By John DiConsiglio
In the new Sophomore Colloquium called “The Nature and Culture of Children,” students are asked to imagine children as miniature scientists. After all, what is an infant’s cry but a mini-experiment to obtain a milk bottle or a fresh diaper? The louder the wail, the faster the result.
And for Professor of American Studies Jamie Cohen-Cole, the class itself is a laboratory of sorts, as he works with students to refine his own theories on the confluence of science and culture. “The students are part of my research because they help me test how to present the material,” he said. “We are all, in a sense, learning as we go along.
The Nature and Culture of Children is one of several new courses offered through the Sophomore Colloquium series launched last year by Columbian College of Arts and Sciences.
In spring 2018, the Sophomore Colloquium offered will be “Technological Pathways to a Sustainable Chemical Economy,” “Migrants and the City” and “Diversity in Organizations.”
"Similar to our Dean’s Seminars for freshmen, these colloquia allow students to take a course that focuses on a topic in the professor's area of expertise within a small classroom setting,” said CCAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Elizabeth Chacko. “Students have greater interaction with their professor, are able to delve deep into a subject and have the opportunity to begin honing their research skills.”
What is the nature of knowledge? What characteristics defines humanity? These are the types of big picture questions the 11 sophomores in Dr. Cohen-Cole’s colloquium are being asked to consider through the eyes of thinkers in different fields, from scientists to philosophers. It’s a class that is part history, part psychology and even a touch biology.
“This class never fails to blow my mind,” said American studies major Evelyn Arredondo Ramirez. “I always leave knowing more than when I walked in.”
Designed to challenge sophomores with upper-level coursework, the seminar-style colloquia allow professors to delve deeply into fresh aspects of their own research. Dr. Cohen-Cole, an expert on the history of science, structured the class as a cultural survey of the way societies have defined childhood throughout history. One of his primary goals is to disabuse students of the common view that science is independent of culture.
“Nature doesn’t speak to scientists like God speaking to Moses,” he noted. “Research is conditioned by the cultures in which scientists are living.”
In other words, the developmental and behavioral theories of, for example, Victorian thinkers—when a child labor force was prized for its economic value—bears little resemblance to researchers grounded in today’s protective parenting culture. “Darwin or Locke could not have foreseen a time when parents were obsessed with elite preschools or soy milk drinks for toddlers,” said Ms. Ramirez, a Cisneros Scholar who enrolled in the course to gain new insight into the minds of children for what she hopes will be a career in nonprofit advocacy work.
The colloquium’s wide-ranging syllabus—with readings that include Descartes and Rousseau as well as a New York Times op-ed on whether Donald Trump acts like a 4 year old—attracted sophomores beyond those majoring in American studies, including psychology major Stevie Schapiro. “I see this class as a test run for us and for our professor,” she said. “As much as we are trying to understand how children learn and develop, he’s also trying to see how we think as students.”
The intimate class structure and the opportunity to examine complex material in-depth was a selling point for political science major Taylor Stonebarger, who is also enrolled in the GWTeach program to prepare for a teaching career. “Professor Cohen-Cole pays attention to what we are saying and talks to us like we’re researchers too,” she said “It creates a great foundation for understanding the material without leaving anyone behind.”
The class features independent research projects that include student-chosen topics such as the impact of divorce on children and comparisons of high schools in urban and rural settings. Students are expected to think critically, use multiple sources and present an expert research argument.
“This isn’t something we typically ask our underclassmen to do,” Dr. Cohen-Cole said. “The virtue of a small seminar like this is that students are making connections both with their professor and among each other—which is exactly how a community of scholarship is supposed to work.”