STEM Teachers Like Literature, Too?: Dr. Kennedy and Professor Noyes Teach Year 2 Seminar

Lily Gordon, ‘17

When several Y2s first saw who their Seminar teachers were, they might have thought Dean Brutsaert printed their schedules wrong: For the first time in BHSEC history, math and science professors were listed to teach Seminar. This change in Seminar teachers was not scheduling error, but rather a purposeful reworking of how Seminar was supposed to be.

The original vision of the Seminar class was that any intellectually curious person could be able to discuss great books. The discussion-style setting of most Seminar classes adheres to that same ideal: Everyone’s thoughts are valuable.

For years, Dean Hinrichs hoped to approximate this vision. The idea was that each discipline— literature, history, language, the performance and visual arts, science, and math—should be somehow represented in Seminar. In fact, there seem to be perfect crossover between what these teachers brought to their STEM classes and what they’ll do this year in seminar. Last year, Professor Noyes was teaching Math Seminar; now he’s teaching Sophomore Seminar. Last year, Dr. Kennedy’s Biology students read excerpts from Darwin’s The Origin of Species; This year, her Year 2 Seminar students will read Darwin’s The Descent of Man. These intellectual similarities between different disciplines suggest that perhaps this goal for integration holds promise.

This year, Dean Hinrichs made this vision a reality.

Professor Noyes recalls the first time he saw the books his math students brought into his calculus class and how jealous he’d felt to see all those fantastic books they got to read. Professor Noyes recalled, “I would see them come into class with Hamlet and,” he widened his eyes, “I’d go ‘that’s a good book!’ They’d come in with The Communist Manifesto. And I’d go, ‘that’s another good book!’” When Dean Hinrichs asked him if he was interested in teaching some of these books, he said emphatically that he would love it.

Before entering math, Professor Noyes was deeply interested in philosophy and literature. He still reads Espinosa with special dedication and tries to “bring the humanities into math, to tell the human side, the history and the philosophy of mathematics.” On the first day of class, Noyes described his experience this summer rereading the books. “It had been a while since I read a book without laser guns in it,” he joked. “But it felt good to read these books again and use that part of my mind.”

He explained that people are more dimensional than a single subject. “Even if your speciality is in STEM, we’re all thinking about the same…big questions. We do care about politics and art and meaning. We like talking about things other than math as well.” He said teaching seminar also allows him to see his students differently: “It’s nice to see students in a different element. We [the math faculty] can sometimes forget that students aren’t just math students, or we assume our class is the only class. But that’s not true. I think this kind of seminar is good for everybody to realize that no one is one dimensional.”

Dr. Kennedy had similar views on the subject. Dean Hinrichs asked her soon after her hiring if she was interested in teaching seminar. “I said immediately that I was,” Dr. Kennedy laughed. Dr. Kennedy believes the movement to represent the non-humanities in the seminar class allows for a “diversity of thought” and “outsider perspectives.” Dr. Kennedy has a background in philosophy, which she studied extensively in college. She carries that mode of thinking in her biology class, as evident by her occasional inclination to pause after explaining a biological phenomenon, smiling widely as if to say, “isn’t that beautiful?”

Dr. Kennedy considers this integration of teachers from different disciplines to be a forming of an intellectual lineage. It’s hard to share that “humanities lineage” while working in STEM, but it still informs her thinking. Now, teaching seminar, she feels she can share a total representation of all of her thinking, not just a section. She says, “It’s freeing.”

Dr. Kennedy believes in a “balance of opposing sides.” She thinks it’s important to bring some humanity and feeling into the sciences and some science into the humanities; that those dual fields when brought together allow for more “robust, more complete thinking, with more to find.” She explains, “the real world is full of multiplicity and complementarity and discordance. There’s room to navigate through this.”

On the topic of natural philosophy (or integrated liberal arts thinking), Dr. Kennedy believes there is still value in specialization, but that many people find themselves in a “narrowing of the fields.” It’s important to “gain perspective again.”

Although Dr. Kennedy has a fantastic scientific perspective to offer on Darwin’s The Descent of Man, surprisingly Dr. Kennedy is most excited to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Why? “Because I struggle to read it! I start and stop, start and stop… It’s frustrating and challenging! I want to see how other people view it!” She’s curious to see how the feminist lens plays a role in reading Woolf, how relevant the books is for today’s women, and if its themes have become antiquated.

Dr. Kennedy feels her role is less about teaching and more about facilitating discussion (to propose a few ideas to the group and bring outside resources to connect to the main texts), but that overall “it’s not my class; it’s our class.” She emphasized how eager she was to hear what “people” rather than “students” had to say and that it was important that everyone felt the conversations went in the “right direction.” Dr. Kennedy said she is particularly excited to see the inquiry projects and how students use the discussions with these great books to inform their thinking as they go about their process.

Overall, the two teachers seem to agree that a successful seminar class is about treating everyone in the room as an equal reader and conversationalist. “We’re here to learn from the texts and from each other,” Noyes explained, “there is no single authority. These books force you to look inside of yourself.”



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