students in this course are crafting their own curriculum and are determining everything from the topics to the medium through which those topics will be discussed. This course, titled Seminar, is just one part of South Mountain College, a new, first-of-its-kind program at Lehigh that is challenging 21 students to assume greater responsibility for their educational pursuits.

South Mountain College is ideal for students seeking a unique, cross-disciplinary liberal arts experience but with the benefit of being able to draw from the rich resources a research institution like Lehigh has to offer. Students shape their collective experiences by contributing their individual voice, academic interests and personal passions.

The program welcomed its first students this fall, after receiving the green light—and an enthusiastic response—from administrators and faculty. Developed within Lehigh University’s College of Arts and Sciences, this residential academic program creates an intellectual community where students, with the guidance of faculty from across the college, help chart their own course.

“Lehigh has always understood the importance and power of community,” says Michael Raposa, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “South Mountain College was created to be a distinctive community, with conversation about ideas at its core. It’s also an open community that looks outward to the world immediately and remotely beyond its low walls, as its members constantly attend to the various ways in which the ideas they are discussing might help them change the world.”

As a faculty guide, Wright began the semester with the reading of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, set on a planet where people have no gender. But from there, students chose the direction of where to go next, selecting to read Olympe de Gouges’s Declaration of the Rights of Women, followed by the film version of Slaughterhouse Five. “The goals for this course are established, but the subject is not,” says Wright, professor of religion studies. “This gives students the permission to raise the issues that grab them.”

Peter Zeitler, director of South Mountain College, says students still develop advanced expertise through a traditional major, but through Seminar and an additional course called Investigations, they’re able to explore topics and themes through a truly cross-disciplinary approach.

Students will earn about 1/3 of their credits in South Mountain College, and can still explore the Lehigh curriculum inside and outside the College of Arts and Sciences, choose a minor or other program, or even fit in a double major. Many students are also highly active in other campus organizations.

“My normal classes contribute to my South Mountain College experience and at the same time South Mountain College makes me look at my other classes differently,” says Deborah Streahle, a sophomore philosophy major.

Empowering students

The college currently has 21 participants spanning first-year through fifth-year students. In 2008, it hopes to admit an additional 25 students, bringing the class size to 50 with an ultimate goal of having 100 undergraduates enrolled in the college.

Freshman Mario Delgado said he decided to join South Mountain College after being accepted to Lehigh last year. He was drawn to the program in order to work more closely with the faculty. “This really allows professors to extend past their specialties,” he says.

Under Zeitler’s direction, faculty guides and friends of the program play an integral role both inside and outside the classroom setting. “We provide the right level of structure, but the students fill in the details,” says Zeitler, Iacocca Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “We empower students to take their skills and build off of them.”

As a residential academic program, South Mountain College’s intellectual discussions go well beyond the boundaries of a classroom. Students reside together in Taylor House, where invited speakers, discussions and activities allow them to keep the creativity and intellectual discourse flowing off the standard academic clock.

“College is supposed to be a place where students become so excited about the ideas to which they are exposed in the classroom that their discussion of those ideas becomes portable and ongoing—chats over coffee, lunch-time conversations, debates in the dormitories that extend into the early morning,” says Raposa. “Yet it seems like this sort of experience has become increasingly rare, not just at Lehigh but in higher education more generally.”

“People tend to get stuck inside their major and the conversation outside of class is missing,” agrees sophomore Jen Nieuwkerk. “It’s unnatural in school to fragment your life into school and play.” Nieuwkerk says she had considered transferring after her first year, but the South Mountain College experience convinced her that Lehigh was the right home for her.

In lieu of a traditional grading system, students will receive written assessments for their South Mountain College courses that will constitute a portfolio of evaluation that they can use upon graduation in seeking graduate work or employment.

“These students can use what they’ve learned from everywhere else to solve a problem and see how different disciplines come to bear,” says Zeitler. “We encourage students to take what they’ve learned in life, in the classroom, and in their social interactions and then think broadly.”

--Tricia Long

Photo by Ryan Donnell

Posted on Wednesday, October 10, 2007

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