Summer 2014
A New Identity

A NEW IDENTITY

Prep reignites signature course to speak to a new generation

by Bailey Shiffler

On a Monday morning in May, Kyle Law ’14 stood at the podium in Norris Auditorium and presented his paper “Wall Street: A Glorified Las Vegas” to a room full of his classmates, teachers and underclassmen.

His presentation was a thoughtful comparison between investing in the stock market and gambling in Las Vegas—he wondered: are we a population that is over infatuated with acquiring wealth instead of one interested in making sound investments?

A short while later, Lauren Slowskei ’14 addressed the same audience with her presentation, “Food Inequality: A Degrading Cycle that Traps Low-Income Americans.” After copious research, Slowskei found a huge gap in the access to healthful food between low-income Americans and the rest of the population. She posited that low-income families have such little purchasing power that their food decisions aren’t their own—corporations dictate what they eat.

The two speakers represent the third of the senior class who strived to “pass with distinction” in Prep’s revamped Identity course, for which they had to present their 10- to 15-page research papers to their peers. The presentations ranged on topics from technology to business, pop culture, sexuality and gender.

A New Identity

Identity Then

The Identity class has been a defining part of the Flintridge Prep curriculum dating back to 1988, when it was first introduced by a team of teachers, including now Headmaster Peter Bachmann and history teacher John Ruch.

The model for American Identity arose when alumni noted that they were entering college unfamiliar with freshmen lecture style classes. Students were leaving Prep with a great education, but they were accustomed to a certain style of learning environment—one in which they had small classes and near infinite access to their teachers.

So the faculty, led by Bachmann and Ruch, sought to create a course that would encourage critical thinking and produce college-level work in a more university-like setting. Ruch says that after trying out an economics class, the concept for a broad, liberal arts “American Identity” course was born.

From its inception, the course was an insightful study of American culture that was grounded in the literature, politics and history of the midcentury. Students were to examine how the events of the time shaped the hippie 60s, the countercultural 70s, the neoconservative 80s and, finally, they were to ask themselves how their own their identities fit into that framework.

Students from the 90s and early 2000s all remember the signature course when they reminisce about Prep at reunions. It was a defining part of their senior year—and, most remember the thought-provoking lectures fondly.

Lara Bisgaard Calder ’91 remembers the class prepared her for her lecture classes in college, even though some of her classes at BYU had 900 students.

A New Identity

“When I got to college, it was not as intimidating,” she says. Casey McCann ’91 says it really felt like a college class.

“I do remember my thesis was about In Cold Blood and Truman Capote’s style of new journalism,” he says. “It was a fun thesis; I learned a lot.”

Identity Now

As the years passed, the course remained relevant—history will always shape the identity of a new generation. But over the past few years, the team of teachers that lecture in Identity started to make a shift in Prep’s senior year experience.

Says English teacher Dr. Tyke O’Brien, “The faculty started being interested in more independent research models for seniors. The senior year has become about choice—they are taking control of the curriculum.”

Seniors are able to pick from a larger breadth of elective courses, and many create their own curriculum by opting to create an Independent Study course in the spring semester. The faculty sought to make Identity, which students take during the second semester of their senior year, mesh with the rest of the experience that had been keenly developed to foster exploration, independence and leadership.

A New Identity

So the teachers took a long, hard look at the curriculum and structure of the class. Bachmann says he still wanted students to experience the lecture-hall course format, but he also wanted to introduce a new component: the experience of producing a significant research project in a seminar setting, with the collaboration of teachers and fellow students.

Over the course of two years, former literature teacher Mike Miley, along with Bachmann, Ruch, O’Brien and other Identity teachers, started to retool lectures, focusing on more recent and relevant topics, meant to spark student interest and introduce a broader range of topics for student research papers. Faculty wanted a new Identity course that would speak to today’s students in the same way that the original course spoke to the students of the 90s and 2000s.

The big shift came in the spring of 2014. The course was pared down from 30 lectures over a semester to 12 lectures in a month, and the “American” was dropped from the course name—it’s now just Identity. Each lecture was taught by a different teacher and covered distinct topic areas: group identity, foreign policy, generational identity, gender, sexual orientation, college and educational choices, socioeconomic identity, social media, technological identity, environmentalism, artistic identity and the psychology of identity.

The second half of the semester focused on research papers. Students met in small groups with a teacher and went through a peer review process as they picked their paper topics then edited and honed their writing.

Says O’Brien, “It’s the philosophy of a capstone—it’s a crowning moment of what you’ve learned up until then. You get to put a stamp on your education and really tailor it to your interests.”

Law says that it felt good to have the freedom to explore his own interests.

“I think they trusted us,” he says. “They trusted that Prep had taught us the skills we needed to succeed. They were right, we were very well-prepared to take this on with minimal oversight. Our teachers gave us freedom and taught us like we were the adults we will be in college.”

Students found inspiration for their papers in unexpected places, garnering ideas from community service work, cultural influences and, of course, the 12 Identity lectures.

Law was inspired to study the stock market by the Investments course he took with Peter Vaughn.

A campus speaker, Ron Finley, who talked to students about urban gardening, sparked Slowskei to look into the access to healthy food at various income levels.

Ruch says that allowing students to pursue a passion kept them interested—a challenging feat when you consider they’re second semester seniors with summer and college on the brain. Says Ruch, “The students were enthusiastic and engaged through the paper and through the presentations.”

Each student presentation—on topics that spanned from “Social Conservatism in America” to “Western Influence on Indian Sexual Identity” and “The Culture of Consumerism: The Internet and the Price of Privacy,” was met with insightful questions from their peers and faculty.

Says O’Brien, “It’s a logical transition. It’s time for their own intellectual independence, while still being guided.”

The Identity faculty intend to keep the new structure of the course, as students seem to have thrived under the new parameters.

Says Bachmann, “Without question, it raised student interest and engagement and produced high quality research papers.”

Slowskei agrees. “The Senior Patio was absolutely transformed after each lecture,” she says. “There were no more cliques and groups; every table was talking about the lecture and everyone loved talking about it. I really felt re-connected to Prep and my classmates.”