This is Only a Test, continued

 

 

Photo by Addison Geary

In conference: College director of academic affairs Kent Peterman, Dean Richard Beeman, and Chief Justice John Marshmallow (floor).

A Simple Plan
    Under the existing education plan, students must fulfill a general requirement that consists of 10 courses from a wide selection in seven sectors of knowledge: Society; History and Tradition; Arts and Letters; Formal Reasoning and Analysis; the Living World; the Physical World; and Science Studies.
   
The pilot curriculum reduces the general requirement to four courses in four sectors of knowledge that cross over disciplinary boundaries: Structure and Value in Human Societies; Science, Culture and Society; Earth, Space and Life; and Imagination, Representation and Reality. Students take one in each of their first four semesters at Penn. In addition, they must complete a significant research or creative project in the departments of their majors. During their sophomore year, they must submit written plans to their advisors outlining a proposed course of study. According to Dr. Frank Warner, emeritus professor of mathematics at Penn and former chair of the Committee on Undergraduate Education, which devised the curriculum, one of the main goals “was to introduce students early in their academic career to the vast intellectual landscape of the University, to the many fields which they have not previously studied, so they can make intelligent use of the remaining two years they have here. We thought we should do it with four [general-requirement] courses that are broadly interdisciplinary, and for the most part, team taught.”
   
Both plans direct students to fulfill the individual requirements of their majors, demonstrate proficiency in a foreign language after completing an intermediate level of study, and take a writing-intensive course as well as a quantitative-skills course.
   
“I was excited about the fact that I had more freedom to choose my courses and could play a bigger role in shaping my college academic experience,” says Kathleen Huang C’04, a freshman from New York who attended a specialized high school in Brooklyn where she played volleyball and majored in environmental science. She was lured to Penn by its promise of generous financial aid. The smaller number of general requirements in the pilot curriculum left room on her schedule last semester to sample a women’s studies seminar, “which I absolutely love.” At the moment she wants to major in communication and urban studies, and possibly minor in women’s studies. She plans to take as many advanced-level seminars as possible over the next two years, because she believes that’s the best way to decide if she likes a subject. “My friends all say how jealous they are of me because they wish they were in the pilot program.”
   
The academic plan Huang creates will likely look different from any other pilot participant’s. One student might choose to sample a large number of humanities courses outside a demanding science major; another might use the extra electives to go beyond the proficiency level in a foreign language. Students could also assemble thematic clusters of classes in a subject other than their majors which interests them.
   
“So much about the pilot curriculum,” says Beeman, “really has to do with students thinking imaginatively about what they want to do with their education. At a place as complicated as Penn, there are no one or five or 20 paths that are the correct paths. There are hundreds of correct paths.”
   
One might say the same of college curriculums, which vary from campus to campus. In evaluating the pilot, Beeman emphasizes the need to decide what’s right for Penn, not to look for trends at other universities. In fact, he notes, “Many of the schools like Penn moved, some years after we did, to fashioning general-education requirements that are strikingly similar to the one we presently have in place. And thus, those requirements haven’t gotten ‘old’ enough to provoke any major evaluations.” Just last school year, Duke University overhauled its curriculum and ended up with one that is “much more extensive and complicated even than Penn’s present general requirement. In some senses,” Beeman says, “the pilot curriculum here is the polar opposite of [that] curriculum.”
   
One theme that Beeman does observe among peer universities is a greater emphasis on “critical skills”—writing, quantitative reasoning, foreign languages and, more recently, oral communications. “I think all of us are agreed that we need to pay more attention to nurturing critical skills, and the pilot curriculum certainly goes in that direction as well.” Outside the pilot, the University is in the process of implementing a foreign-language certificate program that encourages students to go beyond minimum proficiency in a foreign language. Another initiative, Speaking Across the University, has trained undergraduate advisors to help peers improve their oral communication skills; nine courses which give special attention to oral presentations were offered in the College last semester through this program. Beeman says the College hopes to work more self-consciously, though not exclusively, with students in the pilot program to develop these skills.

Mind Over Matter
    Dr. Stephen Morse hunches his shoulders, dips his head and trudges into the classroom to the curious amusement of five-dozen students. “Suppose,” he says, “I walked into the room kind of like this and started weeping. One of you—ask me how I feel.”
   
“How do you feel?” ventures a student.
   
Morse, the Ferdinand Wakeman Hubbell Professor of Law—who is also a professor of psychology and law—responds in monotone, “I feel really blue. I feel like life’s not worth living. Anyone got the diagnosis?”
   
“Depression.”
   
“Now suppose you ask me some further questions,” Morse tells them, then goes through a series of symptoms, including sleep- and weight-loss.
   
“You all got the diagnosis right without knowing a thing about my brain, about my nervous system, about my endocrine system, about anything else in the world except what—what were the data you used to make the diagnosis?”
   
“Your behavior.”
   
Thus begins another session of the cognitive neuroscience class which Morse co-teaches with Dr. Martha Farah, professor of psychology, and Dr. Richard Samuels, research associate in philosophy. Though all three professors come to each class, the course content is divided into sections, and Morse this afternoon is making the transition from cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience, led by Farah, to the study of a host of legal and moral issues.
   
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have a value-free definition of mental disorders, especially if we’re going to think about them in medicalized or psychiatrized terms, as most of us do? Well, the problem is that’s very difficult to do with behavior,” he says. “Because behavior is obviously going to be imbedded in culture.”
   
No one knows what causes mental disorders, Morse goes on to say. “Do not think for a minute that because we have treatments that seem to be effective, and indeed, are effective, that that tells you what the cause is.” For example, Prozac, which affects the neurotransmitters in the brain, seems to be good for depression. “Does that mean that depression is a neurotransmitter problem?” Maybe so, he says, and maybe not.
   
“Think about this: You get a bad grade on a quiz in Col 002 [this course]. You were in the top of your high-school class. Now your self-esteem is shot to hell and you feel really rotten,” Morse says. “So your roommate pours you a really stiff shot of Scotch and you down it. And all of a sudden, you feel better. Do you suffer from alcohol-deficiency syndrome? I don’t think so.” Later in the hour, Farah gets her turn to make the pitch for a biological basis for mental disorders, continuing a semester of interdisciplinary banter between the two professors (with plenty of give-and-take, as neither scholar takes a hardline approach to these issues). In depressed people, Farah says, parts of the prefrontal cortex and certain subcortical regions are abnormally active, compared to the brains of non-depressed people. And while it’s not the case, she says, that you can “take a brainscan of a person and tell whether that person is depressed,” a number of “differences in brain function are interestingly correlated with the severity of a depressive episode. And, by and large, they’re only there when a person is depressed.” Evidence shows that “the more time you spend depressed, the more likely you are to get depressed again,” Farah adds. “My guess is that the hyperactivity in these brain circuits lowers the threshold for descending into depression, which is a reason for seeking treatment early.
   
“If you scan [a person’s brain] between episodes of depression, then the brain looks normal with one exception: the higher the amygdala activity, the more likely you are to relapse.” While functional changes may come and go, Farah notes, they seem to result in lasting structural changes. Scientists conjecture that when you are acutely depressed, “what you have are these out of control, unhealthy levels of activity that actually kill neurons in these parts of the brain.”
   
“My original picture of this course,” says Farah during a phone interview, “was that the three of us would interact a lot. I kind of had the Car Talk radio show in mind. I thought the three of us would make a good Tom and Ray—and someone else—on the brain. But then at the beginning of the semester we decided to be more restrained for the sake of letting students participate in discussions. As the class has overcome its shyness and started to talk more, we’ve become a little more gabby ourselves.”
   
When she heard the College was looking for team-taught courses to offer in the pilot curriculum, Farah, who directs the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, says, “It occurred to me that [this field] is ripe for that kind of interdisciplinary approach. Not only is it an exciting new science in terms of what we’re learning in the lab, but it’s got important implications for the way we think about ourselves as people, as moral agents, and about various kinds of social-policy issues and legal issues.”
   
She immediately thought of Morse, whom she had met at a party a year or two earlier. “Our conversation is still so vivid in my mind because he is such a ball of fire. He really enjoys the sort of controversy that brain-based analyses of human behavior engender, so we had this rollicking kind of discussion.” Samuels was “highly recommended” to her by mutual acquaintances—“and he has just been a fantastic person to teach with too."
   
On the whole she thinks the pilot program is a “great way to define a curriculum and get students engaged right away in exciting ideas that don’t necessarily fit into traditional academic-department categories—and for them to see faculty from different disciplines interacting.”
   
Team-taught, interdisciplinary courses are hardly a radical idea on college campuses, Beeman points out. But “at a time when the knowledge base is expanding, even exploding, so rapidly, I think a concerted effort to open up broad fields of knowledge to our students is a very important experiment.”
   
“I would say at least some of the students seem really turned on by this interdisciplinary nexus of ideas,” Farah says. “My one worry, and I’m guessing it’s generalized to the other classes, is that some of the bridges between fields we’re trying to make are really so ambitious that it might be a little overwhelming for a first-year student. The quizzes and exam will tell for sure.”
   
Farah hopes the class will give students “a new perspective on a lot of other fields they might go into,” including cognitive neuroscience. “Thinking about the human mind and what makes people do what they do is relevant to everything from history to art to an engineering problem that involves a user interface.”

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