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Class of 2021 Embarks on the Bard Experience with Language and Thinking Program

Photo by China Jorrin
By Hannah Fassett '17

On August 11, 2017, 471 first-years arrived on Bard College’s campus to embark on Language and Thinking (L&T), a three-week interdisciplinary program that serves as an intensive introduction to the intellectual and creative pillars of a Bard education. Students spend six hours a day with their Language and Thinking class, where they undertake a variety of pedagogical exercises focused on intensive reading and writing, ranging from free writing to small group workshops and individual conferences with faculty members. Each year, incoming first-years are required to read two texts before L&T begins. The 2017 titles are Claudia Rankine’s
Citizen: An American Lyric and Jonathan Lear’s Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Throughout the program the two required texts are supplemented with an anthology of poetry, philosophy, manifestos, and scientific texts that aid the classes in parsing through the central question of Language and Thinking: What needs to be the case for things to be otherwise?

“It’s a kind of spoken word workshop. Someone performs someone else’s poem, and we’ll learn where the emphasis lies in the other person’s eyes,” explains one student to a group of 12 surrounding a long black table in the Henderson Computer Lab. Stephen Cope, an English and comparative literature professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, has assigned his L&T class the task of creating their own small-group workshop, mapping out the timeframe, and planning out how to implement it in the classroom. Cope is celebrating his 10th summer teaching in the Language and Thinking program, and is one of 30 dedicated L&T faculty coming from various institutions, including Bard professors Donna Grover and Michelle Hoffman. As the student explains her proposal to Professor Cope’s class, her peers nod along as they begin to visualize the shape of the workshop, imagining their poems through the eyes of their classmates.

Dr. William Dixon, who holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, has served as the director of Bard’s Language and Thinking program for the past two years, and has been on the program faculty since he first came to Bard in 2010. When thinking through this year’s question, Dixon emphasizes the primary interest in first-years’ academic and social development as they transition into the rigor of a Bard education. "What we want to be otherwise by September is for the students to be creating, joining, and reimagining an intellectual community,” Dixon explains. By the end of August, first-years are already experiencing this effect. As Oriana Mack ‘21 explains, “Exposure to similar texts fosters a sense of common ground amongst this sea of unfamiliar faces.” Mack found the shared literary experiences to be a vital element of forging connections with her new peers.

This year, the Language and Thinking program is working closely with the Dean of Student Affairs Office (DOSA) to integrate the first-year extracurricular programs with the Language and Thinking curriculum. Partnering with DOSA, the L&T program has implemented informal reading and writing labs for the students to discuss and explore the ideas generated by the seminars. Students go to Blithewood and read Gertrude Stein together, or they can sit on the Manor porch and discuss the potential methods for writing about Claudia Rankine in their humanistic essay. These are structured, supportive spaces that open up the fertile terrain between the L&T classroom and the Bard students’ extracurricular time, allowing students to continue to work through the challenging questions posed by L&T.

The question of the malleable boundary between the L&T classroom and the extracurricular world arises in Stephen Cope’s class when a student suggests reading the private free-writes outside of class to a new student they haven’t yet met. Cope smiles and reminds them that, “We still exist outside of the classroom … walk up to someone on campus and read your free write.” The class erupts with ideas of impromptu free-write readings at Kline Commons. Cope laughs, “That sounds like my utopia.” Then he quiets the group, “This is what we’ve been discussing all week. L&T brings up the pains, vulnerabilities, and wounds that spur our most crucial conversations. You have to continue these conversations outside of class.”

The intersection between the classroom is further explored in a L&T peer tutoring program taking place in the Bard residence halls, where Learning Commons peer tutors offer drop-in tutoring for the various L&T assignments, including academic support for the final humanist essay. Junior psychology major Clarence Brontë is one of three upperclassmen L&T assistants this year, in addition to tutoring for L&T through the Learning Commons. She notes a clear overlap between her L&T education and tutoring methods. She particularly emphasizes the influence of freewriting, which she found a “powerful activity that I recognize taught me to get my thoughts out on paper,” and which she now regularly employs with her tutees when working through their paper drafts.

The program also forges a close relationship between Language & Thinking and First-Year Seminar (FYSEM), the year-long course that serves as the intellectual foundation of a Bard education. This year’s FYSEM theme is “What Is Freedom: Dialogues Ancient and Modern,” continuing the discourse of L&T thinkers who Dixon notes are “wrestling with what it means to both inhabit history and respond to it.” Cope explains that the Language and Thinking Program, “forms a toolbox you can bring to First-Year Seminar that will help you engage deeply with complicated texts.” In his L&T class, Cope reminds the students how the breadth of materials in Language and Thinking gives them a model of close reading and process writing that will remain essential to their scholarship throughout their Bard education. “This program allows us to become familiar with the idea that the meanings of these texts are produced in the process of engaging with them,” he states. Brontë reemphasizes the value of the Language and Thinking program in preparing students for their Bard education. “L&T gets you in touch with your own thoughts and beliefs, allows you to gain your footing in classroom environments, and introduces you to really crucial texts that you read again and again in your later courses.”

In addition to the undergraduate focus, Dixon cites the program’s interest in “rethinking the possibilities of teaching, focusing on interdisciplinary inquiry in the humanities.” This interdisciplinary interest is reflected in the variety of artists, scientists, and scholars lecturing in the L&T Rostrum series, who present their research and engage with the first-years. In a rostrum presentation cosponsored by the Bard Center for Civic Engagement and the Bard College Council for Inclusive Excellence, Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier ‘14 recalled her years in Bard’s MFA program to the audience of expectant first-years. Long Soldier dropped out of high school at 15, and had difficulties throughout her education maintaining a balance between her academic and personal concerns. “When I came to Bard, that is when I began to understand how I think. I would take notes in class, go back home and frantically Google all the names.” She had finally found an intellectual community that encouraged her to think and supported her style of inquiry. She reads slowly and methodically, or as she says: “I capture one word, unfold and explore it.” This thinking on the level of the sentence recalls William Dixon’s first words of advice to the incoming class of 2021. In the letter to incoming first-years, Dixon admits he is presenting them with a particularly complex and pressing question. “The question itself forces the reader into an act of interpretation,” Dixon explains. He advises that they begin this act of interpretation with a pad of paper and pen in hand. Then they can carefully consider “the individual words and phrases that compose the sentence,” and take note of their own impressions and resulting questions. With this action, they have embarked on the first free write of their Bard College education.

Post Date: 09-05-2017