Courses with a Twist

By Tracey Palmer

Is there life on Mars? What does Shakespeare have to do with “The Big Lebowski”? You can get college credit for building your own guitar?

SOME STONEHILL PROFESSORS are making old topics new and interesting and letting students use their hands, as well as their minds, to learn lasting lessons. Digital technology, new perspectives, and lively teaching methods are getting Stonehill students even more excited about coming to class. Professors are moving beyond the “attend-the-lecture-do-the-reading-take-this-quiz” approach to teaching. Students want knowledge they can apply to their lives and hands-on assignments that engage their creativity. The following are a few examples of Stonehill courses with imagination and spirit, led by professors with a passion:

Helga Duncan, Associate Professor of English

Are Stonehill students slackers? “Not in my class,” says Duncan. But what is the relationship between work and leisure? In this class, students get acquainted with famous slackers in western cultural history—from Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, in which the heir to the English throne prefers to hang around with sketchy characters in taverns rather than toil at the palace; to Herman Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, about an overachiever and a gifted bum; to the Coen brothers’ film “The Big Lebowski,” which features a bowling slacker from Los Angeles.

What inspired you to create this class? “I can be a slacker myself (I love video games!). But it was the book by Al Gini The Importance of Being Lazy: In Praise of Play, Leisure and Vacations that inspired me. I’m very interested in how we define work and idleness, and what roles literature and film play in shaping our notions of work. Above all, I want students to understand that doing nothing, taking a step back from work and endless activity, is important.”  

Takeaway Lesson “In my class, we ask each other fundamental questions: Why are you in college? What kind of worker are you? What do you expect from your working life? Your leisure time? I want students to think critically and never take labels at face value. Think for yourself and never let anyone tell you what to believe.”

Alessandro Massarotti, Associate Professor of Physics

What’s the probability of finding life on other planets? Take this class and find out. In it, students explore the solar system and learn about the search for planets around other stars. Massarotti takes them on a cosmic tour of the birth of the solar system, the early history of the Earth, the emergence of life on our planet, mass life extinctions, space exploration and the possibility of discovering Earth-like planets in the near future. Students can visit Stonehill’s astronomical observatory to look at the beautiful planets in our solar system, such as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

What inspired you to create this course? “When I was a kid, I spent nights looking at planets with a telescope and vacations breaking rocks to find fossils. I was lucky my childhood passions converged into an actual job, precisely when the field of planetary astronomy took off, with rovers, probes and space telescopes finding tens of Earth-like planets in other solar systems. I wish to share the beauty of this science with our students.”

Takeaway Lesson “We are part of something beautiful that goes beyond our personal limitations in space and time. Looking into a telescope simply adds to the poetry of showing us as part of this universe. It adds a spiritual dimension to the experience more than knowledge. We are finding thousands of planets, several added to a long list every day. These are revolutionary times for science.”

James Wadsworth, Professor of History
Nobody wears an eye patch or walks the plank in this first-year seminar; however, some have learned to fight with cutlass and dagger. In the classroom, Wadsworth leads students on an epic adventure, exploring the global phenomenon of piracy from the ancient Greeks to modern Somalia. Examining the daily lives of pirates, students come to understand the role they have played in global political, social and economic transformations. And the serious threat they pose to global shipping today.

What inspired you to create this class? “Students who are not history majors often struggle to identify with historical figures and subjects. They fail to see why history is relevant to their lives. Since most of them have either pretended to be swashbuckling pirates as kids or dressed up as pirates for Halloween, I decided to use their misconceptions to draw them into a scholarly engagement with real pirates. By the end of the class, students find that most of their preconceived notions are either false or romanticized.”

Takeaway Lesson “The only way to confront modern challenges effectively is to have an accurate understanding of the historical currents that brought them into being.”

Maria Curtin, Professor of Chemistry
Candice Smith Corby, Director of the Carole Calo Gallery
Science, art, history, religion: they’re all here in this Learning Community, where students—whether they have studio art experience or not—spend a week in the Italian countryside creating an authentic 10 foot by 12 foot fresco [left]. Using ancient techniques, they mix their own colors, learning how the chemicals and materials interact. As part of this class, students also visit important related sites in Rome.

What inspired you to cocreate this class? “Maria Curtin and I realized we were using some of the same textbooks. She was teaching her science and art course, and I was teaching a historical studio arts methods and materials course. We noticed we were talking about the same topics, coming at them from different angles. One day we said, ‘We should do a Learning Community together.’”

Takeaway Lesson “The art students were nervous about grasping the science concepts; the science students worried they wouldn’t be artistic enough. In the end, none of that mattered. Working together toward a common goal was what was important. Through our class, students come to understand the creative act through historic traditions and allow beauty to be the inspiration,” Smith Corby continues.

True fresco style As part of The Artist, Craftsman, Alchemist course, Professors Candice Smith Corby and Maria Curtin collaborated with a colleague, William Pettit, who teaches fresco painting at the John Cabot University in Rome.

Together they led 10 students to create a fresco right, at Villa Vallerosa in Selci Sabino, Italy this past spring. It was completed in the true fresco style, in three layers using slaked lime, river sand and Carrara marble dust. It took five days of intensive work for the students, but the fresco will be visible for the next 2,000 years!

Todd Gernes, Assistant Dean of General Education and Academic Achievement
Part “School of Rock,” part history lesson, part multimedia blog, this class gives students credit for writing songs, performing music, making documentary films and producing music videos. Musical experience is not required. Students who can’t play a note can use Garage Band loops on iPads to compose and perform for the class. All students assess the impact of the electric guitar on music, from blues to jazz to folk to heavy metal, and dig into the lives of the musicians and manufacturers who gave the electric guitar its iconic power. And everyone gets to build his or her own electric guitar!

What inspired you to create this class? “I’m a lifelong guitar player and performer who likes to build guitars in my spare time. I was inspired to bring history to life by helping students explore the electric guitar as instrument, symbol and artifact in modern American culture.”

Takeaway Lesson “Guitar building gives students the opportunity to bring the theoretical concepts and historical contexts of the course into practice and, hopefully, allows them to integrate music into their lives in a meaningful way. It’s all about engaging students in a fundamental way—and if the smiles and sparkling eyes are any indication, I’ve had some success.”