Developing a Voice: Senior Learning Community in Philosophy

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Four afternoons a week this semester, the four graduating philosophy majors are in class together for their Senior Learning Community. One part high-level philosophy seminar, taught by Professor John Danisi, it’s also an intensive writing workshop where the students develop their own theses and learn the disciplines of critical analysis and well-honed writing.

And philosophy majors expect no less, says Professor Sarah Donovan, who teaches the writing workshop, or Reflective Tutorial, portion of the LC. In other majors, seniors complete internships in businesses or other types of organizations. “Philosophy majors want a traditional liberal arts experience, where they’re focused on intensive research,” she says. During the spring of their junior year, they choose their senior thesis topic, and 100 hours of research time is required during the summer.

One Tuesday afternoon in early October, the group meets in a small Main Hall seminar room for the Reflective Tutorial. The entire class is focused on dissecting a reading that Julia Zenker ’14 selected in support of her thesis, in which she intends to critique global trade policy’s neglect of human rights issues and propose “an ethic of care,” as she calls it.

Sitting at tables facing each other, the students and their professor work methodically through the article, first analyzing its content, and then pointing out its shortcomings. “This is what research is,” Donovan remarks. “You see what someone has done, see what’s missing, and see what you can build on.”

It’s a helpful and exciting process, says Zenker. “The research is really interesting,” she says. “It’s fun and exciting to develop my own theory. It doesn’t necessarily have to be something that has been written about before. I can take pieces from this author and that author and put them together and say, ‘This hasn’t been thought about in this way before, why don’t we start thinking about it in this way, and this is why we should do it.’”

Zenker chose to major in philosophy because she wanted this intensive work on her reading, writing, and critical thinking skills in preparation for law school. At the same time, she has developed a strong ethical stance on social justice issues. In her First-Year Learning Community, she learned to connect her studies of Spanish and philosophy with the practical experience of teaching English to immigrants. Her paper on the topic, “The Moral Obligation to People in a Learning Environment,” was selected for publication in the Wagner Undergraduate Research Journal.

“I think that really shaped the way that I think about civic engagement and issues of social justice,” she says. “And that pushed me toward the trajectory of public interest law.”

This kind of progression, says Professor Danisi, is the goal of a Wagner education: students who become independent thinkers with their own, distinct viewpoint and voice. “Whatever occupation you’re in, you’re dealing with novelty,” he says. “And you have to come up with a solution and your boss is going to say, ‘Well, why the hell are you doing that?’

“At Wagner, we don’t want to turn out people who are doctoring and lawyering,” he continues. “We want to turn out moral agents, or citizens, who are doctoring and lawyering.”

 


READ MORE IN 'BACK TO CLASS'

During the fall semester of 2013, we set out to see what's happening on the Wagner campus to prepare students for the future. We found a lot of evidence that Wagner students are getting the most out of the college experience, whether they are in class, in labs, in the city, or abroad.