Nov. 28, 2006
By Mary Reed
At 7:10 p.m. every Tuesday night this past fall quarter, the scene in Bentley Hall 306 looked like the typical beginning of a 100-level survey course: cell phones were turned off, iPods were stuffed into backpacks, last minute conversations were wrapped up, all while the instructor at the front of the class vied for everyone's attention. But what happened beginning at 7:11 was as various and sundry as the many guest lecturers in "HTC Seminar," the required course for the entire Honors Tutorial College incoming class.
Each fall, HTC Seminar provides an opportunity for HTC students (68 in this year's incoming class) to get to know one another in a college that favors one-on-one professor-student instruction. Additionally, the HTC Seminar is meant as a tool to set the tone of academic rigor these students will be expected to live up to for the rest of their academic careers.
A challenging broad topic typically serves as the framework for the course. This year's topic was mental illness. Honors Tutorial College Dean Ann Fidler says there are two reasons the topic was chosen. First, she says, mental illness "(provides) a vehicle for thinking and talking about how to confront multi-dimensional problems." The second reason for the topic, Fidler says, is that the links between the old "lunatic asylum," now known as The Ridges, and the community of Athens made it possible to use the larger subject of the seminar as a way to introduce students to their new hometown.
Assistant Dean Jan Hodson says that, for the students, "I think it's important for them to develop a sense of place. They need to understand there are people who live here and who care about (Athens) – it is what it is because of those people." Some of those people served as guest lecturers for the seminar. They included Political Science Professor Tom Walker who represented the Athens chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Associate Ombuds Katherine Ziff, author of "Asylum and Community," which explores the relationship between the Athens asylum and the city of Athens.
The culmination of the class involved a tour of The Ridges led by George Eberts, a former staff member at the institution, and Dick Planisek, assistant university planner. Fidler notes that "having students in the buildings brought them in physical contact with the history of the treatment of mental illness which they had been studying and also helped to contextualize the different perspectives of the guest lecturers."
Philosophy major Bryan Hoynacke remembers the beginning of his HTC career, which started only 10 weeks ago. Fidler and Hodson scared him at first. "They are incredibly intelligent and I found them to be pretty intimidating," he says, but now Hoynacke likens them to "parents away from home."
He also describes his first quarter as a resident of the Read-Johnson (residence halls) Scholars Complex. "If the deans are my parents away from home," Hoynacke says, "then my fellow HTC students are like my siblings away from home ... plus, where else at 3 a.m. can you procrastinate by having a debate about abortion instead of writing your anthropology paper?"
It's this overall culture of passion for learning and the challenge to think like a scholar that Hoynacke loves. "I find that my thinking is challenged and altered nearly every day," he says. In addition to the deans and his fellow students, the guest lecturers in HTC Seminar also challenged his thinking.
For example, there was the lecture given by Pete Wuscher who suffers from schizophrenia and was at one time a patient at The Ridges. "You could have heard a pin drop," Hoynacke says about the attention Wuscher's lecture commanded. "It's one thing, as usual, to talk about something," Hoynacke says, likening a discussion about riding a bicycle to actually riding one, "but if you haven't experienced it, you're not going to understand it."
Another guest lecturer was Joe Mahr, an HTC alumnus who went on after graduation to join a team of reporters at The (Toledo) Blade that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. This year, Mahr and a colleague of his at his current newspaper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote a series that exposed the neglect and outright abuse of mentally disabled patients in state-run and private facilities.
The young scholars read the newspaper series and responded to Mahr's presentation with their own hard-hitting questions: How effective is investigative reporting at bringing about change? What do you see as the solution? When do you cross the line into exploitation of your subjects?
"The students were really great," Mahr says. "There were some really great questions; they were respectful but they didn't lob softball questions." When Mahr entered Honors Tutorial College in 1991, the HTC Seminar didn't yet exist. "When I was going in, the whole notion (was) you were one-on-one with somebody ... the negative of that is you didn't have that collective learning experience with other HTC students."
Dean Fidler says students in the 25 different programs of study offered by the college should leave the seminar with a feeling of camaraderie "capable of sustaining the community of scholars that is at the heart of the HTC enterprise." In addition, she says the course should succeed at advancing students' critical thinking skills and helping them to gain a better understanding of the Athens community.
"It is a lot to accomplish in a short period of time," Fidler concedes, "but stepping up to challenges is part of the HTC tradition."
Mary Reed is a writer with University Communcations and Marketing.