Bennington currently has no core curriculum; this means no Math 101, Introduction To Literature, etc. The school has just recently incorporated "Design Labs" into its curriculum, classes focused on solving real world problems, and sometimes involving cross-disciplinary work. The expectation is that all freshmen are required to take at least one design lab, choosing one from several options. A Bennington academic "journey" looks something like this: your first year, you are encouraged to explore all your interests, taking various classes. (You're also set up with an academic advisor the day you arrive on campus-- you can always switch advisors later on, which happens frequently and isn't a difficult process.) Your sophomore year, you write what we call a PLAN ESSAY. (This is our way of declaring a major.) Every sophomore writes a plan essay, saying what he wants to focus in on during the remainder of his tiem at Bennington. This essay might include some classes he wishes to take, and suggestions for future field work terms and a senior project. All of these essays go to the dean's office, and the dean sets each student up with a plan committee, three faculty members who specialize in what the student wishes to study. This plan committee meets with you throughout the rest of your time at Bennington to go over how you're doing, making sure you're doing advanced work, and giving you guidance about classes, etc. It's just the right combination: while there's no hand holding, you know that you have the support of your plan committee while being in charge of your own education. Bennington is really for self-motivated students. While there's a healthy sense of competition, I think people are working for themselves, and doing their own personal best. Bennington students are always working, always busy, whether it's choreographing, writing, reading. I very rarely have "tests" like I did in high school: final projects usually come down to creative options, or papers. Discussion is a huge part of almost every single class. The biggest class I've ever had was almost 40; the smallest was 7. Last time I checked, the Bennington teacher to student ratio is currently 8 to 1. Work and play really start to blend at Bennington; people are doing amazing work for classes that you might not be able to do at a more typical school, (i.e. giant puppet shows, documentaries about the Bennington security office, illustrating children's books, etc.)
There are no required credits or 101-classes, but instead highly specific, highly engaging and challenging seminars that are designed solely by the students needs and requests and the teachers interests. Some of the classes that I have most enjoyed and that reflect this the best are Moving Image History of the 1970s, Traditional Music of North America, Understanding Children and their Worlds, A History of Rock'n'Roll, and so on. It is highly unlikely to find yourself in a classroom where neither the teacher nor any students is disengaged with the course. Perhaps it is simply because my own personal work ethic is not as good as it should be, but I am continually amazed at the dedication and passion with which students face their work. It is very, very rare that someone will turn up to class without having done the reading and despite their laid-back appearance Bennington students are amongst some of the most hard-working I have come across. There is an emphasis on learning through experience (hence the introduction of their required 7-week off-campus Field Work Term experience every year) and designing ones education through their own curiosity and exploration. During their four years at the college each student integrates different areas of the curriculum that are of interest to them around central ideas or questions – this ultimately results in their Plan, Bennington’s equivalent to a major. This requires students to be extremely self-directed and active in their work. The intensity and self-run nature of the work has been said to develop students that are at times a little too self-focused, however at the end of the day the 8:1 student-teacher ratio and the close-knit nature of the campus means that there is a huge support system and sense of community that is often hard to find. Despite strengths in many different academic fields, many students declare, either with great enthusiasm or resentment, that it is undeniably an art school. There is definitely a very creative, arts-oriented feel to the place (as well as being the birthplace of modern dance) however it is very possible to successfully pursue interests or all fields.
The best thing about Bennington is the flexibility of the cirriculum. There are no required courses, so a first-year student can take only classes that interest him or her (considering the male-female ratio, it is more like to be "her"). While that is great for some students, I found that after my first year just taking random cool-sounding courses, I felt very unfocused and a little lost. Once a plan for your concentration is made and you're taking courses related to what you want to do, everything becomes more focused and more motivated. The professors here absolutely know your name if you take the time to do your work well and stand out a little. In that respect, Bennington is competitive. The only students the teachers don't know are the ones who sit at the back of the class and never speak up. Class participation is a really important part of each class and of evaluations, since almost all classes are discussion-based, and there are few to no lecture classes. Each academic department is very strong and unique. I'm in the literature department, which is one of the biggest, but is populated with the most well-read and creative people I've ever known. The professors are all active in their fields, publishing and writing (though all professors regardless of department are that way.) Some of the stand-out students in a department go to bars with their professors or have dinner at their houses. Professors are usually available one time or another inthe week to just visit in their office and have a conversation with. Bennington students don't necessarily have a lot of hours of classes, but it is expected that they are working on their own projects in their free time. Conversations among students at the dinner table can range from environmentalism to South American politics to French poetry to the latest movie up at Cinema 7 in town. A Bennington education is geared toward learning for the sake of learning.
Addressing academics at Bennington requires the explanation of two seemingly simple words that, when combined, strike fear into the hearts of graduates and students alike: PLAN PROCESS. (*cue dramatic music*) If you are interested in Bennington College, you already know that you are interested in "designing your own education." Or do you? If you are interested in designing a math-free education, a music-only education, a never-write-another-essay education, FORGET ABOUT IT. BENNINGTON COLLEGE HAS A CURRICULUM AND AN AGENDA, JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER SCHOOL. Perhaps more valuable than figuring out whether a school is an academic fit, figure out if it is a philisophical fit. Bennington College believes that its students should be richly. liberally educated. President Coleman believes that it is no longer enough to educate students as future thinkers, but as future and current world citizens. As such, a Bennington education emphasizes breadth AND depth, as well as interdisciplinary thinking and problem-solving. Students are expected to contextualize their educations, and be prepared to defend them. The Plan Process is the means to that end. Through the plan process, students clarify, question, contexualize, and eventually defend their educational choices. Unfortunately, the process is far from perfect and far from smooth. Few students experience the perfect balance of questioning, clarifying, defending, and contextualizing, and considering one's educational future is at stake, the fall-out can be scary, painful, frustrating, or simply ineffectual. The balance is that, having come through it, students can withstand anything, with confidence in their choices and desires.
One of the major parts that I love about Bennington is that for me there isn't a very big difference between academics and play at Bennington. I feel that lots of things that I go to for fun are parts of other people's studies. For example, I went to see a reading of a play that was written and produced by a friend for her senior project. It was a really fun night! I don't know if I could pick my favorite class. For me everything just ends up fitting together. Example: This semester I took a lit class where we read writers diaries along with their work... then I took a documentary video class, a Spanish II that was not only a Spanish class but also a Spanish film study class (we watched movies in Spanish and learned how to discuss them in Spanish.) and I took an electronic music class. I ended up being very inspired by Virginia Woolf and a paper I wrote about memory for that class. I took that idea and created a sound piece on memory which I then used as the soundtrack for my documentary on memory. Talking about movies in Spanish also added to how I viewed movies and helped with how I thought about making my movie. So for me, I love when everything fits together like that. Also, Professors are very easy to meet with. They always have office hours and if you can't make an office hour you can set up an individual meeting. I recommend taking full advantage of being able to talk one on one with professors because it is a great way to learn and push yourself to think even more. They always offer a viewpoint that I didn't think about before meeting with them individually.
The faculty has small classes so that you get close with them, especially those within your discipline. Classes vary. Sometimes they are like apprenticeships, other times they can be discussions on material. The Music Department is great. All the teachers are active in their field professionally so they are all composers and do gigs and some are even rockstars. Finals are never typical finals. This time around I had to built a maraca out of aluminum to go on the end of a pencil, compose a four-part canonic piece, die as Juliet in her final death scene and learn a song on fiddle by ear. What I do always sounds like complete b.s. to everyone else but to you it means so much, it means a thousand moments of confidence building, aconventional, scary learning that you have to invest a lot into. There are slackers here but really to survive and moreoever, to actually get something to get out of it, YOU are your backbone, nobody else. You decide the direction of your work, how much you study, what you want out of your classes. There's no grades, but it makes it that much more intense. You have to learn for yourself and fight for yourself. A Bennington Education is foofy imaginary creature up in the air that hangs up there till you grab it down and make it your own. There is a mention in your plan essays about what you want to do with your life and what you want your life work to be but it's not big. It's what you want. You're paying the big bucks after all.
I love the classes at Bennington. The teachers definitely know your name and all students and teachers are on a first name basis. I think the largest class I have ever been in had 18 students. Of course, if you are the type of person who likes to sit in the back of the class and not talk this might be a problem. Due to the student/teacher ratio it is required to participate in class, but at Bennington you should only be taking classes you want to be in since we build our own curriculum, so it is assumed you want to participate in class. I recently took a class called From Process To Performance and it was the best class I've ever taken at Bennington. We studied Viewpoints and Meisner techniques and worked on a play for the whole term which we eventually performed and we had created such a world, it is indescribable. I love that we are allowed to take a broad range of classes, and we are encouraged to leave Bennington as a liberal artist, having gained knowledge in different categories of art. I find that most of the time our classes lead to intellectual and controversial conversations outside of class. I do think that students are competitive in their niches. For example, the theater department is very competitive and sometimes it seems like the same people are getting cast each year in the productions. This can just act as motivation to push you harder if you think about it that way.
One cool thing about Bennington is that professors actually know you by name and, with the exception of a few, prefer to be called by their names as opposed to Professor. Class participation has been a part of every class I've taken whether it's a lit discussion, a sculpture critique or just figuring out which note sounds good against the bass in a music class. The academic requirements are very different depending on the department that you are in. A few of the departments have junior and senior reviews that require you to share the work you have done with a panel of professors in order for them to make sure you are on track in terms of your progress in whatever field you are being reviewed in. Other departments do something a little closer to required core classes. Music, for instance, has the rule of 2's which means that in your time at Bennington you have to take 2 theory, 2 composition and 2 history classes to meet basic graduation requirements for music. This might sound like a lot, or if you've read anything about Bennington it might sound like a breaking from Bennington's 'no requirements' tradition but its really not. The classes in theory, composition and history at Bennington are interesting enough that I had already had half the requirements done before I found out that they existed.
The classes are great. The professors are great. I majored in Teaching, History and Philosophy. I've had classes with every social science professor and teaching professor. I enjoyed at least one class with each. The classes are small, and discussion based, so you don't get the Peanuts "wah wah wah wah wah-wah" from some guy in a lecture hall. Of course this means you have to study and do the reading. Participation is huge. We don't have tests, so your papers, if you go into the social sciences like I did, will be worth quite a bit. Also - no grades. You'll get written evaluations on everything, which will tell you candidly what was good or bad about your work. You'll get to know your professors well. It's weirdly rigorous at Bennington. I feel as though the courseload wasn't horrendous, but the material was difficult. I never had to pull an all-nighter, but then again I was satisfied getting Bs. (You can get grades, and the school reccomends doing so. I had to so as to be eligible for Grad school.)
All my professors know my name. Everyone talks in class, and not just to the teacher. In fact, usually to each other. There are intellectual conversations going on all the time, everywhere. Sometimes, I'll get out of Philosophy, only to be thrown back into another philosophical conversation and debate during lunch! I have personally loved the music classes on this campus. Right now, I'm in a small jazz ensemble as part of someone's senior project. It's really hard, but its wonderful to get to work with just students and create something, and have that count for credit. The Bennington college academic experience is truly unique. If you want to come here, you NEED to sit in on a class to understand it. You can sit in on an academic course, but since you probably won't have done the reading, that won't help. I would suggest coming to an arts course, particularly a music one. Participation in class is really abundant, and you'll probably get the chance to join in, if you want to!