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Oxford Uni­versity famously uses the tutorial system to teach its stu­dents — each student has the ability to study spe­cific sub­jects with pro­fessors indi­vid­ually.
This same system often occurs on Hillsdale’s campus as well. Some stu­dents take them as a way to make up for three-credit classes they were unable to take at an earlier time. Others request one-credit inde­pendent studies on sub­jects that fas­cinate them.
Doug Johnson, assistant pro­fessor of man­agement for the business department, said Hillsdale has more inde­pendent studies than any other insti­tution at which he has taught. Though Johnson has only been here at Hillsdale for two years, he has already taught four inde­pendent studies.
“Usually at the beginning of a term, I ask my stu­dents what their par­ticular interests are and what they want to do after Hillsdale. Then I cus­tomize a course or two to fit their needs,” Johnson said.
Johnson himself did an inde­pendent study as an under­graduate that influ­enced the course of his edu­cation afterward. An eco­nomics major, he took an inde­pendent study on the eco­nomics of research and devel­opment.
“Ini­tially, I thought I was going to get a Ph.D. in eco­nomics. That was what I was going to do — eco­nomics of R&D, but then I became more inter­ested in business strategy,” Johnson said. “But I would say it impacted my future direction.”
Inde­pendent studies can provide an oppor­tunity for stu­dents to study a subject they are pas­sionate about under the guidance of a pro­fessor. But they can also be enriching for pro­fessors. Assistant Pro­fessor of History Matthew Gaetano said he loves teaching them.
“What inde­pendent studies allow me to do as a his­torian that I’m not able to do in my classes is really to focus on one text or one theme,” Gaetano said. “In Her­itage, I’m cov­ering cen­turies in a semester, and I really enjoy that. I think that’s important — to give the lay of the land. But it’s also important for stu­dents to realize how much more there is to learn about any of the figures we’re studying.”
Gaetano, too, who is in his fourth year of teaching at Hillsdale, has held several inde­pendent sem­inars. To name a few, he has taught on Luther’s “Com­mentary on Gala­tians” and on Calvin’s “Insti­tutes of the Christian Religion” as well as the texts of Thomas Aquinas’ teacher Albert the Great. He usually teaches one or two texts per study, reading them with stu­dents in the original lan­guage and working through them by the Aris­totelian model, from logic to natural phi­losophy, to meta­physics.
Cur­rently, Gaetano is leading an inde­pendent study with senior Josh Ben­jamins, junior Tomás Valle, and junior Jack Shannon. Together, they have been working through a whole range of material in the original Latin. Gaetano has enjoyed seeing them apply what they’ve learned in class to other sub­jects.
“It’s been really inspiring to see. There have been some moments in their papers for other classes that really bring to bear what we’ve studied together on other sub­jects,” Gaetano said. “They are able to pose ques­tions that come out of this slow, dis­ci­plined march through an Aris­totelian, old, textbook approach to phi­losophy.”
Johnson remembers an inde­pendent study with a student at Purdue Uni­versity, who put together a business plan for a company that ended up in the pages of Fortune Mag­azine.
Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Clas­sical Studies Eric Hutchinson has also led several inde­pendent studies over the years, ​including one on Augustine’s “On Cat­e­chizing the Unin­structed”; an early Christian work called the “Epistle to Dio­gnetus”; and, this semester, a selection of Ovid’s “Heroides,” which are love letters from (mostly) mythical heroines to their absent love-interests.
Hutchinson said he doesn’t believe inde­pendent studies to be superior to regular classes, except in that the stu­dents who take them are usually very eager and excited about the subject being taught, which leads to real learning.
Johnson encourages stu­dents to talk to their pro­fessors if they have a subject they’re par­tic­u­larly inter­ested in.
“I think if somebody has some­thing that they want to study inde­pen­dently, they should cer­tainly seek out that oppor­tunity. Pro­fessors here are pretty open to doing those types of things,” Johnson said.