Often the outlier among many small liberal arts colleges with established prestige, Marlboro College, established in 1946, remains steps ahead of modern institutions in its academic rigor and style of approach, allowing an intellectual space for students not only to rigorously learn and present information, skills, and ideas, but to think and develop their own.
At the end of second semester of their sophomore year, Marlboro students submit a Preliminary Plan Application outlining distinct academic interests and angles of inquiry they desire to investigate. Students then collaborate with a faculty sponsor or sponsors in their field of interest, establishing a mentor/mentee academic relationship.
Over the following two years, in addition to regular coursework, students independently develop one-on-one classes, or “tutorials,” pertaining to their plan of concentration, often studying cross-disciplinarily yet with care to synchronize material and focus on his/her argument with light guidance from their sponsor. Tutorials are very specific and often incorporate levels of academia to which few undergraduates are exposed. By their senior year, students must outline a distinct and organic outline of their argument and connected projects and begin writing their plan.
“When I looked at the college seriously, my own evaluation was that Marlboro had strong first years culminating in a comprehensive exam, but the last two years were anticlimatic,” says Tom Ragle, president of Marlboro College from 1958 to 1980 and pioneer of the plan of concentration.
Ragle, with the help of Roland Boyden, past professor of history, dean of students, and dean of faculty, combined his experiences at Harvard and Oxford studying both Greek history and literature with the idea of integrating both interdisciplinary study with distinct concentration on a field or angle of study at the same time.
“(With the plan,) I had in mind something of a combination of my experiences at Harvard and at Oxford: the Harvard combination of academic fields in my own concentration (ancient Greek history and literature, including art and philosophy) and the Oxford utter concentration on one discipline, however broad (in my case, English language and literature), without distribution requirements. The best general education beyond a certain point may be that which results from going so far in one field that the relationship between this field and others becomes clear.”
By the 1960s, Marlboro’s first plan student, Bob “Crutch” Larrivee, undertook his project working with Prof. John MacArthur in advanced mathematics, quantum mechanics, theoretical physics and atomic and nuclear physics, and Marlboro College made an appearance in TIME magazine among 50 good colleges frequently overlooked by the public.
A finished plan of concentration can range from a study of narrative form through painting and drawing and in the literature of John Edgar Wideman to a representative collection of symmetry-based solutions to problems from classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, and particle theory. All work on plan, however, is subject to final evaluation. Students’ plans have ranged from 50-page papers and dramatic productions to 400-page research papers. At least one element must consist of formal written prose and comprises at least 20% of the weighting. The student is graded by an outside examiner, an academic from an outside institution and in the student’s field, through presentation of the project components and an oral examination.
“I like how Marlboro thinks,” declares Adam Franklin-Lyons, Yale professor of history, who is inspired by the level of autonomy Marlboro faculty members and students have in designing their curriculum. “I mentioned the idea of a tutorial to one of my colleagues at Yale and he said, ‘That would be like teaching eight courses – it’s unsurvivable.’ But I actually like that model of teaching. It’s really fun.”
Peter Sullivan, ‘13, of Fairbanks, AK, is working on his plan in politics and science and technology studies/human geography, investigating how political theories of technology and the urbanization of built environments in the American 1970s are important to theories of contemporary green politics.
“[The plan] has been a great exercise in expanding and understanding my own capacities to work at my own personal limitations,” Sullivan explains.
Plan not only sheds light on an individual’s limitations, but how to overcome them. Trevor Bowen, ‘12, took his Marlboro College experience with his plan to one of the most prestigious research institutions in the United States, and vice versa.
In his junior year, Bowen was accepted for a summer program at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory through Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a program funded by the National Science Foundation. He studied under Dr. Paola Testa and Dr. Katharine Reeves at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“I was looking at solar flares, in particular two solar flares, via the Solar Dynamics Observatory Photometer called AIA, which takes pictures of the sun’s intensity of emission in various wavelengths every 12 seconds,” explains Bowen. “We were looking at various aspects of solar flares such as temperature, density, intensity of emission, size, and looking at those various parameters of solar flares using data sets. We tried to compare the different flares to figure out what we could learn about the broad flare behavior.”
During Bowen’s junior year, he developed personal skills in software and familiarity using data to study flares like those he would study at the observatory thanks to Marlboro’s freedom and independence in tutorials. He then completed the project at the Smithsonian that summer and took eight credits of tutorials during his senior year in solar physics to learn more of the background theory, and to keep his research up to date with the computing facilities at the research facility.
“After I had my oral exams at Marlboro, they offered to bring me back last fall and I finished the research and submitted it to an astrophysical journal,” says Bowen. “My plan was a springboard for this research. During my plan I was looking at two flares, and at the observatory the following fall I was looking at 20. I was using the information from my plan to branch out and look at other events and to figure out what we should be looking at to examine more flares. The writing of my plan transmuted to the work I did at the observatory.”
In addition to his recent submission to the astrophysics journal, Bowen presented segments of his combined works at both the December 2011 American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting as well as the January 2012 American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting.
“What I think is really great about the plan is that for each person it’s a unique experience that is representative of their own work and interest, and it has been great to be able to have the freedom to study abroad at a major research facility for the summer and come back to Marlboro College, with the same freedom and independence of Marlboro’s tutorials, to continue the very same work I have been doing at the research facility. For me it was the full experience. I came back to Marlboro and continued working and doing my own studies.”
Editor’s note: Christian Lampart is a freshman at Marlboro College. He will be reporting about the school on a regular basis.