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Syllabus Recommendations for 'The First American University'

Last week I breathlessly praised the development of a new undergraduate course on 'The First American University' (e.g. Cornell), but added that I actually had some suggested additions to the syllabus, of which a copy of the finalized version can be found here. In truth, Tom and Corey have done a great job of presenting an overarching view of the University, and have included such gems as Women at Cornell, by Charlotte Conable '51 when discussing gender issues on campus and the quintessential fictional account of the University in the late 50s and early 60s, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña '59.

Any student of Cornell (in the subject matter sense, not the academic sense) will obviously bring their own biases and interests into their recommendations for what should be included in a supplemental syllabus, and MetaEzra's own writers would probably tact in different directions; Elie would likely want to see more coverage of Cornell's athletic history, including the glory years for Cornell football (1930s and 40s) and hockey (late 1960s). Andy, meanwhile, would probably prefer to see more on the implications of liberalism, faculty ideology, and identity politics on campus over the last 40 years.

I would probably be itching to include more on the social and political history of New York State and its relation to Cornell, but that's really just a pet interest of mine. Instead, below are my humble suggestions that I think any person who claims to be knowledgeable on the subject of the first American university should know about:

The Natural History of Cornell and Ithaca's Geography Not many academic institutions are located in such a striking natural setting as Ithaca's East Hill, and Cornell's surrounding geography has greatly influenced the development of the University. To start with, one could read Chapters Nine and Ten of Concerning Cornell O.D. Engeln '08. His chapters on the 'Geography of the Region' and 'Over Hill and Into Hollow' serve as a wonderful introduction on how the natural world has shaped Ithaca and Cornell, both physically and in a cultural sense. From there, one could address the most dynamic aspect of campus and its most immediate connotation, the gorges and suicides, head on by reading James Siegel's 'On the View From Cornell', which explores why, while the gorges are not literally the boundary of the University, they very much become one in a metaphysical sense for most students.

The Larger Contributions of Faculty and Alumni While Tom and Corey rightly include a lecture on 'Fictionalized Cornell' and encourage students to read The Fool On The Hill or consider the impact of Andy Bernard's character on The Office, I feel that there should be more of a treatment on the important cultural contributions of Cornell students, faculty, and alumni, even when the subject matter ostensibly has nothing to do about Cornell. It's hard to separate Nabokov's Lolita from his time as a Cornell faculty, and the same holds for alumni-turned authors like Vonnegut '44 or Pynchon '59. Other significant Cornellians in this regard would be a rather expansive list, including minimalist composer Steve Reich '57 or Carl Sagan who inspired a generation to rethink their place in the universe. And politically, who could overlook the contributions (whether good or bad) of the likes of Janet Reno '60 or Paul Wolfowitz '65 -- neither of those individuals would not be who they are were it not for Cornell.

Cornell History in a Contemporary Context It's also very important to remind students that history is happening all around us, and even that they themselves can make history or be a part of it. To that end, students should be encouraged to read publications like The Sun, The Chronicle, or even this humble blog to develop a greater understanding for where we've been and the shape of things to come.

Because it's not like history isn't being made and talked about every single day.

Any other topics especially pertinent to Cornell that you think that Tom or Corey may have missed? Let me know your thoughts -- send an email to editor(at)metaezra(dot)com !

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on February 25, 2011 (#)

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