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Awash in the ‘Marketplace of Ideas’

By Danielle Charette ’14

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Danielle Charette ’14, in the minimalist confines of the English literature seminar room, preps for her honors exams.

I like to identify as a chatty introvert: I spend a great deal of time reading and writing, but as soon as I get around other likeminded people, I have trouble keeping quiet. In this way, the Honors Program, which is centered around hours of seminar table discussions, frequent papers, and written and oral exams, is ideal. At the risk of imperiling my post-Swarthmore social life, I’ll admit that I’m actually excited for exams week, where I’ll have the chance to talk with the expert “external examiners” the College invites to discuss my views on Alexis de Tocqueville’s democratic vision or George Eliot’s ideas about Victorian gender norms.

One of my favorite aspects of working as an admissions tour guide was explaining the College’s unique Honors Program to prospective families. Unlike programs elsewhere, I’d say, being an honors student at Swarthmore doesn’t mean being quarantined in a special dorm or getting first dibs on course selection. Touring families looked intrigued—and more than a little taken aback.

Instead, I’d tell them, taking the plunge into honors at the end of my sophomore year was reflective of a personal desire for discipline-specific detail. It meant forsaking the opportunity to take a wider range of courses—a very tough decision!—in favor of doubling the amount of time I spent on English and political science “preps” for the seminars in my respective major and minor. In English, I’ve taken seminars in American literature, Victorian literature and culture, and Shakespeare. In political science, I studied democratic theory and civic engagement.

Honors classes are famous for the seminar culture they foster during the semester, as each student develops a particular voice. In my Shakespeare class, there were theater enthusiasts we could rely on to discuss staging practices or to read a Hamlet soliloquy aloud with gusto. Others were more interested in what Shakespeare has to say about English Protestantism or the ancient stoics or Renaissance politics.

Each department’s seminar room itself also contributes to the culture. The English literature room consists of a relatively minimalist circle of couches, for a salon-like feel. I’m all for the comfortable furniture, though I’ll admit that balancing the complete works of Shakespeare on my lap for four hours was an unusual form of exercise. In contrast, the political science room centers around a massive wooden table, in front of a wall-sized bookshelf of canonical political texts. The table made frenzied note taking a bit easier, though the book display could be intimidating, as if the ghost of Rousseau was lingering to whisper, “It’s time to re-read The Social Contract.”

In my Democratic Theory seminar, I spent considerable time debating what ideal citizenship or political participation looks like. While America’s current government may have a long way to go, I can say that Swarthmore’s seminars admirably reflected the “marketplace of ideas.” Even better, the Swarthmore marketplace usually entails lots of midseminar snacks, coffee, and friendship. Further, every seminar culminated in an end-of-the-semester dinner, whether it be at a professor’s home in the Swarthmore Ville, another’s row house in Philly, or at a restaurant in nearby Media. It was clear that professors cared about our class as an inquisitive cohort of young minds, both in and out of the seminar room.

This fall, I’ll start a Ph.D. program with the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought. Social Thought has an interdisciplinary focus that will hopefully allow me to continue the interest in literary politics I’ve cultivated at Swarthmore. When I visited Chicago a few weeks ago, current grad students asked me if I’d be taking it easy before the autumn quarter. My answer, of course was, “No, I have these things called honors exams.”

—Danielle Charette ’14 has been an editorial assistant for the Swarthmore College Bulletin for two years. She also is a co-founder of The Swarthmore Independent.

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