Serpent’s College

October 9, 2008

For a long time, I have nursed a secret dream. It is hard for me to admit or discuss because it is quite so grandiose in scope, but it is there and has been there for a long time.

I want to found a college.

I think there is an infinitely egomaniacal quality to this dream of mine, but I will soldier on despite that.

This college of mine already has a name – Serpent’s College. The Serpent is a traditional symbol of the powers and dangers of knowledge, the double-edged sword. Athena, goddess of wisdom and strategy, was often depicted accompanied by serpents, and lest we forget, the reason that Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge was the honeyed words of the Serpent.

The pedagogical scheme for the college is somewhat less determined, as I have had a few ideas. The pedagogies which have most interested me are those of St. John’s College, Sarah Lawrence College (obviously), and Oxford University (equally obviously), and I envision the pedagogy of Serpent’s College as some intersection of the three. At St. John’s, every student studies the same course of learning, in a completely interdisciplinary approach; There is a music lesson, a science laboratory, and then there is “Seminar” in which students meet to discuss a wide range of humanities topics from History to Philosophy to Psychology to Literature. They additionally study two languages each for two years – Greek first and second, French third and fourth. The final component of their weekly courseload is a lecture given each evening – or possibly once a week, my memory fails me on that particular point – relating in some great, abstract way, to the works being read at the college at that particular time. Sarah Lawrence College, as I would imagine most of you are aware, takes quite a radically different approach. Where St. John’s requires everything and offers no variation, Sarah Lawrence requires nothing BUT variation. Each student selects an assortment of classes – likewise all seminars – accross any and all of the disciplines, with effectively no requirements aside from an imperative not to concentrate too much on any single area. Students claim the initiative in their classes, developing semester-long independent projects as integral or tangential to the course material of the affiliated class as they like. Finally, at Oxford, students concentrate on a single subject, meeting at incredibly low student-teacher ratios – frequently 1-to-1 – for most of their own work, supplemented by an overwhelming array of lectures on every topic. Students are very concentrated within their discipline, but have the capacity to attend any lecture they so choose, at their liesure.

From this, then, derives my current thinking on the pedagogy of Serpent’s College. As an aside, there is one additional tid bit that contributes quite a bit. My girlfriend (hi Cat) went to a very unusual and interesting elementary and middle school, and one day she related the story of one of her school projects. Her entire year collaborated on a Mission To Mars. The work was divided up in such a way that some of the students were Astronauts, some of the students were Nutritionists, some of the students were Engineers, some of the students were Navigators, and so on. The Astronauts had to keep a careful record of what they ate and stay in good shape, as per the diet set forth for them by the nutritionists. The engineers (who I may have just made up, I am now realizing), actually BUILT A SPACESHIP (I know they did that part), and the Navigators studied the stars and worked out how to get the spaceship and the astronauts to mars. This sounded so unbelievably cool to me that it got my brain working, and I attached it to my age-old idea of Serpent’s College. Without further ado…

The essential program of Serpent’s College is as follows: students attend for four years, and each year is divided approximately into a quarters system. Each quarter, the faculty of the institution offer Projects – discrete, interdisciplinary research projects with defined goals – across all the fields of their interest and expertise. Students select one or two projects on which they work as part of the research team – developing the project under the guidance of the faculty, carrying out the work then specified, and so on. To supplement these activities, the faculty also develop a lecture series and/or seminar series to “catch the students up” with the level of skill expected in any disciplines with which the project might intersect. Additionally, the school invests in bringing in dedicated lecturers on a variety of topics, not necessarily related to any of the on-going projects, to supplement and diversify the options available to each student. The final element is that each year, the senior students of the program develop their own projects, a sort of thesis-project if you will, which they lead as if they were a member of faculty, and which varies in no other essential way from the regular projects.

This is all very hazy still, and I have a suspicion that the last part there may be changing fairly soon, but I thought I would get it out there. I’m sure there are some bits I’ve forgotten to mention, but that’s the way life things go, isn’t it?

Your thoughts, comments, and suggestions are highly appreciated. In particular, do you think it should be Serpent’s College, or Serpents College?

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One Response to “Serpent’s College”

  1. Chris Says:

    Zach, that sounds awesome…well, the bits you’ve mentioned so far. If by the time you get this thing going I am in any way academically endowed, I’d love to be involved. As for the name, I think it should be Serpants college, because then that implies it draws power and inspiration from the symbol, but isn’t owned (subjugated) by it.


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