“I wanted to do something outside my comfort zone—that’s what going to a liberal arts college is all about.” —Helen Radovic ’22

Every student joins at least one community in their first semester on campus at Mac, because each shares the experience of taking a first-year course (FYC). These courses, exclusively for first-semester first-year students, are offered in most academic departments and purposefully capped at a small number of seats, to give each student the distinct opportunity of an intimate seminar experience.

There are several ways FYCs provide a helpful introduction to life as a college student. The professor serves as each student’s academic advisor, and the course includes library research help and writing assistance. It’s also an opportunity to bond with other students—some FYCs are also residential, meaning students live together on the same floor of a residence hall. Through late-night discussions, field trips, and even dinner at professors’ homes, students form close relationships and delve into the academic depth of Macalester.

 

Being Human: An Introduction to Language

It’s a Thursday morning in Being Human: An Introduction to Language, and linguistics professor Christina Esposito is at the whiteboard, writing some words in Indonesian.

While one “rumah” translates to “house” in English, she explains, to make the plural “houses,” the word repeats: “rumahrumah.” “This is called reduplication. Does anyone know another language that does this?”

She lets the students think a minute before offering a suggestion: “If you have a friend who says they like someone,” she proposes, “is that different than if they like-like someone?”

Everyone’s faces light up, and the professor prompts discussion about other examples of the phenomenon in English, what parts of speech are affected, and whether the inflection of speech alters its meaning. The students then break into small groups to generate more examples, and to perform some of the work of a linguist: categorizing language and writing rules about how it’s used. They come up with “cute” words (“itty bitty,” “silly billy”), “intensifiers” (“very very,” “so so so”), and a few that defy category:

“What about ‘chicky chicky parm parm?’” asks one.

“What is that?”

“It’s what Tom calls chicken parmesan on Parks and Rec!

When they gather again as a full group, Esposito leads them through more examples, and asks again if anyone can think of examples from other languages they know. Soon, students are bringing up phrases in Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and Bosnian.

That international quality is one of the things that Helen Radovic ’22 (Minneapolis) likes best about the course. “We learned the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has been such a useful skill,” she says, in part because it allows them to transcribe and pronounce words from all the different languages spoken by students. “It makes use of everyone’s background, which has been really cool.”

And in fact, the experience had been such a positive one so far that she was already thinking about declaring a linguistics major. “I didn’t even know what linguistics was when I signed up,” Radovic says. “But I wanted to do something outside my comfort zone—that’s what going to a liberal arts college is all about.”

 

Professor Arthur Mitchell

Japanese Film and Animation: From the Salaryman to the Shōjo

On Fridays, before diving into a discussion of representations of Japanese culture in film and animation, Asian languages and cultures professor Arthur Mitchell dedicates 20 minutes of class to check in with his students. A lively discussion follows with students joking with each other, sharing advice on how to get over a cold, and discussing ways to adjust to life at Mac. Nearly one month into the semester, this residential FYC has already bonded. “There’s a cohesion, and a sense that people like being in this environment together,” says Mitchell.

This course focuses on critically analyzing the stereotypical binary between the East and the West. Although that binary is often used as a framework for discussing films (and culture more broadly), Mitchell says it also limits students’ understanding.

Students view and discuss a wide range of films throughout the semester, from Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru and Ozu Yasujirō’s Tokyo Story to the genre of anime with Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away and Anno Hideaki’s Evangelion. These films portray archetypes of the white-collar worker and the adolescent girl, as well as universal themes of family, love, death, and spirituality.

Today’s exercise prompts students to engage with this East versus West framework. On the whiteboard, students brainstorm ideas stereotypically associated with Japan, such as nature, simplicity, sentimentality, and filial piety. Under the West category, students add modernity, individualism, and consumerism. The discussion is casual, with students calling out for clarification on a few terms and sharing personal experiences.

The goal is for students to become aware of this binary, and to develop their own independent analytical voice that they can apply when thinking about other cultures. “Once you get rid of this framework,” says Mitchell, “you can look at these films and realize that there are tons of things you can analyze and think about.”

Livvie Avrick ’19 contributed to this story.

October 26 2018

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