By Sociology Professor Emeritus Richard Peterson
1978 was a long time ago. I had been teaching at Cornell for a few years and was finally learning what it meant to teach courses in this liberal arts context—the close interaction with students and with other disciplines, the insightful reading of texts, the thoughtful writing of essays, and the interplay of perspectives. The goal was to create ideas and actions that moved beyond a particular course. But then, right in the middle of my figuring this whole place out, the faculty adopted something called One Course At A Time. Now, why did we have to go and do a thing like that?
Once One Course At A Time was ushered in, the mad scramble to figure out how to work under this system began. How would we teach our courses? What kinds of texts could we read? What could we possibly ask our students to write in three-and-a-half weeks? We can’t do all the things we used to do! That took weeks! Months! What will happen to the grand old tradition of the liberal arts? What will happen to academic rigor and integrity? We all scrambled about, pulling our individual and collective hair out. 1978 came and went. One Course At A Time happened—and it is still happening.
As I look back on all of this from the relative comfort of retirement, I see that much of the handwringing and head shaking was really not about change, but about continuity. The faculty saw—perhaps some more quickly than others—that One Course At A Time was another way to package what we had always done. One Course At A Time was not the compression of courses into a shorter period. Instead, it was taking what we had always done and figuring out how it might successfully be done in a shorter, more concentrated period of time. We found that we still assigned texts—books, scores, papers, experiences, what have you—but now we enjoyed the luxury of having extended, uninterrupted conversations about them. These deeper conversations about texts bring us closer to students and the students closer to the text. Writing, too, is still done as a central part of a Cornell education but is experienced differently. The same way time focuses reading and discussing, it also focuses writing. Instead of the long term paper, professors integrate writing and research throughout the block so that these become a habit of thinking rather than an end-of-term project. And, so we learned, we adapted, and we preserved the ideals we all admire and work toward.
My friend and colleague Charlotte Vaughan and I used to talk about the shift to One Course At A Time as the shift from skipping stones in a semester-long course to throwing rocks in the three-and-a-half week format. Stones skipping across the water skim the surface, while rocks thrown—carefully aimed—go into the water. The water is the same, the rocks are the same, but the thrown rocks go deeper. The ripples move outward, intersecting other ripples. And that, after all, is what the liberal arts has always been about.