One Course at a Time
We tackle four broad interdisciplinary themes, each in a month-long segment of study. These themes are: Contemporary Issues, Social Critique, Human Stories, and Living Faith. Within each segment, students choose one course title that represents the discipline in which they wish to receive three or four semester hours of credit. These disciplines include literature, psychology, sociology, philosophy, biology, theology, biblical studies, history, education, science, political science, art and communications. View a complete list of these course titles. Our segments of study tend to share the same rhythm: a few weeks of core, followed by a couple weeks of project.
Our work during the core rests on a selection of engaging contemporary books supplemented by interactive lectures that elaborate on their themes. Our core books change from year to year, reflecting new emphases. In recent years, we have explored both the philosophical underpinnings and the cultural expressions of postmodernism; we have traced the fault lines which gender, sexuality, race and class have opened in our society; we have tackled current political and social issues like religious polarization, the heavy hand of consumerism, the determinisms of technology, the madness of violence in our world. Our reading includes personal memoirs, creative restatements of the Christian faith, recent and classic fiction. (Both Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and David James Duncan’s The Brothers K are perennial favorites.) Around 100 pages of reading are assigned each night, Monday through Thursday.
Small group conversations lie at the heart of our core experience. Each Tuesday through Friday, we gather in small groups — 5 or 6 students, one faculty person — in a circle of easy chairs to talk about the day’s reading assignment. We explore the issues raised at the point where the text meets the experience of each student, because here the most exciting learning happens. And since the group is small, the time ample, and the context relatively free of competitive gamesmanship, these genuine encounters empower students to speak their minds and hearts freely. By semester’s end, the students report that they are more confident engaging primary texts and conversing about their ideas.
Afternoons and evenings remain free for completing the next day’s reading. There are no written examinations at the OE. Instead, we ask our students to take notes on their reading to prepare them for each day’s discussion. Because we work hard all week, we give no reading or writing assignments over weekends, during the core.
Students begin the project by creating a topic, or selecting one from the dozens suggested by faculty members—a topic that captures their
interest enough to fuel a ten-day period of personal investigation and provides credit in the academic discipline desired. During those ten days, we do not meet for classes. Students dedicate each day, in its entirety, to reading and thinking about their chosen topic. For up to an hour each day, students meet privately with a faculty advisor to engage in conversation about their work, ask questions, and receive guidance.
At the end of this period, students write a paper exploring some aspect of their thinking on the topic they have chosen. They spend two days revising and editing, in response to their faculty advisor’s suggestions. Then they meet for several days in a small group with their peers and a faculty member. The participants in these groups read and discuss one another’s papers, and each student gets a chance to share the discoveries and the challenges of the project.
In these group discussions, we fulfill our goals of collaborative learning, as students become teachers and teachers students. Students’ academic voices grow in confidence as they learn to take initiatives in their own learning and shape their studies to their own interests and needs.
At the end of each segment, we take a break from academic work and spend four or five days visiting different western locales.