Swarthmore College

Each year the Aydelotte Foundation supports a first-year seminar course at Swarthmore called “Why College.” The course encourages students to think critically not only about what it means to attend a college like Swarthmore, but about the broader social, political, cultural, and economic function of higher education in the U.S. and beyond. We want to share a version of the course syllabus (the document, like most syllabi, is always adapting to the particular interests, demands, and energies of our current students). This spring the course is being taught by Rachel Sagner Buurma and Andy Hines, but builds on approaches taken in previous iterations of the course taught with Tim Burke.

With this revision of the syllabus, we sought to highlight an engagement with the wider system of U.S. higher education. Swarthmore as an institution is an especially unrepresentative part of the larger whole and we recognize that understanding the state of higher education within the United States means thinking about how institutions are in relation to one another. This also means considering other realms, including K-12 teaching, prevalent ideas about liberal and vocational education, and a robust public discussion about the present shape of work, academic or otherwise.

Thinking relationally about higher education means doing so in conversation with people around the College and with scholars asking similar questions from different institutional and disciplinary contexts from across the country. In practice, this means we have a number of guests in our course this semester and we are also talking about this course in other classes on similar topics. We are also asking our students to write and revise in public writing genres so we hope that you’ll see their perspectives on the material we are discussing together here on our site, as well as other venues.

If you are teaching a course on higher education this semester or in the future and you would like to connect with us, please do reach out to us.

ENGL 009C. First-Year Seminar: Why College? The Past and Future of Liberal Arts
Professor Rachel Sagner Buurma, Professor Andy Hines


Unit 0: INTRODUCTION: January 18 AND January 25

Primary Reading (read this first): 

Roderick Ferguson, We Demand (read all, text in Moodle)

Two types of background readings (read these second, in this order, text in Moodle or linked below):

Overviews of the origins / institutional history of American higher education

Ellie Shermer, “What’s Really New about the Neoliberal University? The Business of American Higher Education Has Always Been Business” (2021)

David Labaree, “An Unlikely Triumph” (2017)

Margaret O’Mara, “The Uses of the Foreign Student” (2012)

Examples of a wider range of often excluded higher ed institutions

Interview with Jelani Favors on Shelter in a Time of Storm (2021)

Eva Díaz, “Black Mountain College between Chance and Design,” from The Experimenters (2014)

Andy Hines, “The History of the Jefferson School,” from Outside Literary Studies (2022)  

Take a look at Shannon Mattern’s list of para/extra-institutional schools 


Boggs, Meyerhoff, Mitchell, and Schwartz-Weinstein, “A Non-Exhaustive Periodization of U.S. Universities from an Accumulation Perspective” from “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation” (2019)


Unit 1: CLASS, LABOR, STRIKE: work and the world of higher education
Assignment: Book review 

February 1 – Debt


Varo Duffins, Director, Financial Aid, Swarthmore 


Tressie McMillan Cottom, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy (2018), Intro-Chapter 3 

Dana Goldstein, “The Troubling Appeal of Education at For-Profit Schools” (a New York Times review of Lower Ed)

Matt Reed, “Lower Ed: Review” (Inside Higher Ed

William Germano, On Revision, 25-45


Astra Taylor, You Are Not a Loan

Tressie McMillan Cottom Interviews Louise Seamster for ‘The Ezra Klein Show’

Jacqelyn Elias, “Who Holds America’s $1.5 Trillion Student-Loan Debt?”


February 8 – Admissions, Privatization, Higher Ed as a System


Jim Bock, Vice President and Dean of Admissions, Swarthmore 


Cottom, Lower Ed, Ch. 4 to end

Jason England, “Admissions Confidential” 


DUE: Book review draft 


February 15 – Strikes of University Workers in the U.S., Present and Past 

VISITORS: Dennis Hogan and Rithika Ramamurthy on labor organizing in higher education 

RELATED EVENT: Robin D.G. Kelley and Naomi Williams on February 23 at 7pm


Ashley Dawson and Penny Lewis, “New York: Academic Labor Town?” (2008)

Robin D.G. Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle” (2015)

Rebecca Nathanson, “The 20-Year Fight to Unionize Graduate Student Workers” (2021)

Naomi R. Williams, “Workers United: Intersectionality and Labor” (2020)

William Germano, On Revision, 50-61


“Unions at NYU, 1971-2007” from The University Against Itself: The NYU Strike and the Future of the Academic Workplace (2008)

WashU Undergraduate and Graduate Workers Union, “Student Employee Union Growth” (2021) 


Union Membership and Coverage Database, maintained by Barry Hirsch and David Macpherson


DUE: Book review final draft 


Assignment: memoir/personal statement 

February 22 – Representations of classrooms and teaching

VISITOR: Shannon Mattern, Professor of Anthropology at The New School


Ta-Nehisi Coates, from Between the World and Me (2015), pp. 39-64

Kiese Laymon, excerpts from Heavy (2018)

Qian Julie Wang, excerpts from Beautiful Country (2021)

Jenny Davidson, “Novels in Third Places” (2016) 

Film clips (in class)

    • The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
    • At Berkeley (2013)
    • Community (2009-2014)


Germano, On Revision, 61-80


DUE: memoir draft 


March 1 – Curricula, classrooms, course catalogs, shifting enrollments, etc


Robin Shores, Assistant VP for Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment, Swarthmore


Rachel Sagner Buurma and Laura Heffernan, “Josephine Miles, English 1A (1940-55),” from The Teaching Archive (2021)

Jarvis Givens, “Blackness and the Art of Teaching,” from Fugitive Pedagogy (2021)

Andy Hines, from “Culture as a Powerful Weapon” (144-161), Outside Literary Studies (2022)

John Marx and Mark Garrett Cooper, “Curricular Innovation and the Degree Program Expansion”  (2020)

Germano, On Revision, 89-99; 108-109


Ben Schmidt, “Changing College Majors” 

Swarthmore College Archives, Historical Course Catalogs

Swarthmore Institutional Research, “Majors”

Conversation with Imani Perry and Jarvis Givens (2021)


DUE: Memoir revision



Assignment: op-ed 

March 15 – The “debate” over liberal and vocational education 


Lavelle Porter, Assistant Professor of English, City Tech, CUNY


Sutton Griggs, Imperium in Imperio (1899), first chapters 

Anna Julia Cooper, “The Higher Education of Women” (1892)

W.E.B. Du Bois, Chs. 3 & 6 from The Souls of Black Folk  (1903)

Booker T. Washington, “The Atlanta Exposition Address” from Up from Slavery (1901)

Germano, On Revision, 134-144


DUE: Op-ed draft 


March 22 – Liberal and vocational education, continued 


Sutton Griggs, Imperium in Imperio (1899), finish 

Germano, On Revision, 147-157


DUE: Op-ed revised 


March 29 – Student Movements


Joshua Myers, “A Space for Black Ideas” from We Are Worth Fighting For (2019)

Martha Biondi, “A Revolution is Beginning: The Strike at San Francisco State” (2012)

Blake Slonecker, “The Columbia Coalition: African Americans, New Leftists, and Counterculture at the Columbia University Protest of 1968” (2008)

Germano, On Revision, 157-169


Swarthmore Black Liberation Archive

Ruth Wilson Gilmore describing when she met Angela Davis at Swarthmore


Assignment: data essay 

April 5 – Campus Security


Chelsey Eiel, Associate Director, Title IX, Swarthmore


Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (2015)

Laura T. Hamilton and Kelly Nielsen, “Introduction” to Broke (2021)


DUE: Data essay draft


April 1 at 1pm, Yalile Suriel (University of Minnesota), “Campus Eyes: The Rise of Campus Police Departments,” part of the Temple University Urban History Workshop. Details, including a virtual registration option found, here.


April 12 – Land


Davarian Baldwin, excerpts from In the Shadow of the Ivory Tower (2021)

Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone, “Land-Grab Universities” (2020)

Germano, On Revision, 171-187


Conversation with Davarian Baldwin and Gabriel Winant (excerpt)

Conversation with Krystal Tsosie and Tao Leigh Goffe (excerpt)



DUE: Data essay revision 


April 8 at 12:30pm, Davarian Baldwin (Trinity College), “When Your City Becomes a Campus: Life in the Shadows of the Ivory Tower,” part of the Temple University Urban History Workshop. Details, including a virtual registration option found, here.

April 19 – case study/revision workshop

April 26  conclusions and presentations 

Final revision due May 1

About the Author

Rachel Buurma is the Director of the Aydelotte Foundation and an Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College.

More Posts by Rachel Sagner Buurma
Posts by Rachel Sagner Buurma
About the Author

Andy Hines is the Senior Associate Director of the Aydelotte Foundation. He is the author of Outside Literary Studies: Black Criticism and the University .

More Posts by Andy Hines
Posts by Andy Hines
February 9, 2022