What a Wunderful Class

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by Amanda Bloom

An example of a historical Wunderkammer.

“In the mid-16th century,
Wunderkammern, so-called cabinets of curiosity, began to appear in Europe. The objects contained in these sometimes beautiful collections included works of art, fossils, unusual biological specimens and reputedly mythological objects, such as horns of unicorns (later revealed to be the horns of Narwals). The cabinets emerged at a time of rapidly expanding engagement in scientific inquiry and represented an intersection of many disciplines around the rich concept of ‘wonder’.”

THESE ARE THE FIRST FEW SENTENCES of the course description of “The Wunderkammer of Knowledge”, an honors course offered for the first time this past semester at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.  The course was built around the idea of  Wunderkammern as metaphors for learning, and the result was a class which, to an outsider, might have looked more like an intellectual orgy than your typical state university course.  But to an insider, the class was a rich stewpot of remarkable experiences, newfound relationships and broadened perspectives.

by Amanda Bloom

 


 

“In the mid-16th century,
Wunderkammern, so-called cabinets of curiosity, began to appear in Europe. The objects contained in these sometimes beautiful collections included works of art, fossils, unusual biological specimens and reputedly mythological objects, such as horns of unicorns (later revealed to be the horns of Narwals). The cabinets emerged at a time of rapidly expanding engagement in scientific inquiry and represented an intersection of many disciplines around the rich concept of ‘wonder’.”

 

An example of a historical Wunderkammer.

THESE ARE THE FIRST FEW SENTENCES of the course description of “The Wunderkammer of Knowledge”(WoK), an honors course offered for the first time this past semester at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.  The course was built around the idea of  Wunderkammern as metaphors for learning, and the result was a class which, to an outsider, might have looked more like an intellectual orgy than your typical state university course.  But to an insider, the class was a rich stewpot of remarkable experiences, newfound relationships and broadened perspectives.

WoK was comprised of 16 students and seven teachers, all from various academic backgrounds.  The founders of the class, Dr. John Briggs of Western’s writing department and Dr. Ruth Gyure of the biology department, discovered their common fascination with Wunderkammern at a Christmas party last year, and at the same time, Briggs was collaborating with antique specialist Harry Rinker (who would become a WoK guest scholar) on Rinker’s book about 17th century Amsterdam and a merchant who bought and sold the treasures that people sought for their Wunderkammern.  The idea for the class was conceived, and Dr. Christopher Kukk, associate professor of political science and Director of Western’s Honors program, saw to its birth.

Each professor presented his or her own Wunderkammer in the first several weeks of the class and assigned reading in support of their presentations.  Briggs’ Wunderkammer was filled with concepts he has studied throughout his career – chaos, fractals and ambivalence.  Eric Lewis, a professor of music and violin, demonstrated how one of Beethoven’s most esoteric compositions, the “Grosse Fuge”, was intertwined with black holes.  Kukk created a joint presentation with his two students (each professor served as a mentor to two or three students), stating after class one day that “Students are my Wunderkammer[…]we make the path, then we should get out of the way.”

The presentations of both students and faculty were a clear four-centuried departure from the first Wunderkammern – most of the presentations were conveyed with PowerPoints and stocked with concepts and intangibles that could never be placed in a cabinet or even a room.  Yet once each Wunderkammer item was introduced to the class, the idea would resurface to be toyed with again and again as though it had its own place of honor on a shelf somewhere.

Greg Chamberlin, a sophomore biology major, presented  his “Living Wunderkammer”.  In it were photographs of his pets, wild animals, viruses and even rocks.  He passed around a jar of preserved rat organs from a seventh grade dissection lab and a preserved mouse.

 

Once the professors’ presentations were cycled through, the class visited the Truman Warner collection in Western’s Haas library to “‘produce knowledge'”, according to the WoK syllabus.  Warner worked as a teacher and administrator at Western for 37 years and served as the former president of the Scott-Fanton Museum, the Danbury Museum and Historical Society’s predecessor.  His collection is full of various objects, newspaper clippings, personal papers and historical docuements, and the students were able to peruse Warner’s bounty and create their own inquisitional collections.

In November, the class took a trip to New York City to visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and to see a performance of the French opera, Carmen.

“The Metropolitan Museum of Art is, of course, a Wunderkammer, or a Kundstkammer, a vast collection of works of visual art,” reads the trip prompt.  “The museum is organized by culture, time period, artistic ‘school’ and artist.  But that shouldn’t disguise the fact that this is a random collection of artistically wondrous objects that presents reality from a multiplicity of curious and new angles.  The museum gives us thousands of microcosms of wonder.”

The students were instructed to find the works of art that filled them with the most wonder and then to take a photograph of the piece.  The photographs were displayed and discussed the following week, and together the class examined elements of emotion, opposition and creative tension within the works.

Then came time for the students to present their own Wunderkammern.  “In the final third of the course,” the syllabus instructs, “students will construct their own Wunderkammer of knowledge reflecting on how they make the links and connections that produce their own growing knowledge.”  Music, language, the ocean, pets, sex, religion and the stars could be found in the students’ various cabinets.  Some presentations solely implemented the PowerPoint; others included recorded or live music, posters or items from the students’ own personal collections.

{vsig}WoK{/vsig}{vsig_c}0|kelley.JPG|Kelley Bradley presents her ocean-themed Wunderkammer.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|liz.JPG|Liz Dandeneau performs “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|organs.JPG|Chamberlin’s preserved rat organs from 7th grade.|{/vsig_c}{vsig_c}0|mouse.JPG|Greg Chamberlin’s preserved mouse.|{/vsig_c}

Liz Dandeneau, a sophomore studying music education, played “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia on her bassoon.  With her Wunderkammer, she explained how drawn she is to the emotionality of music, specifically the sounds created by woodwind instruments.  She reflected back to a woodwind-heavy piece of music the class heard in Carmen:

“It’s almost mind-boggling,” she told the class, “how something so pure can come out of something so cold.”

Greg Chamberlin, a sophomore biology major, presented  his “Living Wunderkammer”.  In it were photographs of his pets (dogs, cats, fish, frogs, gerbils), wild animals, viruses and even rocks.  He passed around a jar of preserved rat organs from a seventh grade dissection lab and a preserved mouse.

The presentation that generated the most buzz was that of Olivia Schulze, a senior social work major.  Her Wunderkammer was about her family, and she invited them to class for the presentation.

“I interpreted the assignment as how I became who I am, what’s influenced me, what interests me, what I wonder about,” Schulze said in a phone interview.  “So I looked at each of my family members and figured out what areas of my life and my character have been influenced by each of them.”

In the written component of the presentation, Olivia delved into the cultural value of family, specifically the diminishing value of family within Western culture.

“I talked a little bit about how when we were more self-sufficient and kind of living off the land, the main question when we were defining somebody was in relation to their family and their last name,” she explained.  “[…]as soon as you knew someone’s last name you were able to tell a lot about that person and that person’s whole family lineage.  Now, with more options and capitalism and industrialization and all of that, the question when you first meet somebody is ‘What do you do?’.  We come to define ourselves based on our profession and our career and what university we go to.”

Schulze’s family was deeply touched by her presentation, and Kukk hailed it as an “applied Wunderkammer” – though he said that some of the other professors expressed reserve.

“It did in fact make some of us uncomfortable,” he said.

“The whole purpose was to get you to think on your toes and formulate your own thoughts based entirely on your own experiences and your own ideas rather than regurgitating facts that you might have learned.  It was really experimental.  I think that has a tremendous amount of value.  I think you learn a lot more that way.”

– ‘Wunderkammer of Knowledge’ student Olivia Shulze

“We were all kind of up in the air about what we were supposed to do with this project,” Schulze said.  “I think in some ways, I confused the hell out of [the class]…it maybe seemed more intimate than the assignment really called for, but I think in some ways I might have relieved some anxieties for other students who were presenting later on that the project could be interpreted really any way that you want to interpret it.”

WoK was a course that attempted to dismiss all the traditional frameworks of the modern-day classroom, which is not necessarily easy for students or teachers after decades of systematic education.  There seemed to be a bit of tension among the faculty about leaving all structure behind, and they were still unsure how to go about giving final grades after the last class.  But As, Bs and Cs aside, its safe to say the class was a success.

“The whole purpose was to get you to think on your toes and formulate your own thoughts based entirely on your own experiences and your own ideas rather than regurgitating facts that you might have learned,” said Schulze.  “Because you couldn’t always plan for one of our classes, you never knew where a discussion was going to go, you really had to be confident and be ready to express your thoughts – and it was okay if it wasn’t well-rounded or completely comprehensive[…]it was really experimental.  I think that has a tremendous amount of value.  I think you learn a lot more that way.”

The class has peaked the interest of many other students and faculty, and Kukk is hoping to offer WoK again next year.

“The word is out about the crazy intellectual ride,” Kukk said.

Kukk also said that many of the WoK professors took part in the class out of a pure love for teaching and, due to restrictions within the Honors program, had only received pay and credit for .25 semester hours.  And these are a cadre of highly esteemed professionals – Kukk himself is a nationally renowned political analyst, Lewis is the first violinist of the Manhattan String Quartet and Briggs is one of Western’s three named Distinguished Professors within Connecticut’s state university system.

“Professors are excited,” enthused Kukk, “and they’re not asking for seatbelts or crash helmets.”

The WoK students probably can’t tell you the rote facts of the Wunderkammer within European history, but they are equipped with the mental, emotional  and perhaps spiritual tools that will help them in creating passion and wonder within their academic and professional lives.

“I hope you will continue to explore the connections within your Wuderkammern,” Briggs said to the class after the last final presentation.  “If your Wunderkammer is anything like mine, the dimensions will be inexhaustible.”

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