Machiavelli. Darwin. Paine. These men changed lives with their writing, affecting how millions thought about themselves and their place in the world. Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, and Al Kelly, the Edgar B. Graves Professor of History, have a similar effect on the Hamilton students they teach in their Great Books seminar—albeit on a slightly smaller scale. The class focuses on great works of modern thought ranging from Marx and Engels to de Beauvoir and encourages students to interpret the works for themselves through discussion and debate.
“We like to say the course is ‘teacher-proof,’” Chambliss said. “Even if we were bad—”
“Which we are not,” Kelly interjected.
“Even if we were bad,” Chambliss continued, “you could still learn something because the material is so strong. It’s great stuff.”
The two professors chose to work together on the course 10 years ago. It was originally a pilot course in the Sophomore Seminar program, a range of classes that emphasized intimate discussion, verbal communication and public speaking. As Sophomore Seminars were phased out, however, this class remained. Its longevity is likely due in part because of the strength of the material, but another part of its success might also be due to the men who teach it.
“Professor Chambliss and Professor Kelly are truly some of the greatest minds I’ve had the luxury of spending time with,” Joe Simonson ’15 said. “It seems like they know a little something about everything, and they take time to make sure every single student understands what’s going on in the class.”
Some of the works are famously tricky, like the philosophical texts of Nietzsche, or the economic philosophy of Smith, but despite the advanced level of the material, students tackle it willingly. Part of this zeal stems from the discussions and verbal presentations students engage in during each class session, which demand a high level of familiarity with the week’s reading. “If you don’t do the reading, you’re going to look silly,” Simonson said.
Each week, two students lead a debate based upon that week’s readings. To foster good presentation skills, students are forbidden from using PowerPoint when they speak, which forces them to look at their audience rather than rely on the information projected behind them. “We wanted to do a course where oral communication was really important,” Chambliss said.
Chambliss and Kelly assign debate topics that encourage students to make connections between different course readings, such as considering how Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France would have affected Machiavelli’s views in The Prince. The two students who begin the debate must strike opposite positions, which ensure that discussion is often lively and sometimes heated.
The night before the debate, students prepare an opening statement for their position and then meet with Chambliss and Kelly to record themselves delivering their statements. Students then watch the video of their opening statement with their professors and critique their performance before they give it in front of their classmates the next day. Although an uncomfortable experience for many, there is typically a marked development in the student’s speaking.
“The improvement from Wednesday night to Thursday afternoon is pretty noticeable,” Chambliss said. “They get a lot better fast.”
During the in-class discussions, one student is responsible for taking detailed notes on the discourse to encourage retention of the material. The notes are submitted to Professor Kelly, edited, and then distributed to the entire class as a record of the debate. The discussion notes, Kelly said, help students “ferret out the essence of what was said [during debates.]”
With its emphasis on critical thinking, attention to public speaking and coherent discussion, the course is in many ways the quintessential liberal arts course. As Chambliss observed, the course deals with some of the world’s “smartest people talking about big ideas.” These thinkers are used—and more frequently misused—in popular discourse today, and both Kelly and Chambliss feel that it’s important for students to form their own conclusions apart from popular perception. Their students seem to agree.
“A lot of what we’ve read has really had an impact on how I see things—morally, philosophically [and] politically, which is precisely what college is for,” Simonson said.