Excelsior: The Campaign for Hamilton

The New Kirner-Johnson

Writing, Speaking, and the Social Sciences

KJ: Serving Vital Purposes

Since it was built in 1968, the Kirner-Johnson building (KJ) has been a favorite of students on both sides of the Hill. The open design and irregular shape offer a variety of interesting classroom, study, office and gathering spaces. Unfortunately, it is no longer the kind of space needed by the students and teachers who use them.

Built originally for 650 Kirkland College students, KJ now serves almost three times that many people. It is home to the departments of government and economics, which account for the largest enrollments and about a third of the majors in the Class of 2005. The building also contains the centers for writing and oral communication and the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center. And it holds the much-visited offices of the Dean of Students and the Registrar.

KJ is the equivalent of an overworked multi-tasker on the verge of a nervous breakdown. To relieve the stress on the building and the people in it, the College plans to expand and renovate KJ so it can more effectively serve its vital purposes. 

In November 2004, planning for the renovation and expansion of the Kirner-Johnson building received an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects. According to a statement issued by the awards jury from the Columbia University School of Architecture, "The jury considered that this project raised the bar of design in how it integrated urban design and architecture. The program of the existing building is pulled out toward the main thoroughfares to capture foot traffic and to bring it into a large top-lit commons space in the center."

The Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center

In recent years, Hamilton has intensified its traditional focus on writing -- and even more so under its new curriculum. Teaching students to write well is part of every faculty member's job.

All our undergraduates, during their first two years on the Hill, are encouraged to take four small classes -- called Proseminars -- that offer intense interaction among students and instructors in which writing, speaking and discussion are emphasized. Students must also pass three courses within the standard curriculum that call for extensive writing and rewriting; in this way, they are not learning to write in a vacuum, but to practice the skill on subjects they care about.

To supplement the efforts of the faculty and provide extra guidance to students who need or want it, Hamilton founded the Nesbitt-Johnston Writing Center in 1987. Its staff conducts about 2,500 hour-long conferences each year, most of them by 26 peer tutors, the College's best student writers, who are also among its top overall achievers. In the past five years, 93 percent of the tutors have graduated with College honors.

Tutors confer with their peers on a variety of assignments and on all aspects of writing, helping them to organize their ideas, improve their grammar and develop a style. About 85 percent of all Hamilton students take advantage of this service, and more than half of them have at least three conferences during their college careers. Some students, even very capable ones, come back regularly for help (the record for one student, a history major, is 87). About half the conferences are initiated by the student; the rest are required or suggested by faculty members.

A five-year study being conducted by the College, known as the Mellon Assessment Project, shows that Hamilton students -- many of them clients of the Writing Center -- really do improve their writing over at least the first two years. (The Mellon Project, which is expanding its focus to the junior and senior years, compares a student's writing from different classes and grade levels. It has attracted attention from other colleges who are also interested in measuring student outcomes.)

Given the number of people who use its services and the importance of its mission to the College, the Writing Center is severely short of space. The narrow room it occupies is of limited use for tutor conferences, many of which are held in nearby classrooms. A well-established program like this one needs dedicated tutorial spaces, a staff meeting room and a computer lab, which the expansion of KJ will make possible.

The Oral Communication Center

Hamilton alumni over a certain age tend to recall the four-year public speaking requirement with the pride and nostalgia of military veterans who have somehow managed to survive the conflict.

Although Hamilton students since 1969 have been relieved of this duty, they are no less compelled to speak with cogency and precision. To help them along, the College founded the Oral Communication Center in 1999 and reaffirmed in its strategic plan the high value it places on oral expression.

Learning to speak well at Hamilton is everywhere a practical necessity. In the Proseminars mentioned above, 40 percent of the student's grade depends on participation in class discussion. In the new Sophomore Seminars that emphasize interdisciplinary learning, students are required to present their conclusions publicly. Oral communication skills are also essential for the many juniors who spend a semester or year abroad, just as they are for seniors when they deliver their final papers or projects.

The Oral Communication Center functions much like its counterpart for writing, offering help to students who apply for it on their own or at the suggestion or dictate of a faculty member. Students learn speaking techniques that cover a variety of situations: formal occasions in front of large groups; informal ones, in seminars or conference rooms; and even one-on-one conversation. They see and hear themselves on videotape, a powerful tool for identifying the strengths and weaknesses of oral presentation.

Instructors take neither a one-size-fits-all nor a content-neutral approach; they understand that each academic discipline has its own needs and expectations for oral presentation. Science majors, for example, might be taught the most convincing ways to secure funding for research projects, while history students may learn how to present controversial findings that shine a new light on past events. Art majors might post their work and field questions about it, as if at a gallery opening. And although speaking style is important, instructors spend about 60 percent of their time on what is said rather than how, on the theory that the best delivery in the world is worthless if you don't have something substantial to say.

The center also offers small, open enrollment courses that teachers may recommend for students who want or need more help than most. They require a commitment of 15-17 hours over a seven-eight week period and offer practice in listening as well as speaking skills.

The Oral Communication Center, which serves a yearly average of about 450 students, faces one key difficulty; it cannot be found by anyone who looks for it, because it has no space of its own and lives a nomadic existence. Instructors and students borrow KJ classrooms temporarily not in use and are forced to vacate them when the rightful tenants arrive. They do more scrambling than most quarterbacks, carrying video cameras instead of footballs.

With the expansion of KJ, the center will have a 20-seat classroom in which students can practice their skills, supported by 21st-century communications technology: digital cameras on tripods, data projectors, wireless keyboards and mouses, a flat-screen projector, white boards (what's written on them can be printed and handed out at the end of a presentation) and teleconferencing capabilities that enable our students to team with groups on other campuses. Video cameras, activated by motion, will be built into the walls and ceilings so that instructors don't have to critique presentations from the back of the room while trying to deal with cameras and tripods.

The new center will also have staff offices, student space that houses computers and other learning and support materials, practice rooms with a digital video playback system, conference rooms where students and instructors can discuss and critique presentations, and a library where teachers can learn about new ways to incorporate oral communication into their courses.

The Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center

The Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center occupies a small space in KJ, from which a variety of programs are administered. These include student outreach to the Clinton and Utica-area communities; faculty-student research on local community issues; fieldwork and conferences; a forum for students and faculty members to discuss current local and national issues; and the Levitt Scholars program.

The proximity of the Levitt Center to social science faculty and students is not accidental. The center helps them develop partnerships with local governmental and not-for-profit agencies and provides oversight or support for independent student research projects that may benefit the community. Each spring, a seminar is taught at the center in which up to 12 students learn a range of methods for evaluating local social programs and then go out to conduct research and compile reports. Recent topics include: domestic violence services in Oneida County, refugee resettlement at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, and a local instructional program alternative to school suspension. The neighboring city and towns thus become a kind of laboratory for the social sciences, in which our students' fieldwork not only contributes to the well-being of the community, but prepares them to tackle the same issues on a national scale later on.

Levitt Scholars also reach out to communities, but in a different way. About 30 juniors and seniors each year, chosen by the faculty, travel to various high schools (frequently in their own hometowns) to talk about their academic experiences. Invited to speak to classes or student assemblies, they may discuss a research project or an important paper, an experience of studying abroad or a specific skill they've learned. To prepare for their presentations, the Levitt Scholars take a quarter-unit public speaking course, which is taught by the director of the Oral Communication Center -- another example of the synergy that takes place between different but related activities in KJ.

For the Social Sciences: The Classroom of the Future

Rare is the college admissions brochure that doesn't somewhere picture a ring of young people discussing Socrates or Shakespeare while seated under the sheltering branches of an old oak tree.

This scene, though often less than scrupulously typical, is not a rank fiction (even at Hamilton) when set on a bright, warm late April afternoon.

But the oak seems to hold little charm these days for Hamilton's social science faculty, except perhaps as flooring material for a new kind of classroom. Innovative teaching methods coupled with the advance of technology have caused educators around the country to rethink the way classrooms are designed, and Hamilton plans to apply these ideas in the expanded KJ.

In the KJ of today, most of the classrooms are of traditional size and shape. Their configuration compels students to look at their teachers -- not at each other -- suggesting, as one professor puts it, "that the important stuff is up front." In the most heavily enrolled government and economics classes, 40 students may be squeezed into classrooms whose size, shape and fixed furniture limit the ways in which courses can be taught.

The lack of flexibility in the traditional classroom also hampers the effective use of computer technology, now a valuable teaching aid in all the sciences, social as well as physical. The economics professor who demonstrates how markets actually function, the anthropologist who shows how societies are created, the government teacher who compares election results among different demographic groups -- all this can be done, in real time, with the active contribution of students at their computer terminals. In KJ's already overcrowded classrooms, however, these wonders are hard to come by. The computer hardware that makes them possible must be shoehorned into rooms built many years before such tools existed, making it even harder for students to interact with teachers and with each other, no matter how useful the technology.

What should the classrooms of the future look like? Other liberal arts colleges have already put new pedagogical approaches into practice in what they call case method classrooms. In ideal form, these are large, flexible spaces with portable furniture arranged in the shape of a horseshoe. Everyone in the room can easily see the faces and hear the voices of everyone else. Even in a large class, a teacher in the middle of the horseshoe can be within six feet of every student.

Case method classrooms are equipped with computers, too, but thanks to the way they're configured, they don't separate students from each other. The ceilings are high and the rooms wide enough to enable the unobstructed projection of clear images on a large screen -- and under normal classroom lighting conditions.

These rooms and the learning they make possible offer an agreeable paradox. They are spacious, yet intimate; they depend on technology, yet favor human interaction; they are innovative, yet serve the oldest and most fundamental requisite of a Hamilton education -- that each student be treated as an individual.

The Building as Extended Classroom

In addition to new classrooms, the expanded KJ will bring all the social sciences together under one roof.

Both large and small classrooms will serve the needs of the various departments. As in the new Science Center, faculty offices will be proximate to classrooms, so that teachers and students can carry over class discussion to the faculty member's office or to the commons space the building will also contain. There will also be plenty of spaces for students to gather informally to work together or individually. The whole building will function as an extension of the classroom.

The new KJ will also exploit the natural synergy among its occupants. The social sciences, with their large enrollments and voluminous need to document and present their findings, provide a continuous stream of clients for the Writing and Oral Communication centers. As noted earlier, the Levitt Center is closely tied to the Oral Communication Center and is also a natural companion to the departments that make up the social sciences. The three centers share other affinities, and in the expanded KJ they will also share a multi-storied glassed-in commons area overlooking Martin's Way. Writing and speaking, the centerpieces of the new curriculum, will finally have the spaces they deserve.


The College will need $23 million to expand and renovate the Kirner-Johnson buildings, of which $7.5 million will be raised by the Excelsior Campaign. The rest will be generated through bonds already issued by the College so that work on this essential project can begin as soon as possible.

Sometimes students just stare at you. They're required to come, but they don't want to be there. Or they've volunteered, but don't know what to do. So I start by asking them what I should look for. What's one thing they'd like to change about their writing? And we spend the hour on that. The next time, we concentrate on something else, and slowly, we make progress. I can see improvement in the writing. It makes me happy to see people overcome their problems.

I came to Hamilton because of its emphasis on writing and on interdisciplinary study, which compels you to look at things in various ways. Good writers do that; they take different perspectives and go beyond themselves through use of simile and metaphor. They connect things. It's so rewarding for me to read a paper that applies literary theory to anthropology, or a philosophical style with psychological subject matter. That's high-end writing and thinking, and it's indicative of the intellectual atmosphere at Hamilton. It represents the best of the liberal arts.

– Chris Takacs, a senior fellow and double major in philosophy and sociology, is a peer tutor at the Writing Center

We teach some large classes in the social sciences, and we need classrooms that bring students and teachers closer together, that encourage interactive -- not passive -- learning. This is not about the most efficient way to squeeze 40 students into a room; it's about having enough space and flexibility so we can take advantage of our strengths. The KJ renovation will enable us to incorporate technology into the classroom without losing the feeling of intimacy. People actually do function differently when the environment is improved; the business world recognizes this, the professional schools recognize it, and so do some of our peer schools. We have a great social sciences program and tremendous student interest in it. We're not building a field of dreams; they've already come, and we need to make it better for them.

– Paul Hagstrom, Associate Professor of Economics and Co-Coordinator of the on-campus planning committee for the social sciences