A "Briggsie" Speaks Out

Frank Dolinar

As a non-traditional student and graduate of Lyman Briggs, I have a somewhat different view of the program than those students who traversed the path from incoming Freshmen to graduates in four (or five) years. My career at Michigan State was checkered (Merit Scholar to dropout to graduate), discontinuous (interrupted by two years in the US Army and two more by other employment), and required an elapsed time of eleven years (1965 to 1976).

When I decided to return to Michigan State to finish my degree in the Fall of 1973, I was referred to Dr. Fred Dutton, the founder and first Dean of Lyman Briggs College. Dr. Dutton was gracious and generous enough to allow this vagabond to return to school as an undergraduate in Briggs. At the time I literally did not know what I was getting into.

It changed my life.

There is a problem articulating the depth of impact of the Briggs curriculum, its advising (the bright light of day compared to my previous experience), and the twin joys/terrors of the very competitive students who would, in general, do everything they can to help a fellow student. Successfully completing the Briggs curriculum is not merely a matter of knowing the course work. It's a matter of understanding how the course work fits into the body of knowledge and experience being accumulated by the student.

The context makes all the difference.

It's one thing to have technical knowledge of the branch of physics known as electricity and magnetism (E&M). It's quite another to understand, in addition to the technical, the intellectual, philosophical, and scientific milieu which surrounded and, in part, guided Michael Faraday's discoveries. This kind of understanding imbues the course work with meaning. It places the work in a rich and multi-faceted context. It is my experience that this context, this understanding, and the community in which they are nurtured do not exist within the traditional science curricula elsewhere in this university.

That students leave the Briggs program for other pursuits is no surprise. They leave Briggs for the same reasons that a student would leave any curriculum within the university -- something else looks like a better fit, a better deal. A student who does what I did, however, faces a fundamentally different situation. Someone who returns to school or transfers into the Briggs program somewhere in its midst is greeted by a cacophony. The conversations are good-natured and well-intentioned, but they are non-stop and breathtaking in scope. This alone makes it difficult to enter Briggs as other than a Freshman.

In my particular case, the conversation among the Briggs faculty, staff, and students had started a subjective two years before my arrival. I thought I knew something of the sciences I had chosen for my studies. But the context of the conversation was, at first, baffling...

Honors course work in the history of philosophy (What's this got to do with a science degree?) The Philosophy of Technology course (How's that again? What's philosophy got to do with technology?) Philosophical Problems in Physics (Well this doesn't seem quite so weird.) And all that writing. Every professor wants me to write something, new, every week.

But long before I got to a senior seminar, I had begun to understand the context. I had begun to see that the spare geometry of my pre-Briggs vision of science was undergoing a transformation which gave it not merely geometry, but texture, dimension, and interaction (nay, conversation) with art, literature, and music. The context comes to fruition within the community of the Briggs faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Involvement in this community does not stop because one has graduated. Indeed, there are numerous cases where the involvement has grown significantly after graduation.

This may seem like so much nostalgia, but nostalgia is not my intent. I am a software developer and consultant. The education I received through Briggs has set me apart from my colleagues:

· I have received numerous comments on how well I write from clients who freely admit that they don't expect computer programmers to be able to communicate effectively.

· I deal, on an ongoing basis, with problems which are not strictly technical. My course work at Briggs gave me a basis. My subsequent experiences have built on and enriched that base. These allow me to bridge the gap from the technical to the ethical, philosophical, or historical context in which the client is comfortable.

· I'm able to solve problems which others might abandon because I can approach the problem from different directions until I find one which provides an appropriate insight.

· I have an awareness of constant change which allows me to help my clients prepare for the ongoing evolution of their information systems.

I feel that there are certain basics which makes the program very different. These are:

* the residential community of students, faculty, & staff

* the science & technology studies (STS) courses

* the conversation between the degree programs and STS

* the ongoing advising

William Butler Yeats said,

"Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a fire."

Briggs lights fires in its students!

It produces graduates who know not only the requirements of their chosen discipline but are knowledgeable about the philosophical basis of the discipline, understand the historical development of the discipline, and are conversant with the current philosophical, intellectual, and ethical questions of the discipline. These graduates are articulate, opinionated, capable of evaluating and defending a position, unafraid of intellectual challenges, and able to guide their own ongoing, lifelong education.

There is a constant stream of alumni who come back to Briggs to offer help, to provide support, give courses or the occasional lecture. And finally, like me, quite a few of us have become walking commercials for the program. The daughter of a good friend came to Michigan State, to Briggs, because I am an unabashed promoter for the Briggs program. And I'll be talking to another possible future Briggsie this weekend.