After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, students, professors and administrators at Carleton College looked for ways to respond. As was the case at most institutions, money was raised, students from New Orleans colleges were allowed to enroll for a semester, and Carleton students made plans to travel from their Minnesota campus to the Gulf to help with rebuilding.
Robert A. Oden Jr., Carleton's president, was impressed by the desire to help, but also frustrated. "A lot of what we did was what a social service agency should do, but there's a response that's appropriate for a college. What should we be doing?" he said he wondered.
While students said that they wanted to help, he said that it was important for colleges to be willing to say that intellectual engagement is in many cases what colleges do best. "Students were telling me that they wanted to do something that would make a difference. Well, we need to learn how to think in ways that make a difference. We need to learn to ask the right questions."
Oden shared his feelings with professors and, following a faculty vote, the college announced that it would do something today that it has never done before: call off all classes and replace them with a day of programs on a single theme of Katrina. While some colleges call off classes for teach-ins following a local or national crisis (such as 9/11), the Carleton program is a bit different -- planned over several months, yet also related to a single recent event.
"Confronting Katrina"  will be a mix of seminars, lectures and arts presentations, with professors organizing sessions on such topics as blame, the environmental problems, rebuilding New Orleans, and comparisons with past disasters. From a coffee hour in the morning (with beignets) to a jazz band in the evening, the college is also trying to celebrate New Orleans culture -- and keep students engaged in what for the most part is a serious day of work. And to avoid just turning the day without regular classes into a three-day weekend, professors have added material to their regular courses that relates to Katrina and will then relate the day's programs back to classes.
While those connections may be easy to see in a course on Southern history or environmental policy, professors whose areas of expertise don't shout out "New Orleans" are finding interesting ways to participate.
William North is teaching a course this semester on early medieval Europe. This week, he has added a book he wouldn't have otherwise assigned -- a chronicle that recounts a series of natural disasters (drought, locusts, and earthquakes) that took place during the 5th century in Edessa, in what is now southeastern Turkey.
"We're looking at questions that the writer addressed and that we are thinking about now: What kind of meaning is there in these events? Is God trying to tell us something? What does this mean about us as a city? And more practically, what kind of remedies are there," North said.
One section that the students have read -- about what happened when Roman baths were used for emergency shelter -- has great resonance with what happened in the Superdome, North said. At the same time, things were obviously different back then. "They can't airlift. They have to move at the rate that pack animals move. But the similarity of questions is over who can you appeal to for help?"
For other professors, the connections are almost immediately apparent. Mary Savina, the McBride Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies, said "this was a no-brainer for me. I'm a geologist." She's been working with students all week to prepare posters that will be on display today that explain the environmental issues raised by what happened in New Orleans.
Savina, a Carleton alumna who was an undergraduate when American campuses imploded over the killings at Kent State University in 1970, also sees today's program as important educational statement by the college. "I love the idea of being able to have the flexibility to say 'sometimes an event transcends the day to day stuff we're trying to do here, so we should come together as a community.'" She still remembers that after Kent State, her professors "turned inward and there was a sense that academics didn't have anything to say."
Given how professors value each minute they have with students (indeed some complained that giving up a class session was a bad idea), Savina said there was real power in teaching in this way. "We think something is important enough that we're willing to say that the 60 minutes you would have spent in my class and three other classes this Friday can in fact be made up over the course of a life," she said.
Oden would like to see the idea of a day-long program, outside of regular classes, considered as a regular part of the academic year. Although in the future, his hope is that a natural disaster is not the impetus and that the day can be planned earlier.
Scott Bierman, dean of the college and one of the lead organizers of the program, said that he realized there were other approaches that might have been tried, such as a symposium, or asking professors to just add material to existing courses. "But we wanted a broader community than what we have gotten by just asking colleagues to add some material," he said. "We're trying for a day of focused energy in which we'll really learn from one another." (While a few outside experts are being brought in, most of the seminars and panels are with Carleton professors.)
Bierman said he thinks students may also learn something about learning -- to move "beyond the notion that the only way to engage in formal learning is through classrooms and classes."
But at the heart of the plans for the day is learning: history, politics, the environment, culture. Oden, the president, said that one inspiration for the day came from a book he read before Katrina that he wishes more people had read. Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America focuses in part about decisions made by the government -- and how those decisions helped and hurt various groups of people, with some tragic effects, particularly on poor people.
That issue of knowledge is why he returns to the theme that as meritorious as it is for colleges to encourage students and faculty members to build homes in New Orleans, imagine what might have happened if more colleges encouraged more people to read such works -- and to truly reflect on them and keep that information with them.
Said Oden: "The question we have to think about is: Why do we forget so soon?"