Feb. 27-March 11, 2004
Vol. 34, Issue 4
Back Issues
Think About It
Greenberg: Brown Helped break segregationist South
Medical Center operating in black
Headlines @ U.Va.
‘Homegrown’ administrator credits mentoring in career success
Faculty Senate turns its attention to matters of honor, money
He’s no dummy
Online master’s program trains nurse leaders from underserved rural areas
What About the Children?
Discovering new life at the bottom of the sea
Leap year has U.Va.’s zip code
Francesca Fuchs
Research yields benefits, mankind, marketplace
Think About It
Program challenges University’s top students
Martin Luther King bookcover
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff

“PST provided me with a foundation in political, social and economic theory that has made me more informed.
As a result, I do not approach current events and issues from a single perspective.”

Mary Catherine Wellons,
Fourth-year student

By Dan Heuchert

Conspicuous in Michael Smith’s third-year Political and Social Thought seminar is a jar with a hole cut in the lid. Whenever students use the word “like” as a verbal placeholder, they must deposit a nickel in the jar. It’s, like, behavior modification for students who should know better.

That may be the least taxing demand that Smith makes on his students, who nonetheless appear to thrive under his expectations.

The Political and Social Thought program, now in its 26th year, is believed to be the University’s oldest interdisciplinary major. Its participants are a Who’s Who of student leaders; its graduates regularly win top fellowships and go on to prestigious graduate schools.

PST, as it is known in shorthand, is a highly selective program within a highly selective university. Each year, Smith receives more than 50 applications from rising third-year students for about 20 coveted spots. (“I try to discourage people from applying for whom it doesn’t suit,” he said.) After reviewing an essay, a graded paper from another course, at least one letter of recommendation and transcripts, he attempts to select a class with diverse interests and pursuits.

“Not everyone has a 3.96 [grade-point average],” insisted Smith, now in his seventh year with the program and fourth as its director. “I don’t do any social engineering. I just pick the students with the most compelling rationale to be chosen.”

Those selected will face two years of a rigorous curriculum, including 18 hours of “area studies” drawn from three different disciplines, plus six hours of courses on political and social thought or its historical foundations. A student might choose, for example, child poverty, public policy and equity in America for her area studies; she then must take two 300-level-or-higher courses for each area, drawn from three different disciplines, programs or departments.

The centerpieces of the program are two yearlong seminars, which Smith leads. The largely self-paced, fourth-year seminar is dedicated to writing an 80-page-plus thesis under the direction of a faculty mentor. The third-year seminar is the one in which the PST scholars cut their teeth.

Each week, the students are expected to read one or two books tackling political and social thought from a different perspective. They write a two- to three-page

response paper and then participate in a spirited in-class discussion. “My problem in class is to make space for everyone, not to extract answers from them,” Smith said.

The result is pure academic dynamite. “Bring together highly motivated students, put them in the same room, give them good books to read — it’s a recipe for success,” Smith said.

The pace — which students describe as “challenging” and “demanding” — would be stressful for any student, but many of the PST majors live dual lives as student leaders. Ian Marcus Amelkin heads the Young Democrats; Priya Parker is the founder of the pro-diversity group Sustained Dialogue; Luke Wagner is an All-Atlantic Coast Conference swimmer and former president of the U.Va. chapter of Amnesty International. The résumés go on and on.

“Highly motivated, good students don’t do it in only one area,” Smith said. What’s more, everyone has a busy schedule, so it’s not allowed to be an excuse. “One of the class ethics is that none of that can count as an excuse for not being prepared for class,” he added.

The classes forge tight bonds from hours of stimulating discussion, intellectual thrusts and parries, and the duress of having Smith closely review their work. This year’s fourth-year class fields an intramural soccer team. Last year’s group brewed beer together.
In short, they form an intellectual community and have a good time together, while learning a scholarly approach to life.

“PST provided me with a foundation in political, social and economic theory that has made me more informed,” said fourth-year student Mary Catherine Wellons. “As a result, I do not approach current events and issues from a single perspective, but from a multi-perspective.

“As a result of PST and other influences, I am constantly trying to expose myself to as many cultures and perspectives as possible. I believe that only then is it possible to have a true understanding of a problem … and thus seek its solution. I am dedicated to a life where I am always seeking a new perspective that will challenge my own,” Wellons said.

Adds Kristin Tracz, another fourth-year PST major: “PST — or more specifically, discussing the issues with the other students in seminar — has made me much more aware of who is making the argument in a given work, what the author’s biases may be, what perspective he or she would be writing from, etcetera. It has also made me consider my own ‘fundamentals’ — what are truly universal rights and liberties, versus things that are certainly nice to have but not essential to a viable existence.”

The ability to draw upon and make coherent arguments from a variety of viewpoints makes PST majors very attractive to the interview committees that hand out major graduate scholarships, notes Nicole F. Hurd, director of the Office for Undergraduate Excellence (see box).

“There is so much breadth there,” Hurd said. “They get grounded in political and social thought and philosophical thinking, and it lends itself well to applying that to multiple disciplines.”

Many of the fourth-year PST majors have graduate school in mind, although several say they plan to put it off for a few years while they pursue other, related passions. Parker, for instance, plans to pursue international relations or peace studies, but first will become program director for the Sustained Dialogue Campus Project at its international headquarters in Washington; Amelkin wants to get into public interest law, but hopes to teach high school first. Truman Scholar Katie Hamm wants to work with impoverished families before pursuing a Ph.D. in public policy or psychology.

Meanwhile, another group of second-year students are pondering their PST applications.

“I love this program,” Smith said. “I get to work with great students. I get to push them a little, beyond where they think they can go. I become friends with them after graduation.

“It’s sort of the ideal academic experience.”



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