The Multidisciplinary Learning-Living Community is an opportunity to engage in a focused, semester-long exploration of a topic that crosses disciplinary boundaries and that is deeply important to a lot of us. The basic idea is that students can have a richer learning experience if they both live and study with a small cohort of people with common interests. About 15-20 students will enroll in the same set of classes, which are coordinated to be complementary, and they’ll live together in cooperative housing. (We’ll work with students to help ensure that people get along in this context.) Since we’ll all have the same schedule, we’ll also have the opportunity to do field trips and projects that aren’t possible in a normal semester. You can think of it a bit like a focused JYA experience, only it happens here, in this fascinating historical and cultural environment of the Hudson Valley, which is incredibly rich in resources and ideas. The focus on food lets us dig into many different questions, from basic science to political and social implications of our farming systems. That’s why this needs to be a multidisciplinary experience. Our central questions will be about the social and anthropological roles of food in culture, the biological origins of the plants and animals we depend on, the physical geography that underlies our farming systems, and the ways modern farming is changing our soil and water resources. But these questions are just the beginning, since this topic encompasses so many different areas of inquiry.
This idea for the MLLC came from conversations with colleagues at other colleges, where there is similar interest in exploring some of the creative opportunities presented by a liberal arts institution. Schools that have tried learning-living communities have overwhelmingly found them to be a positive experience. The dean of the faculty, Jon Chenette, encouraged a group of us to explore the ways we might create a learning-living community on campus, and conversations among faculty, reflecting discussions we’ve all had with students about their interests, have led to the focus and structure we have planned now.
We hope that students (and faculty) will gain a number of things from this learning-living semester. We think it offers a chance to gain deeper and more well-rounded understanding of a subject of global and personal importance; we know that focused, ongoing conversations are the root of a good education, and we know that the conversations that happen now, in the college years, are formative ones for future life directions and priorities. We also know that Vassar students are pulled in a number of directions by all the important and exciting things that are going on around us all the time. We think that taking one semester to step back and think more thoroughly about a focal subject will be a great, and different, learning experience for both students and faculty involved. The opportunity to engage in deeper discussion is what we find most exciting. After all, we got into teaching because we (like our students) are excited about asking questions and about learning new ideas. Also like our students, we like our colleagues and like to collaborate with them and learn from them about questions that fascinate us. So it’s both the focused learning and the opportunity to collaborate that make us want to participate in this community.