Western Heritage Seminars: It’s not about playing it safe
Prof. Annette Duncan speaks out on Western Heritage: The readings. The challenges. And how this seminar will make you a better human.
Western Heritage. Every student at Carthage has to take it. Twice. But each seminar is as unique as the professor teaching it.
So what do you expect? Don’t worry.
“Most students can be confused about what is expected from this college experience,” says Annette Duncan, an assistant professor of English at Carthage and one of the core faculty in the Western Heritage program.
First, know this: You will do plenty of reading. Authors like Aristotle, Plato, and Rousseau are sure to show up.
Second, know this: There will be a lot of writing. It’s not easy, but that’s the point. The Western Heritage seminars, taken during the fall and spring semesters of your freshman year, are kind of like the warm-up for the rest of your time at Carthage. The goal is to introduce students to important works of literature, and guide students in improving their critical reading and writing skills.
Prof. Duncan has taught some version of Western Heritage since its inception more than 20 years ago. Her tip for becoming a better writer and thinker? “At a collegiate level, professors look for fresh, creative thoughts and risktakers,” Prof. Duncan says. “It’s about not playing it safe intellectually.”
Stay calm. There’s help.
Prof. Duncan knows writing can be challenging for some students. She oversaw the creation of Carthage’s Brainard Writing Center. The center began as a small group of dedicated students offering writing help in the basement of Denhart Hall. Now the Writing Center is a well-utilized student resource housed in Hedberg Library. It employs several writing fellows every semester, and offers both in-person appointments and online help. Students at all levels get feedback and guidance on papers for all subjects.
“It takes time for students to transition from high school writing” to college-level writing, Prof. Duncan says. “Jumping into college writing is about being confident in yourself.”
It’s about being original beyond just doing your own work.
It’s about being bold.
“We want students to write genuinely, from the heart,” Prof. Duncan says. “It’s about being able to say, ‘I could disagree with someone like Marx.’ Good writing takes risks.”
“At a collegiate level, professors look for fresh, creative thoughts and risk-takers. It’s not about playing it safe intellectually.”
Go deeper. Ask the tough questions.
Although Western Heritage is writing intensive, the scope of the course transcends run-on sentences and dangling participles.
“We ask deep questions, which really have the potential to change us, to make us better human beings,” muses Prof. Duncan. “How we can become the best human beings possible and contribute significantly to the world around us?”
Reading the classics is a challenge for anyone, which she realizes. She suggests students approach unfamiliar writers the way they approach any new person: Ask a question and try to find familiar ground with an author. “Almost always, we can find a way to discover some relevance from these ideas and texts that have shaped our common history,” she says.
“I ask my students a question: ‘Suppose your dad is driving home and accidentally hits someone with his car. He’s scared and drives back home. Do you call the police on your dad, or do you stand with family? What does the author think, and what do you think?’”
It’s a difficult question, but students are up for the challenge. “In our best days of Heritage, we hit moments where we don’t want to stop, because we realize we’re touching on the deepest things that humans ever wrestle with.”
The texts in Western Heritage are more than provoking reads, she insists. “We read these books to let our minds be encouraged, inspired, and disciplined by them, but we also look at how they interact with our lives.”
“Students realize that they deserve to belong to a community of scholars.”
You belong here.
Prof. Duncan isn’t immune to students who just aren’t interested, or who don’t know the material. But she sees potential for growth in all of her students. “Not every student comes in with a positive mindset, but if they can see my passion and I can encourage them, students change for the better,” she says.
She enjoys seeing her students mature in ability and perspective during their Carthage journey. Those same students who were timid writers their freshman year have blossomed as writers — and as people — by the time they are seniors.
“By that time, students have grown in their confidence,” Prof. Duncan says. “They have the confidence to agree or disagree with a point of view, as well as the ability to articulate why. Students realize that they deserve to belong to a community of scholars.”
That means continuing to learn and grow — even as a veteran professor who has been teaching at Carthage since 1994. Taking inspiration from Aristotle, Prof. Duncan continues to find ways to grow herself.
“I’m never content to say that I’ve reached a pinnacle nor look for the feeling that I’ve settled in,” she says.
“People here push each other and challenge each other. The great thing about this college and our students is the ability to re-envision ourselves.”
— Story by Michael Landerholm ’15 and Elizabeth Young