Conversations & Learning Communities

The Art of Conversation

Conversation is at the heart of a St. Olaf education. We want students to develop the ability to listen carefully, argue forcefully, and be the kind of engaged thinker who makes a conversation more interesting.
St. Olaf’s signature Conversation programs are interdisciplinary, team-taught explorations that take students on five distinct intellectual journeys through influential texts and ideas that have shaped our past and will guide our future.

Class of 2022 participation in a First-year Conversation program or Learning Community.

Application Deadlines for the Conversation Programs

Early Decision

Application: February 15
Notification: February 22

Round One

Application: April 5
Notification: April 12

Round Two

Application: April 19
Notification:  April 26

Round Three

Application: May 3
Notification:  May 10

The animating ideas that inform these interdisciplinary Conversations are pursued across the frontiers of the liberal arts, drawing on art, history, literature, music, philosophy, religion, and the natural and social sciences. Students drawn to the Conversations have an insatiable curiosity, eagerly engage in discussion, and have a passion for learning that is not easily quenched.

American Conversations

American Conversations — AmCon — is an interdisciplinary learning community for students interested in an in-depth exploration of American history and culture. Thomas Jefferson thought education was critical to democracy. From its beginnings, the American Conversations program has encouraged students to seek to live Jefferson’s dream that “free and educated citizens should learn to understand what is going on in the world, and to keep their part of it going right.” This dream lies at the core of AmCon, which not only looks closely at America’s history, culture, values, and role in the world, but also helps students explore and practice engaged citizenship – regardless of the country they happen to call home.

Students approach the American story from historical, literary, artistic, cultural, and social science points of view. In the process, they will develop skills in writing, public speaking, and, most important, critical thinking.

Learn more about American Conversations


Asian Conversations

Asian Conversations offers students a dynamic cultural exploration that begins with two semesters of language study (Chinese or Japanese) during a student’s first year. Asian Con students continue their language study during the sophomore year, as they embark on a three-course Asian Conversations exploration of the history and culture of an increasingly important part of the world. (It is possible for an incoming student with a background in Chinese or Japanese to join the Asian Conversations program in the student’s first year at St Olaf College.)

Asian Conversations follows “Journeys Through Asia,” a theme that captures both the content of the courses and the opportunity for students to explore China and Japan during the Interim of their sophomore year. Readings include historic and contemporary narratives of Asian travelers, pilgrims, and migrants. Through these stories, students examine the range of communities and boundaries that have shaped Asia’s political, economic, cultural, linguistic, and environmental communities. Throughout, students will explore Asian interpretations of the human condition from a variety of religious, philosophical, and literary perspectives.

Learn more about Asian Conversations


Environmental Conversations

Environmental issues are a major concern of public policy and a profound influence on our daily lives. Environmental Conversations – EnCon – is a learning community organized around regular elective and required courses, exploring questions of environmental policy, science, and values. Through courses and co-curricular opportunities, EnCon prepares students to think about moral, scientific, and practical dimensions of human relationships with the rest of nature.

EnCon students engage in student-led sustainability initiatives, and learn about environmental questions and opportunities facing the college – from the student-run STOGROW farm, to the college wind turbine and planned solar farm. They become part of a larger community of students who seek to think clearly and responsibly about environmental policy, sustainability, and “the moral ecology of everyday life.”

Learn more about Environmental Conversations


The Great Conversation

The Great Conversation is designed for students interested in exploring the cultural legacy of Western civilization through the influential books and works of art that have informed and inspired people through the ages. Great Con is for students who believe that learning about the past is profoundly relevant to understanding the present, for students who want to examine the Western tradition in a unified way, and for students who believe that an education ought to cultivate discriminating minds, inquisitive spirits, and moral sensitivity.

The Great Conversation is a liberal arts education in full, incorporating literature, history, philosophy, religion, and the arts from many points of view. The reading is far-reaching, the pace intense, and the class discussions forceful. The discipline and skills developed through Great Con benefit all scholarly paths and for the past three decades have prepared students for professional experiences ranging from social work to teaching to law and medicine.

Learn more about The Great Conversation


Integrated Introduction to Chemistry and Biology

A Learning Community also known as CH/BI (“Chubbi”)

First year students with a passion for science at the interface of biology and chemistry are encouraged to apply to our integrated introductory Chemistry/Biology sequence or CH/BI. CH/BI students complete a series of three courses and work together to learn the fundamentals of chemistry and cellular biology. The interrelatedness of these disciplines is emphasized through examples of biological applications of fundamental chemistry and exploring biology in light of chemical principles. As a learning community, students and faculty explore ideas in the lab, through group-based problem solving and discussions. In addition to basic texts, readings from a variety of sources enrich discussions and illustrate the interdisciplinary nature of science. This unique interdisciplinary community approach to learning introductory material prepares students for more specialized courses by developing inquisitive habits and the flexibility to draw on ideas from multiple sources.

To apply to the CH/BI program, you will need to complete an Integrated Chemistry and Biology Learning Community Application Form followed by completion of the Chemistry Placement Exam (a link to this placement exam follows completion of the application form).

Learn more about CH/BI Program


Race Matters

Race Matters is a new learning community that will be offered for the first time during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Race Matters is a two-semester, interdisciplinary learning community for first-year students dedicated to the examination of the role of race, ethnicity, and related “race matters” in twenty-first-century American life. Many of these “race matters” occur at the intersection of race with one or more related axes of identity, such as gender, sexuality, religion and class. For instance, Race Matters considers the experiences of Muslim Americans and South Asians since 9/11; it examines the diverse communities, histories, and individual experiences grouped under labels such as “Asian American” and “Latinx”; it takes up the role of gender and sexuality within racial and ethnic communities, as well as within movements such as Black Lives Matter; it attends to shifting ideas about citizenship, immigrants, and refugees; it looks at the increasing visibility of self-identifying biracial and multiracial Americans; and it explores the role of geography, technology, demographics, and broader economic and political forces in shaping race matters in the present.

With a sociology-focused course in the fall and a writing seminar in the spring, the thoroughly integrated curriculum bridges the humanities and the social sciences, offering students a deep and broad engagement with race and ethnicity in the contemporary world.


For Sophomores: Science Conversation

The Science Conversation is a general education program for sophomores designed around an interdisciplinary exploration of science. The 24 students who complete the year-long program will earn HWC, BTS-T, HBS, SED or IST, and WRI general education credits. It is intended to attract a wide audience for rich, interdisciplinary discussions.

The program brings together students and faculty with a broad range of academic interests for a critical exploration of science within its historical, cultural, and social contexts. The program will encourage a philosophically and theologically informed appreciation for the development of science, the relationship between reason and faith, questions of meaning and purpose, and the complex interplay of science and society. It is designed to illuminate the distinctive character of science and its relevance to the challenges facing our world.  We seek applications from a broad mix of students — from art appreciators to book lovers to science fans.

Learn more about Science Conversation

For Juniors and Seniors: Public Affairs Conversation

The Public Affairs Conversation is a year-long program of two courses (fall and spring) and a funded internship opportunity (this may be pursued in the fall, interim, spring, or summer). The program focuses on contested ideals and contemporary controversies in American public affairs, and is open to sophomores, juniors, and seniors by application.

Learn more about Public Affairs Conversation