Special Topics: Signature Selections from Sage’s Course Catalog

Tonya Moutray_0005

Every day, in every academic department at Sage, professors and students ask big questions and then read widely, write intensely and collaborate zealously as they pursue sometimes-elusive answers. We spoke to a few, about the classes that are inspiring MORE from them.


A number of distinctive classes – fusing, for example, science and history, nursing and literature, Hamlet and hyperpace – are offered as Honors Seminars at Russell Sage College. While students pursuing an Honors diploma at Russell Sage must earn at least 15 credits in courses with an “honors” designation, Honors Seminars are available to any Sage student with a 3.0 GPA and permission of the instructor.

Classes designated as honors are usually investigations of special topics that appeal to students interested in being challenged, explained Tonya Moutray, Ph.D., associate professor of English and director of the Honors Program (pictured, with students). “They are not necessarily ‘more difficult,’ but a different kind of work is expected,” she said, citing interdisciplinary, student-directed reading, writing, discussion and collaboration.

•    Big History: From the Big Bang to Artificial Intelligence

“I had learned about the Big Bang and I had learned about the first humans. In this class, I am learning about everything that comes in between,” said Jess Loskowitz RSC ’17 of Big History: From the Big Bang to Artificial Intelligence, the Honors Seminar she took this fall with Steven Leibo, Ph.D., Sherman David Spector Professor of Modern International History & Politics.

Leibo called the course “the most fascinating and challenging of my career.” That’s because of the students – the class of 13 had nearly perfect attendance: “I’ve never encountered this in 32 years of teaching,” he said – and the course’s formidable scope.

Big History is a field of inquiry spearheaded by historian David Christian and championed by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. Andrew Sorkin summarized it in the New York Times as “a synthesis of history, biology, chemistry, astronomy and other disparate fields … wove[en] together into nothing less than a unifying narrative of life on earth.” The Big History Project website lists thinking across scale, integrating multiple disciplines and making and testing claims as skills that arise from the study of Big History.

It is an academic discipline that could not have existed in previous generations. “Only in the last half-century have we had the ability to answer questions of how we got here with any proof,” said Leibo. “Breakthroughs like Carbon-14 dating and sampling ice cores have given us evidence of how things have changed over 13 billion years.”

Thirteen billion years in one semester? The syllabus is divided into eight thresholds spanning the origins of the universe to artificial intelligence and any one threshold could spin off in a million different directions, Leibo admitted. “The challenge is to keep it linear,” he said. “When you teach from this perspective there is a clear pattern of growing complexity, a direct link from the stars to the elements to us.”

He assigned eight papers – one for each threshold. Each session combined lecture, multimedia clips from prominent thinkers and discussion of what is known about a particular threshold and how it is known. References to pop culture from Star Trek to The Martian offered levity.

Leibo, founding director of Sage’s Climate Crisis Center who has worked with Al Gore on climate issues, was drawn to Big History by his own interest in human beings’ relation to the environment. He spent two years preparing for the class, offered for the first time this fall.

A promotional flyer for Big History emphasized there are no prerequisites except infinite curiosity, and the class roster included majors from the Health Sciences through the Humanities. Loskowitz, a Nutrition major who intends to pursue a doctorate in Biochemistry, said that this class is drew on all her science experience, while Michelle Masters RSC ’17 enjoyed making new connections between her History major and other subjects. “The class touches mainly on science and history but also on some philosophical and existential things. It’s this breadth of material that makes it easy to recommend, because there’s something for just about everyone,” she said. “I’ve found myself looking up a lot more science-related articles lately, simply because I find them interesting and it’s made me less timid about discussing things like biology or chemistry.”

“We’re all created from stardust is a fun thing to say to people not taking this class,” said Loskowitz. “I will never again look at the world the same.”

•   The Literature of Mathematics/The Mathematics of Literature
•   Hamlet in Hyperspace

“I don’t want a class filled with 25 literature students,” said English Professor David Salomon, Ph.D. “I want Bio and Psych and other majors alongside English majors. It leads to a rich dichotomy of opinions and viewpoints and a lot of new ideas.”

Salomon has taught on interdisciplinary faculty teams for some of Sage’s distinctive offerings like the WORLD general education program (a required three-course sequence that immerses Russell Sage College students in research, writing, and experiential learning related to issues of particular relevance to women) and Founder’s Seminar (a year-long course that takes an abstract topic – in 2015, it’s “Atmospheres” – and tackles it from multiple perspectives). After teaching Founder’s with mathematics professor, now Russell Sage College Dean Deborah Lawrence, Ph.D., ’88, the two decided to collaborate on Honors Seminar The Literature of Mathematics/The Mathematics of Literature in 2012.

Assignments included traditional papers and work on mathematical proofs; attendance at events that blurred boundaries between the arts and sciences, like physicist Michio Kaku reading from recent work; and texts like “Proof,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a woman living with mental illness and mathematical genius, and “Flatland,” a classic of mathematical fiction about A. Square, who lives in a two-dimensional world.

The class was almost evenly split between Mathematics and English majors, as was each meeting divided between math and English instruction: “We didn’t say, ‘This is your day, this is mine.’ We were both in front of the class together, all the time,” said Salomon. “English and Math majors have different perspectives on solving problems. English majors are not used to one very specific ‘right answer,’ while it drove math majors crazy that there could be multiple ‘right answers’ in literature ‘problems.’ There was a lot of back and forth between us as professors and with the students and the students noted in their evaluations how much they learned from that.”

Hamlet in Hyperspace: Writing, Technology and the Future of Ideas is another STEM-influenced Honors Seminar that Salomon developed. He’s been teaching a version of the class at Sage for more than 10 years, and it continues to evolve with technology’s influence on our literacy habits.

“Hamlet in Hyperspace caused me to think more about the methods I use when I write and when I read, and we also studied how humans have been doing these things for centuries,” said English major Kelly Shanahan RSC ’17. She found the class critique – also known as “wrangling” – to be especially valuable:  Each member of the class was responsible for a major paper about an area of technology central to their field. On wrangling day, one student’s paper would be the subject of the conversation, and the larger class would share their constructive criticism with the writer. “This workshop allowed all of us more insight into the editing and rewriting process and fostered our self-improvement.” Brittany Teal, pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a graduate degree in Occupational Therapy via Sage’s 3+2 program, agrees. “This class allowed me to become a stronger writer and also to analyze at a deeper level,” she said.

Hamlet in Hyperspace

Hamlet in Hyperspace students present portions of their final papers at the New Critics: Undergraduate Literature and Composition conference at SUNY Oneonta.

Post-wrangling, Shanahan and Teal were among eight Hamlet in Hyperspace students to present portions of their final papers – “Electronic Learning: Creating Solidarity and Shortened Attention Spans” (Shanahan) and “Technological Advances in the Field of Occupational Therapy” (Teal) – at the New Critics: Undergraduate Literature and Composition conference at SUNY Oneonta.

“It is important for students to realize their ideas have a wider audience then the professor,” said Salomon, who as director of undergraduate research, helps connect students from all disciplines with appropriate conferences and publications for their scholarship. He constantly encourages students to change their perspective from “I am writing this for this course” to “I am writing this to further a discussion in this discipline.”

Next semester, he is looking forward to teaching Jung at Heart, a look at Carl Jung’s archetypes in literature, philosophy, religion and pop culture. These kind of courses that require students to draw on the entirety of their learning are “highly dependent on good students, students who are interested and interesting,” Salomon said. “Luckily, we have a lot of those.”

•    Ill-Behaved Women: Nursing and Literature

Assistant Professor of Nursing Kathleen Buono, DNS, RN, loves to read, and Honors Program Director and Associate Professor of English Tonya Moutray researches women’s religious orders in 18th and 19th century British literature; the women she studies often cared for the sick as part of their vocation. Buono and Moutray connected over their mutual interests while serving on RSC’s curriculum committee.

One of Moutray’s goals is to make the Honors Program more accessible to students in the professional programs. For example, many nursing students do not complete the Honors Program because most Honors courses have been offered on Tuesdays and Fridays, which are traditionally clinical days. “I gave it some thought and approached Tonya with the idea about how nurses are portrayed in literature, and a few books, readings and movies that we could utilize. We then started meeting regularly to develop a syllabus,” said Buono, of the Honors Seminar Ill-Behaved Women: Nursing and Literature, that the two taught on Mondays and Thursdays during the 2015 spring semester and will offer again in spring 2016.


Nursing and Literature students with their poster presentation examining how nurses Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale were perceived during and after the Crimean War.

The option to complete a Humanities general education requirement in a class specific to their field especially appeals to Nursing students, although the class attracts other majors, too. Readings include texts by Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, even Louisa May Alcott, who, best known for “Little Women,” was a nurse in a Union Hospital during the American Civil War. Assignments include major papers examining how nurses Mary Seacole and Florence Nightingale were perceived during and after the Crimean War, and how Kate Cumming and Alcott represented and engaged the nursing profession during the Civil War. Discussions ranged from medical observations and nursing norms to literary analysis.

“Sage fosters team teaching,” said Buono, describing how the Nursing Department offers two sections of some courses, with a lead faculty member to direct the course and up to six others contributing, but due to the size and scheduling of these classes, the collaboration is not as close. “Tonya and I worked together throughout the course, even grading papers. We discussed each paper’s strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement which we provided for the student.”

Moutray calls the class a highlight of her teaching career. “I am able to share my expertise, but also to feel like a student again,” she said of learning so much about the clinical aspects of nursing. “It is a great faculty opportunity to pursue an interest outside of ‘regular’ teaching duties. When you love what you are doing, that translates to the students.”


Another option within the Honors Program are Oxford Style Tutorials,  which zero-in on more specialized topics, including some controversial subjects, like socialism, and hard-to-fathom ones, like black holes. Tutorials are usually limited to five students and a professor.

Like the Honors Seminars, these courses are reading and writing intensive, and because of their intimate size, even more demanding in terms of contributions to class discussions … and they have been wildly popular. “Students are drawn to the topics their professors are passionate about,” said Honors Program Director Tonya Moutray, describing how History Professor Andor Skotnes, Ph.D., recently taught an extra section of Socialism rather than turn students away (Like the Honors Seminars, Honors students receive priority upon registration, but the Tutorials are open to any student meeting the GPA requirement.)

“It is like exploring a topic with a professor, not being lectured to,” said Nutrition major Jess Loskowitz, one of the students in Socialism. She had taken American Political Cultures with Political Science Professor Stephen Schechter, Ph.D., during her first semester at Sage. “I was assigned the course.  I didn’t pick it and I might not have – but I became very interested. My experience in that class sparked my interest in Professor Skotnes’ class,” she said of the Tutorial that examined how socialism has shaped 200 years of world history.

Loskowitz said that three of the five students in her section had grown up outside of the United States and she learned a lot from exchanging observations about how the economies each grew up with affected food availability and other quality of life factors. The small class size and flexible lesson plan allowed the conversation to unfold organically over the course of the semester – something that, by necessity, would not be possible in a larger class with a strict schedule.

Honors Conference Group Photo2

Tonya Moutray, David Baecker, Jessica Loskowitz, Andor Skotnes, Margaret Brenenstuhl and Sierra Miller ’15 presented “Honors Education and the Oxford-Style Tutorial” at the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference in Denver.

In fall 2014, Loskowitz, Skotnes and Moutray were part of a small group of Sage students and professors who presented on the Oxford Style Tutorial at the National Collegiate Honors Conference in Denver. Loskowitz spoke about her experience as a Health Sciences student in a currently Humanities-heavy Honors Program (Moutray is actively working to expand the science-related content.) Loskowitz admits to feeling nervous when more than 30 faculty members from around the country showed up to the Sage roundtable. But she drew on all she learned in another class – Public Speaking, with Theatre Professor David Baecker, MFA – to sway other colleges considering similar programs: “Discussion-based classes like the Oxford Style Tutorial make me feel intellectually valued,” she said.

•    Cosmic Black Holes

A few years ago, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Frank Vozzo, Ph.D., taught Stars and Galaxies to non-science majors at Sage. “The students were especially intrigued by astronomers’ discovery of bizarre and exotic objects in the universe,” he said. Next to some of these objects, like Lyman Alpha blobs, radio lobes and the Boötes Void, black holes start to seem relatively accessible, so when the Honors Program implemented the Oxford Style Tutorial, Vozzo proposed one exploring Cosmic Black Holes. “These objects have been the subject of science fiction movies and television shows, so there is at least some familiarity with them at the start. The OST format allows students to dive right in without first learning all about how astronomers and cosmologists study the universe, or what is known about how and why stars form.”

Students from all disciplines gravitated to the Tutorial, offered first in spring 2014 and again in fall 2015. “I have had a Biology major, a Math major, an English major, a History major and one student who designed her own major. Quite a mix,” said Vozzo. Math major Patty Martinez RSC ’16 admits to initial concern about how the diverse expertise among her classmates and professor would coalesce, but quickly came to appreciate her “perfect group.” “Most of us didn’t have any prior knowledge in the topic, but we wanted to. I think this is one of the reasons why these classes are special,” said Martinez who has also taken William Kennedy’s Albany with Creative & Performing Arts Professor Michael Musial and Socialism with History Professor Andor Skotnes in the OST format.

At the first meeting of Cosmic Black Holes, the class watches the documentary Monster of the Milky Way and then takes an inventory of their collective knowledge to establish what information they need to learn to delve deeper into the topic. The group divides up the background research and each individual presents her findings in subsequent classes; presenters are responsible for following up on unanswered questions their presentations generate. From this starting point, students produce significant original writing, peer critiques and a substantial final project on an aspect of black holes that interests them.

Martinez and her classmates’ investigations touched on history, mathematics and how black holes interact with light. “We had a lot of fun learning about black holes,” she said. “I think we all found this deep appreciation not just for black holes, but for science in general.” She counts the class among the top three she has taken at Russell Sage, and said that every session had a “Wow. That just took my breath away” moment.

“The instructor and the students treat each other more as equals, as partners in a small learning community,” said Vozzo, elaborating on what he likes about inquiry-based teaching and learning methods like the OST: “The student is free to try out his or her ideas through experimentation, which leads them to ask for information at the very moment it is needed. The learning progresses at whatever pace the participants can handle, and goes in whatever direction the participants require. My job is to keep the students curious. I drop little surprises on them. I plant seeds rather than lead them into the woods. As long as students maintain their curiosity about the material, they stay motivated to learn and can have fun while they learn.”


•    Tragedy Tonight, Comedy Tomorrow: Film, History and Politics
•    Hollywood As Historian

“Films are much more than mass entertainment,” said History Professor Harvey Strum, Ph.D., paraphrasing historian Steven Mintz. “They are historical, political and social documents of their time, and watching films requires the same critical thinking skills as reading texts.”

Strum first taught American Film History at Junior College of Albany in the 1980s, but gave it up when he became Social Science department chair. About 10 years ago, he was eager to teach another film course and developed Tragedy Tonight, Comedy Tomorrow: Film, History and Politics to dovetail with interdisciplinary general education requirements. It has since become a mainstay of the course catalog, popular with Albany day and evening students, and thanks to the implementation of cross-college registration and a shuttle between campuses, with Russell Sage students as well.

Tragedy Tonight, Comedy Tomorrow – a play on a line from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” – weaves in documentary films, major motion pictures, visual arts, literature and history as it examines how films represent American politics, race relations, society and culture.  Strum admits the assigned films don’t change drastically from semester to semester but, depending on current events, the discussion often does. For example, “State of the Union” (1948), about a dark horse candidate seeking the Republican presidential nomination, was especially relevant this fall amid the scramble for the 2016 Republication presidential nomination. “‘State of the Union’ is a fictionalized account but also an artifact of a political crisis in the 1940s, a snapshot of American politics, what remains and what has changed,” he said, explaining it was inspired by politician Wendell Willkie who carried on an extramarital affair, and that one thing that hasn’t changed in presidential politics since the 1940s is the importance of the appearance, anyway, of a traditional marriage. “The Obamas and the Romneys presented that. Rudy Giuliani was on his third wife, and that proved problematic,” Strum said, referring to the 2008 and 2012 elections.

Guest lecturers bring in perspectives from their disciplines: Art Historian Elizabeth Strum regularly speaks on how art movements in the first half of the 20th century influenced films of that era, including the 1919 German silent horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and the 1936 Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times.” Former Junior College of Albany English professor, the late S. Charles DeMatteo was a frequent guest, speaking about his unpublished novel about American soldiers in the Burma-Indian Front (where he was stationed) during World War II.

Other films on the syllabus include “Thirteen Days” (2001), about the Cuban missile crisis; “All the President’s Men” (1976), about the Watergate scandal; “No Way Out (1950), about race relations; “Night and Fog” (1955), a documentary about conditions in Nazi concentration camps; and the “most censored film in history, ‘Salt of the Earth’” (1954), about striking zinc miners in New Mexico, considered by film scholars to be one of the first films to “advance the feminist social and political point of view.”

The popularity of Tragedy Tonight encouraged Strum to develop Hollywood as Historian in 2011, an updated version of the American Film History Class that he formerly taught. The course covers both the history of film and how film portrays historical issues and events, including union violence and corruption as depicted in “On the Waterfront” (1954) and textile factory working conditions as portrayed in “Norma Rae” (1979.) “Hollywood as Historian really opened my eyes to a lot of issues I thought I knew about,” said Public Policy major Tommie Pearson, Jr., SCA ’18, including the film industry’s power to distort. “It was difficult to appreciate ‘renowned filmmakers’ who didn’t do justice to many topics,” he said.

•    Leadership & Diversity
•    Conflict Management & Mediation

Eileen Brownell with Leadership & Diversity Students

Eileen Brownell with a panel of Leadership & Diversity students during the class’ presentation to Brighter Choice Charter Schools.

Service Learning and Civic Engagement are not new to Sage but are becoming more visible, in part due to Management Professor Eileen Brownell and her Leadership & Diversity and Conflict Management & Mediation students.  “Millennials are interested in learning by doing and doing good in their communities,” said Brownell, explaining that Service Learning and Civic Engagement exist on a continuum, with service learning usually referring to the delivery of a specific project to an outside organization, and civic engagement usually referring to involvement with quality of life issues.

Leadership & Diversity challenges students to be effective leaders as they take ownership of a project on behalf of a community service agency – and all that entails:  communication among diverse stakeholders, analyzing finances, utilizing project management skills, meeting deadlines and more. Early this year, Brownell accepted a Partner in Education Award recognizing a Service Learning project her 2014 students completed for Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany. That class (the course is offered alternate fall semesters) created a marketing and social media plan for an afterschool program targeting at-risk youth.

Conflict Management & Mediation (offered alternate fall semesters opposite Leadership & Diversity) examines the causes, processes, costs and – yes – benefits of conflict in the workplace, and tactics to resolve conflict. Brownell includes the 25 hours of coursework required for conflict mediation certification in the class, as well as an opportunity for students to apply their newly learned skills. As part of a Civic Engagement project this fall, her students were involved with two forums for residents of the City of Troy, one addressing hunger and another focusing on ways to build a safer and more inclusive community. The students served as facilitators during small-group discussions at the second forum, which received media attention.

Both classes are electives, but always popular, especially among student leaders, said Brownell. In a typical class session, she begins with a “check in” – it’s a way to remind students that people come into an organization from a lot of different circumstances, and for the students to practice active listening, she said. A team-building activity and content-related lecture or discussion follow. “My preparation is with the students, not the community partner,” she said. “When it is time to work with the community partner, the students take the lead in partnership with the organization’s leaders. I want them to go into meetings with an open mind, not preconceived ideas of what the professor expects. I want them to imagine possibilities.”

Brownell, who joined the faculty at Junior College of Albany in 1983, began incorporating Service Learning and Civic Engagement in her syllabi about 15 years ago, after she traveled to Mexico with students as part of a delegation from the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition studying working conditions after NAFTA. “It was an awakening for me and when I returned I decided to teach completely differently,” she said. “It became my mission and purpose to connect course content with larger social issues both locally and globally.”

She became involved with the community engagement aspects of Russell Sage’s WORLD general education program and also began including service learning and civic engagement in her management courses at Russell Sage College and today at Sage College of Albany.

Since then she’s also helped colleagues – at Sage; at area colleges connected with a campus-community consortium, Campus Compact; and at New American Colleges and Universities member institutions – to design successful service learning and civic engagement projects.

“I am an activist, but an activist’s role is not always taking action on the front line,” she said. “I teach others how to take action on issues that are important to them.”