35 years of intense learning
CC students say block plan immerses them in subjects; professors say it creates bonds
By BRIAN NEWSOME THE GAZETTE
Journalism taught by New York Times reporters. Theater by Hollywood’s Sydney Pollack. Business and economics by top CEOs. Guest lecturers — many of them among the best in their professions — are one of the chief reasons students and faculty at Colorado College have a cultlike devotion for a schedule found at fewer than six schools nationwide. The block plan turned 35 years old this school year. What started as a battle against tradition — some professors at the time left the school — is embraced as the key to a more complete education. It’s one of the most marketed selling points in CC’s promotional material. Unlike the semester system at most colleges, CC students take classes one at a time in grueling 3½-week blocks. Classes last for hours instead of minutes, five days a week. Homework assignments take hours more — a book a day in some cases. The payoff outweighs the price, students and faculty say. Celebrity lecturers such as movie heavyweight Pollack, who directed “The Interpreter,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Cold Mountain,” can sometimes break away for a few weeks to teach a class, but never for a months-long semester. Field trips, say a trip to the mountains in geology class, don’t conflict with other classes. And immersion in a single subject creates a deeper understanding of it, advocates say. “It’s this incredibly intense intellectual experience,” said Bryant “Tip” Ragan, who teaches early-modern European history at CC, “and that’s just like a dream.”
The plan has drawbacks, some say. A student who misses a day of class misses the equivalent of a week, said Darryl Stein, a senior at the University of California at Berkeley, who participated in a debate Tuesday against CC over the plan. The debate was held to commemorate the 35-year anniversary. Stein also noted that CC students miss out on linkages students make when taking multiple classes at once, such as a connection between political science and economics. He also questioned whether 3½ weeks, no matter how intense, is enough time to process a semester’s worth of material. “When you’re given two days to write a paper,” he said, “You’re simply put in the situation where you find the stuff, you write it, and you put it together in a very short amount of time.” CC debate students countered those claims, saying that attendance is better because skipping a class has more consequences, and they said immersion is a more logical way to learn than juggling multiple subjects and creates just as much understanding of a subject. “Blocks don’t exist as islands,” said CC junior Travis Whitsitt. “They’re connected by the students.” CC professor Ragan came to CC from a college in New York partly because of the block plan. He thrives on the relationships with students when they spend so much time in his class. He attends their hockey games or theater shows, and he’ll discuss European history with them in intermissions or at lunch. “In my other school, I went in and did my lecture six hours a week,” he said, “and I didn’t really know my students at all.” Jonathan Scott Lee, chairman of CC’s philosophy department, said it’s not just the students who labor under the blocks. Professors have little time for scholarly work during their blocks, when they spend their days lecturing and nights grading and preparing. “That’s a lot to squeeze into a 24-hour day,” he said. The discussions and student relationships make the extra hours worthwhile, he said, and the proof of their understanding is in the term papers. CONTACT THE WRITER: 636-0198 or firstname.lastname@example.org PUBLIC WELCOME The public can take a “halfblock” course at Colorado College, complete with homework, Jan. 9-19. Tuition is $900. Two courses will be offered: c“Mozart and the Age of Enlightenment,” taught by political science professor Timothy Fuller and music professor Michael Grace. - “Ethics in Journalism” taught by English professor Ruth Barton. To sign up, call the CC’s alumni relations office, 389-6776.
CAROL LAWRENCE, THE GAZETTE - Colorado College students including Laura Morgan, center, counted bacteria formed in glass dishes Friday afternoon in a genetics class in Barnes Hall. CC classes are taken in the block system, in which students take one subject for 3 2 weeks. These science students have daily classes 9 a.m. until noon and have labs three to four afternoons a week.