Ten years ago this fall, the College adopted a bold new curriculum: The Wagner Plan for the Practical Liberal Arts. The Wagner Plan centers around “learning communities” that integrate practical experience with academics. What does the Plan mean for today’s Wagner? What’s it really like to be a student at Wagner today? In this first installment of a four-part, four-year series, Wagner Magazine will introduce you to a first-year learning community, the beginning stage of the Wagner Plan.
Story by Laura Barlament. Photographs by John Emerson.
On Friday afternoon, August 24, 14 brand-new Wagner students make their way to Main Hall room 11 for the first meeting of their reflective tutorial.
It’s the first day of orientation for the fall semester of 2007, and understanding what exactly a “reflective tutorial” is supposed to be is only one item on a long list of new things to figure out. Their day began with moving into their dorm rooms. They’ve been buried in information on everything from residence-hall rules to dining plans to Internet connections. They’ve said good-bye to their families. Whether they came from Tottenville, Staten Island, or Torrance, California, they have one thing in common: They’re overwhelmed.
One by one, the students enter the room and take a seat at the tables, arranged in rows, facing the front. No one talks. No one switches on the lights. They wait in the dark to meet their first college professor.
It’s the beginning of a journey into college life.
First Taste of College
A professor of religion at Wagner College since 1971, Walter Kaelber (pictured above) is clearly in command when he enters a classroom.
“You are probably tired, so I want to make this easy,” he says as soon as he walks through the door in his trademark cowboy boots. First, he tells them to move the tables into a U-shaped arrangement. “So you can look at each other,” he says.
Kaelber, a veteran teacher of first-year learning communities, takes an easy, bantering tone as he gets the meeting rolling. “I went over your files, and almost everyone picked this LC as their number-one choice,” he says. “Which says to me that you’re certifiably insane.”
All first-year learning communities include a reflective tutorial and two courses from different disciplines, related to each other by a common theme. In this case, the theme is “Perception, Illusion, and the Social Construction of the Self,” and the classes are Religion 105: Religions of the East, taught by Kaelber, and Sociology 203: Principles of Social Psychology, taught by Laura Martocci, a sociology faculty member and assistant dean of experiential learning. Kaelber’s group will join the 14 students in Martocci’s reflective tutorial to compose Learning Community 5.
Kaelber reviews the basic outline of the learning community, but then goes back to the personal. “Here’s what I know from reading your files. Don’t worry, there’s no damaging information about what you do late at night. I know your names, your birthdays …” He shuffles through his papers, then blurts out, “Where’s Kyle?” A guy with a striking mane of curly sandy-colored hair raises his hand hesitantly. “You, Kyle, have the same birthday as my wife,” Kaelber says.
From the files, he continues, he also knows something about their anticipated major, career direction, and athletic participation. “Hopefully I’ll get to know a bit more about you today,” he adds, “if you choose to volunteer that for me and your fellow journeyers here.”
Starting at the top of the list, Kaelber calls on Nick Boghos. When Kaelber hears that he’s from Boston, he asks, “Red Sox fan?” “More of a Patriots fan,” Boghos replies. Kaelber confirms that Boghos is on the wrestling team. “I’ll keep my distance,” says Kaelber. When he was in college at Bucknell, Kaelber explains, his roommate was a wrestler. “During wrestling season, he would go on a diet that made him mean!” He lowers his eyebrows and shakes his head at the thought.
One by one, Kaelber focuses on each student. Ben Pratt, also from Boston, specializes in card tricks. Brianna Stimpson, a theater major, comes from Freehold, New Jersey, and goes by “Bree.” Three students are from California. “How do you feel about Arnold?” inquires Kaelber mischievously of Patrick Heffernan, also a theater major, who’s from Orange County. “I like The Terminator,” Heffernan says nonchalantly. “Terminator III is pretty good.”
Besides teaching these students in two courses this semester, Kaelber will also be their academic advisor until they declare a major. All of this contact aids him in advising the students, Kaelber says. “Every school says we have a professional and caring faculty. It really is true at Wagner.”
Nevertheless, Nick Boghos later confesses that he wasn’t thrilled with his introduction to academic life at Wagner. “I was thinking, ‘I can’t believe I have to do all this reading,’” he recalls. “I wasn’t a big fan of Dr. Kaelber on the first day. He acted like he knew everything, and that turns me off.”
That first impression didn’t last long, though. “Later, I found out he did know everything,” Boghos says. “And I ended up wanting to do the reading. I actually raised my hand a lot and shared my opinions. Dr. Kaelber made me want to participate.”
In fact, by the end of the semester, says Boghos, “Knowing Dr. Kaelber was the most important thing I got out of the class.”
For his part, Kaelber gets a big smile on his face when he reflects on teaching freshmen. “It’s kind of cool, especially from the lens of being a father of a college student, to have a classroom full of these newly minted freshmen. It’s their first time away from home, and they’re nervous and excited. They’re all in that same mindset. They’re worried about everything — from what they’re wearing to whether they can do the work. And you have the chance to give them a good taste of what college should be like.”
Breaking the Ice
Four days later, at the first meeting of Kaelber’s Religions of the East, the ice has clearly been broken among the 28 students. Everyone is chatting, about everything from textbooks to lip balm.
For Kaelber, one of the primary functions of a learning community is that it gives students a place to bond. “That may be the single most important thing it does. They may be complaining, but they’re complaining together. At least they’re bonding. They have a common enemy,” he says with a laugh.
The LC also creates a built-in academic support group in an environment of raised expectations. The students study together, check their understanding of assignments with each other, and keep each other on track in general.
They’ll need this peer group, because Kaelber makes it clear that they’re here to think for themselves, not to be spoon-fed. He has assigned them two textbooks to give them two different perspectives on the material. His lectures will present yet another perspective. “There will be apparent contradictions,” he warns. “When you notice these, ask about them.”
Furthermore, Kaelber emphasizes, they will be responsible for their own pace and style of learning. “I don’t care in what order you do the readings, or when you do the readings,” he says, “but when you show up for the quiz on September 20, you need to have that material mastered. It’s a short quiz, but it’s brutal.”
Having set up these ground rules, Kaelber plunges into a freewheeling lecture on the origins of Hinduism. All the while, he relates the events, which took place thousands of years ago on the other side of the globe, to the students’ lives today. Breaking down boundaries — between the past and present, peoples and places, religion and sociology — is the other main point of learning communities, says Kaelber.
“If the learning community is done properly, they get to understand how disciplines are interrelated,” Kaelber says. “Knowledge is a piece. Boundaries between disciplines are artificial. They can apply what they learn in one class to other classes. Knowledge is not hermetically sealed. That’s very important.”
From the students’ perspective, the lesson of “interdisciplinarity” may not come across as such. But one thing they do know: This stuff that Kaelber is teaching them is strange and fascinating.
“I had no background in religious studies,” says Heather Philben, an aspiring biopsychology major from Massachusetts. “I don’t even know much about my own religion. In Dr. Kaelber’s class, I have learned more about my own beliefs. There are certain ideas about Buddhism and Hinduism where I have said, ‘Oh, I believe that, but I didn’t know it was part of a religion.’”
Or, as Kyle Glover simply puts it, “It really does make you think, and it messes with your head.”
“Reality is created in exchanges between people. Reality is not something out there.”
It’s September 19, and Martocci is reviewing the concept of the “self” in social psychology — one of those ideas that most people take for granted. Martocci makes the students engage with the material through writing and discussion. In the first meeting of Laura Martocci’s social psychology course, the students had to write their own definition of “the self,” their own identity, and their own obituary.
“I make the distinction for them that in high school, they had to memorize stuff,” says Martocci. “I’m here to exercise their thinking muscles. They have to make arguments to support what they say. There isn’t one right answer.”
Martocci knows that turning unconscious assumptions into intellectual concepts can be alternately boring and frustrating for the students. “The problem is that students tune out because they think it’s stuff they already know,” she explains. “They think, ‘Oh, we’re just talking about emotions.’ It’s like driving on black ice — you find out when the test comes that you’ve lost control of the car. I’m taking what’s intuitive and packaging it intellectually.”
Beginning a new topic, she asks them to write their own definition of “family.” For a few minutes, quiet reigns in the room, and then they share their ideas. The students’ idea of family centers around a caring community of people. Martocci then reads the Federal government’s definition of family: “Two or more persons, including a householder, who are related by birth, marriage, or adoption, and who live together as one household.” In other words, she says, this public definition of “family” is more about economics than ties of affection. This sparks a firestorm of discussion — What is “family”? And do our ideals match the realities of our lives?
“She gets people involved,” says Ben Pratt. “It’s a lot more interesting than just sitting and taking notes.”
“Every semester I push my students harder,” says Martocci. “This semester, I pushed them the hardest ever. I mean, these are freshmen, and I give them writing assignments about the meaning of life. I ask them to write about questions like, ‘Do you have free will?’ Philosophers have been debating that for centuries. I set the bar high, and they meet those expectations.”
Every reflective tutorial requires students to spend 30 hours in learning opportunities outside of the classroom — i.e., “experiential learning.” In Martocci’s RFT, students are going to local nursing homes, in teams of two, to talk with senior citizens about their life stories and memories. The students’ goal is to create a biography of their interview subject, and in the process gain new insights into concepts they’re learning in social psychology — self, family, gender, race, and so on.
For Heather Philben and Alexandra Mallilo, this assignment is a joy. They are working on the story of Sally Romagnano, an 82-year-old grandmother and great-grandmother, originally from Brooklyn.
The chemistry between Mallilo and Romagnano is obvious on a visit one day late in the semester. Mallilo, as aspiring education major from Long Island, is returning a photo album she had borrowed from Romagnano. Sitting together on the bed, they flip through its pages. Mallilo knows a story behind almost every photo; she knows Romagnano’s family members, friends, and pets.
“We’re her friends,” says Mallilo. “It’s nice, because you’re getting credit for something you want to do.”
An additional motivation for the students is that they will present their findings to the seniors and their families at the end of the semester. “You don’t want to disappoint the family or the residents after you’ve spent so much time with them,” says Mallilo. “This assignment is more than just for us — it’s for the family, too.”
Despite the students’ worries, the presentations do not disappoint the large crowd of visitors who gather in Spiro Hall on a Saturday afternoon in December. The seniors and their families listen appreciatively to the students’ rich and detailed portraits of the seniors’ lives.
For the students, this project did more than improve their skills in researching, writing, and presenting information — it gave them an expanded view of where learning and wisdom can be found.
In the words of Annie Powers and Samantha Siegel during their presentation about 71-year-old Livio DiCamillo: “He’s a friend and a mentor, a person we aspire to be like. We’re very proud of him.”
A Spiritual Quest
Meanwhile, Kaelber’s reflective tutorial has taken a more inward, spiritual focus.
Deepening their knowledge and appreciation of Eastern religions, the students have toured several New York museums’ collections of Asian art. In class, they’ve probed deeply into literature and films that reflect on the mystical themes of Eastern religions within a Western context, especially via the works of turn-of-the-century German author Hermann Hesse, three of whose novels they’ve read this semester.
By the time of their final discussion on Hesse, the students still find the works baffling. But, as Kaelber notes after reviewing their quizzes, they have read the assigned book, Journey to the East, with care.
Indeed, this class has become quite personal for many of the students. “I like to think I’m on my own journey right now,” says Kyle Glover, echoing one of the semester’s big themes. “I’ve chosen to fully immerse myself in hopes it’ll make me a better person.”
Kaelber leads the class not with answers, but with questions. Drawing on what students have understood, he sparks discussions that lead to a greater level of understanding.
“You’d go into class with one opinion on [the book], and walk out of class with another opinion on it,” says Boghos. “Class was more like a thinking exercise, working with other kids on what was real and fake in the books.”
A New Voice
Working with others on figuring out what’s real and what’s fake — that may be the best description of what Wagner is trying to give students through the Wagner Plan: a collaborative experience of questioning, of thinking critically, of testing ideas.
In the process, students learn, above all, to trust their own ideas and to express their new-found voices.
“I never thought I’d get so much out of a semester of college,” says Heather Philben. “Whether it was from the classes or just being away from home for the first time or having Manhattan right outside my window, I felt like I’ve never grown so much in such a short amount of time.”
“I really haven’t had an opportunity to use my brain like this before,” adds Kyle Glover. “I’ve blossomed mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I’m grateful to Wagner for that.”
READ THE REST OF THE SERIES ABOUT THE WAGNER PLAN: