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Freshman Seminars

Cultivating personal growth in a seminar on gardens

By Karin Dienst

Princeton NJ -- Teaching her first class at Princeton, Susan Stewart is cultivating the minds of 12 eager new students as they grow into their undergraduate careers. A professor of English and an award-winning poet, Stewart is leading the freshman seminar ''Gardens of Paradise, Gardens of Work.''

freshman seminar

In her first class at Princeton, Susan Stewart (center), a professor of English and an award-winning poet, is using literary works on gardens to raise key questions about life.

Previously the Regan Professor in English at the University of Pennsylvania, Stewart said that for her first class she ''wanted to teach a topic that had something to do with the choices students are making during their first year at the University.''

Stewart uses literary and other works on gardens to raise key questions about life: ''What is work and what is pleasure? What is the relation between a duty and a freely chosen activity? What do we mean when we say we can 'grow' as persons?''

Freshman Lily Arbisser said that at the start of the seminar she did not realize the extent to which gardens can be discussed in both physical and philosophical terms. ''For example, most gardens are surrounded by a wall or a fence,'' she said. ''Inside the walls the garden can be perfect, and on the outside there can be pain and suffering.''

Sitting around a long table at Butler College on a recent rainy afternoon, the students analyzed ''The Garden,'' a poem by the 17th-century poet Andrew Marvell. The students took turns reading stanzas and grappling with the notions of erotic love and the transcendence of the imagination. The discussion touched on texts already explored in the seminar, including the Bible, the medieval allegorical poem the ''Roman de la Rose'' and the Japanese classic ''Tale of Genji.''

Leaping to yet another genre, the class shifted focus to the children's story ''The Secret Garden'' by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Here, the conversation revolved around the question of self-cultivation in a tale about neglected children and their failure to thrive until they connect with nature through tending a garden.

To get a close look at some of the physical aspects of gardens, Stewart took the students on a tour of the Renaissance-style garden at Drum-thwacket, the residence of the governor of New Jersey. She also plans to show the class the 18th-century garden of John Bartram in Philadelphia and the Metropolitan Museum of Art's medieval garden architecture at the Cloisters.

''It is interesting that people imagine gardens to be enclosed, and yet we always imagine the Garden of Eden to be boundless,'' said freshman Melis Evcimik, who is looking forward to the class' final project of designing a garden of her own.

For Stewart, the garden is a fertile topic that sows countless ideas for the seminar. ''Although they are enclosures, gardens in turn enclose other realms,'' she said. ''I find that in addition to the philosophical and aesthetic issues arising as we turn to literature, art works and the gardens themselves, other more concrete forms of knowledge have entered our conversations.'' Stewart said that these include ''details from geography and history, myths of paradise and creation, the names of plants and trees and how to recognize them, techniques for scanning poems and deciding on the scale of arguments, the role of dreams in psychoanalysis, the limits of cross-cultural approaches and more.''