University News

Brown Conversation examines U.’s identity

By
Staff Writer

Correction Appended.

Through a fall Group Independent Study Project, Saturday night dinners and a series of other initiatives and projects, a new student group is looking to reignite discussions about the University originally inspired by the New Curriculum. Born over conversations between 10 to 20 students, Brown Conversation aims to continue the dialogue  about Brown, its educational philosophy and its place in higher education.  

The group emerged from dinner conversations last semester between Evan Schwartz ’13, an independent concentrator in community development and education, and Anish Sarma ’12, an electrical engineering concentrator. Promoted solely via word of mouth, the group’s listserv now boasts 142 members, and 20 to 35 people show up at any given meeting. Around 100 individuals in total have attended meetings at some point, Schwartz said.

With the administrative turnover taking place, now could be a particularly opportune time for students to consider the identity of the University, Sarma said, but he added that timing is “coincidental to the fact. … It’s sort of fundamental to what Brown is that students engage with these questions.”

“Part of being educated is knowing why you have the education that you have,” Sarma said.

The New Curriculum, born from the efforts of a GISP led by Ira Magaziner ’69 P’06, P’07, P’10 and Elliot Maxwell ’68, was implemented in 1969. The new guidelines did away with distribution requirements and added the Satisfactory/No Credit option in place today. 

Schwartz said the original effort to revamp the University’s curriculum was not meant to be a “one-off thing,” but rather a spark to get students to constantly reflect on their education and how to improve it. He said there have been different “pockets of conversation” since then, and Brown Conversation aspires to unite those “different voices” in a collaborative setting.

The group’s purpose is intentionally imprecise. Some people come with concrete goals for structural reform at the University level, whereas others simply want to talk about their own education. Schwartz said upperclassmen might be drawn by controversial issues related to the University, such as those explored in The Herald’s “Mission Drift?” series last semester, but first years seem to want to explore their education personally first. “You can’t have a sense that Brown has changed … if you just got here,” Sarma said.

Some projects that group meetings have precipitated are the Outgoing Senior Interview Project and a GISP for next semester. While the group itself may avoid taking stances on particular issues, it hopes to bring people of similar goals together “to catalyze projects that they care about,” Sarma said.

Schwartz emphasized the diversity of group members and a desire for fresh faces, adding that the breakdown by class years is almost even. The group is especially interested in recruiting first-years so they can start thinking about their education to shape their four years purposefully.

“It seems like this sort of discussion often happens largely among seniors,” Schwartz said. But Nikhil Kalyanpur ’13, a Herald opinions columnist, said it seems like underclassmen are more represented at the meetings than seniors are – something he called crucial for sustaining the conversation.

Many of the current members are involved in student groups or committees that pertain to Brown Conversation’s mission. Several members of the Undergraduate Council of Students, including Anthony White ’13 and David Rattner ’13, have attended meetings. As a UCS member, White said he brings certain insights to the group about administration, adding that he is also interested in the group as a student who wants to make the concentration declaration process more meaningful. 

Rattner said he has been working with a committee within Brown Conversation to circulate information about the New Curriculum to incoming students.

Kalyanpur and Schwartz are independent concentrators, and Schwartz works at the Curricular Resource Center. Peggy Chang ’91, director of the CRC, said Brown Conversation shares similarities with the center’s mission in that they both are peer advising resources that “help any student who seeks advice to make the most of his or her time at Brown.”

The GISP for next semester, for which about a dozen students have expressed intent to enroll, was designed to “contextualiz(e) the Brown Conversation,” Schwartz said. Pedagogically, it will “analyze different philosophies of education … and then through them analyze Brown’s philosophy historically as well as what it is now,” Kalyanpur said.  

He added that one goal will be to “cement our own practical philosophy” that will inform Brown Conversation’s future projects and direction. 

Last week’s discussion topic was about whether Brown should have requirements. After asking what departments people had deliberately avoided, the group realized that for every department someone had ignored, there was another person who was concentrating in that or a similar discipline. Members then pitched their concentrations to get people to “reconsider departments that they’d written off,” Schwartz said.

One potential project the group is planning is a Curiosity Fair, inspired by the discussion about requirements, where students would talk to people in departments they had avoided to be convinced to explore different areas.

 

An article in Thursday’s Herald (“Brown Conversation examines U.’s identity,” April 12) stated that Brown Conversation began over dinner between just two people. In fact, it arose from conversations with a mix of between 10 and 20 underclassmen and upperclassmen. The Herald regrets the error.