A Reflection Piece on the Topics of the First Year Course
by Peter Jones

Author: Peter Jones,
SAS professor

How much do students actually remember from the books they read at university? As part of a fight against forgetting, first-year students at SAS this year were given a peculiar challenge. They were asked to spend six weeks looking back at everything they had studied since joining the school in September, and to identify a particular problem or unresolved tension that had bothered them.

They were then invited to give a short presentation for faculty and peers, exploring how that problem might be solved by some of the other texts and ideas they had encountered that year. This presentation would be called their Topics of the First Year (TFY) talk. It was to be a meeting of disciplines, and a clashing of different frames of knowledge. In just seven minutes, they would be able to search for some deeper meaning in the texts they had almost forgotten.

At first the challenge seemed intimidating. How could ideas from a class in stem cell biology help solve problems from a social media class? How might philosophers from Great Books, like John Stuart Mill or Max Weber, help reframe a question in the design of Artificial Intelligence? But as students began to work at their projects, they began to find some surprising connections.

For some, this involved seeing that certain thinkers were actually in a hidden kind of dialogue across the disciplines. For others, this meant recognizing that the troubling questions from one course could actually be solved by the approaches of another. But for most, the experience felt like stumbling on the deeper web of questions that bind all great thinkers together: What is a human? What is it to be free? And what does it mean to live a good or happy existence?

Along the way, students were persuaded to take a fresh approach to structuring and presenting their ideas. Responding to different schemas suggested in lectures, they practiced framing their projects as murder mysteries: beginning with an enigma, and then solving it like a detective. They were challenged to give their arguments foreshadowing, pace, and suspense, and experimented with converging two conflicting ideas on the model of a blooming romance in a RomCom movie. As seven minutes is quite a short time envelope, they were also drilled on efficient communication. They were taught the most effective way to critique an argument in three sentences, and how to use a single PowerPoint slide to articulate three ideas at once. Most of all, students were urged to hone their skills of deep reading and rigor. Working in pairs, they practiced questioning one another on each of the texts they were using, making sure they knew exactly how their arguments worked.

As they were told, they needed to think of themselves as first-class sushi chefs — the kind who know exactly where each of the fishes they are slicing come from, how they were caught, and how they should fit together best.

The final presentations were a refreshing mix, with many making original and striking claims, and many more breathing new life into old questions by looking at a problem awry.

Highlights included a presentation that suggested historians could develop a new IT language for cataloguing the events of the distant past, a presentation that claimed Charlie Chaplin’s clowning could solve the problems of twenty-first-century poverty, and a presentation that used the philosophy of Donna Haraway and Hannah Arendt to address the ethics of killer robots.

There were visually staggering presentations, giving a history of social media through renaissance artworks, and rhetorically sophisticated presentations, using psychoanalysis to unravel problems with Michel Foucault’s philosophy of power. Although the event was hosted entirely through Zoom, it felt intimate and exploratory. By the end, there were many ideas that had been saved from forgetting, and even more that demanded a second look. Luckily, with Zoom’s recordings, we can do just that.