Interim at Calvin

Courses like "Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship" and "Applications of Fluorescence" make Calvin's January term a unique learning opportunity

That Calvin philosophy professor Kevin Corcoran’s January Interim class in England attracted a surplus of applicants is to be expected, perhaps, given its title: “Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship.”

“I probably turned a half a dozen students away,” said Corcoran, while hastening to explain that the Interim, which he is teaching for the first time this year, is not a three-week, college-sanctioned drinking binge, but an exploration of the “emergent church” movement in Great Britain.

In that country, he explained, the emergent church emerged in the pubs and clubs.

“There were a lot of Christians who were disenchanted with the church and found something resonating with these environments,” Corcoran said of the movement, which evolved in the late-1980s.

“They would have sort of worship services, and they would hold them in the clubs with the regular patrons there.”

Typically configured as faith communities rather than traditional congregations, the churches that grew from these roots are a redefinition of the modern church. Socially engaged and technically savvy, these alternative churches tend toward a postmodern interpretation of Scripture and away from doctrinal correctness.

“It’s not that they’re unorthodox,” he clarified. “Many of them are very orthodox.”

Corcoran and the 23 students signed up for the Interim will visit eight or nine alternative worship communities and meet several well-known leaders of the movement, Brian McLaren and Peter Rollins among them. They will also meet the Archbishop of Canterbury and attend traditional services at some well-known sanctuaries.

“You can’t go to London and not go to St. Paul’s. You can’t go to London and not go to Westminster Abbey,” he insisted.

Traveling with the class will be a filmmaker who will help the students to create a documentary and three short worship films about their Interim experience.

Corcoran, who grew interested in the emergent church through his own research and discussions with students, is eager to begin the January journey.

“There’s a lot of really good stuff in the emergent church movement but I don’t think we should drink it down uncritically,” he said. “My view is that a lot of my students are going to read these books that are published by these people, and I’d rather they read them with me. I really do think—and I told the students—I really do believe that if we go over there with the right attitude, this experience can have a great impact on our own spiritual lives.”

“Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship” embodies the sense of intellectual exploration that has been the hallmark of the January Interim since its beginning in 1968.

“Interim is three weeks of intensive study that allows both faculty members and students to dig deeply into unique areas that don’t fit into our regular curriculum, said Calvin provost Claudia Beversluis, a ’74 graduate who remembers her own Interims spent rock climbing, film making, and studying the psychology of William James.

“The idea was that it offered a break when you didn’t take a course in your major,” Beversluis said. “It was purely for fun and intellectual stimulation.”

Though the first Interim courses were mostly campus-bound offerings, focusing on a particular author (Dostoevsky, Hemingway, Blake) or subject area (“Urban Politics,” “Graph Theory,” “Music for Students Who Fear Music”), there was a lone Interim to France in the inaugural January term, led by French professor Arthur Otten. Before long, off-campus Interims proliferated in the annual catalogue.

The traveling Interims—which in 2008 number 35, from New York to Montana to Hawaii in the United States and everywhere from Costa Rica to the Yucatan around the globe—enhance the January experience for students, said Beversluis.

“It really opens their lives to a different part of the world. Many students would love to study off-campus and can’t be away for a semester. Interim allows them to study in another culture, she said.”

Interim also allows students to pursue offbeat research interests as they do in “Applications of Fluorescence,” taught in a Calvin laboratory by chemistry professor Mark Muyskens.

“It’s kind of glow-in-the-dark science,” he said of the class, wherein students examine the fluorescent qualities of minerals, household cleaners, olive oil and markings on high-security documents.

“If you want to see something spectacular—put your title to your home under a black light,” Muyskens suggested.

Though Muyskens admits he teaches the class partly for its “gee-whiz” properties, he said it is an enormously useful class for science majors of every stripe.

“The use of fluorescence doesn’t neatly fit into one area of science: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, engineering—I could go on. I’m hoping to draw students from all over the science building, and that’s worked every year I’ve taught it,” he said. “There’s a significant chance that students who take this class will use fluorescence later in their research.”

Students also may use an Interim to fulfill the requirement of taking one class in the category, Developing a Christian Mind (DCM), which examines a particular subject through a Reformed lens. This year’s Interim catalogue lists 40 DCM courses which hone in on everything from “High School in the Movies” to “Green Discipleship.”

Other 2008 Interim catalogue listings are similarly diverse: “The Art of Satire: Swift to Stewart”; “Re-Imagining Disability”; “Film Noir and American Culture”; and “Women’s Health,” to name a few.

One professor is using the January term to revisit a Calvin Interim literary institution. Professor John Timmerman, a professor of English to be exact, is teaching a course on C.S. Lewis, a figure who has shown up in Interim catalogues since the very beginning. Indeed, Timmerman spent several Interims co-teaching Lewis with two English department veterans—now emeriti—when he himself wasn’t quite so veteran. He likes keeping the tradition going.

“That class fills up. Students love it yet,” he said.


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Interim on the Web

View montage videos posted by Kevin Corcoran's class on YouTube.

See pictures from "Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship" on Flickr.

Read more about "Pubs, Clubs and Alternative Worship."