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Fall 2001

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Wrenaissance spirit

     Like many a book group, they meet once a month in each other’s homes to discuss their latest readings over light refreshments.

     But the Skidmore faculty group known as Wren (more later about that moniker) has a motive beyond sharing—in fact, it’s difference. That’s why the dozen members began meeting in the mid-1980s: coming from different disciplines, they wanted to apply their particular perspectives, and learn from each other’s, in reading about everything from cold fusion, to the canon and culture wars, to pedagogy and postmodernism—“science versus humanities, head versus heart,” as historian Tadahisa Kuroda puts it.

     Wren got its start around a lunch table at the Spa snack bar, with Kuroda and faculty colleagues grousing that they had no time to talk deeply about substantive ideas. On the spot, they decided to form a reading group of renaissance breadth and spirit. “But there was already a renaissance group on campus,” says Kuroda, “so we called ourselves Wren, as in ‘birds of a feather.’”

     A favorite Wren theme has been “the implied question of whether it’s possible to bridge what C.P. Snow called ‘the two cultures’—humanities and science,” says Terence Diggory, professor of English. “In the eighteenth century, scientific literature could be read by nonscientists,” Kuroda muses, “but today, a nonscientist sitting in on a 300-level physics course would not understand much.” Computer scientist Robert DeSieno sees “two dramatically different ways of understanding the world that can’t be synchronized or blended.”

     But that gap can sometimes be spanned. “What I came to see was how similar some of our questions are,” says psychologist Mary Ann Foley. “For instance, historians use oral histories to reconstruct a people or a period while I use them for memory research. But we both want to know what really happened.”

     On the other hand, biologist Bernard Possidente was impressed by “how limited our understanding is because of our specialized training.” So group members sometimes swapped training methodologies— for example, Possidente led a science exercise for his humanities colleagues. With lab rats running on wheels, “we measured their metabolic rate at room temperature,” says Possidente, “and asked whether they’d use more or less energy at lower temps.” Laughs Kuroda, “We guessed ‘less,’ and we were dead wrong!”

     The interdisciplinary insights gained from such experiences have served members well, both in their classrooms and in their roles as department heads, committee chairs, and administrators. “Wren members have been involved in many major campus initiatives,” says Kuroda, ticking off core-curriculum reforms, institutional planning, search committees, task forces, and major lecture series. Members not mentioned above include Phyllis Roth (English), Elaine Rubenstein (biology), Krzysztof Szymborski (library), Mary Crone (physics), and Mary C. Lynn, Joanna Zangrando, and Gregory Pfitzer (all in American studies).

     Despite busy schedules, Wren does its best to keep meeting each month. Says Possidente, Wren remains “a constant liberal-arts education for the members.” —BAM

 


© 2001 Skidmore College