Community holiday dinner was Sunday evening: while bad weather kept many folks away, of course the students were all on campus and showed up in force — and in style! Thought you’d enjoy a couple of the outfits that made the evening festive.
This week biology seniors presented the research they’ve been doing. So many of them are doing independent research that it took two whole evenings for them all to present! (I was able to attend the first evening — and I apologize to those whose presentations I was unable to hear.)
Here are some of the titles of their projects — and don’t ask me to explain what they all mean:
And there were of course many others.
The opportunity to do actual, individual, scholarly research of this kind, under the direction of senior faculty members, is one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar’s academic program. It’s one thing to learn science: it’s another thing entirely to do science, and these students are doing it. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a small campus, where access to faculty, equipment, and resources is open to all.
And many of these students were doing science by making use of the richness of our campus environment — dissecting ticks collected on campus, studying the visitation of pollinators to plants growing on campus, analyzing the chemistry of campus soil to learn about past conditions. We’re surrounded by 3,250 acres that our biologists use as a living lab.
Finally, of course, the faculty is very wise to incorporate public presentation into these research projects. Having done important research work, Sweet Briar students are expected to be able to organize and deliver a presentation that will clearly explain its meaning to an audience of both experts and non-experts. Whatever these students go on to do, this is a valuable and too-often-overlooked aspect of success.
Attending these presentations was one of those wonderful occasions that pretty much summarized what a Sweet Briar education is all about. Makes me want to be a student again, at a place like this. . .
There’s not much news to share from campus this week, as we’ve all been enjoying Thanksgiving break! Students have headed off for well-deserved rest and recreation and many faculty and staff have either traveled to visit family or welcomed houses full of visitors.
Rick and I were among the travelers. My sister recently moved to Phoenix, and several of us gathered there to inaugurate her new Southwestern home by importing all our Midwestern Thanksgiving traditions. (I’m the official keeper of the family stuffing secrets, and in an excess of enthusiasm made far too much of it. But what else is Thanksgiving for?) While in Phoenix we visited the Desert Botanical Garden and enjoyed a truly magical Chihuly exhibit.
What better time than Thanksgiving for me to express how deeply grateful I am to all members of the Sweet Briar community? The love and loyalty of our alumnae sustain us. The creativity, dedication, and excellence of our faculty define us. The energy and skill of our staff support everything we do, every day. And our students — the aspirations and achievements of our students inspire us all and are the reason the rest of us do what we do!
On behalf of Sweet Briar, heartfelt thanks to you all. Now it’s back to campus to finish up the semester — these last couple of weeks before finals will just fly by!
When I came in this morning I found these on my desk — thank you notes from 30 girls in the 3rd – 5th grades at Amherst Elementary School who participate in Girls On the Run. (Which will be holding a race on campus tomorrow morning.)
What better way to open the Thanksgiving holiday week than with an event dedicated to encouraging girls to “learn, dream, live — and run!” We’re proud to support Girls on the Run here at Sweet Briar; it brings girls and their families to our beautiful campus, of course, and our students and staff enjoy their volunteer work with the organization, but mainly we value the partnership because Girls on the Run delivers an extraordinarily important message to pre-teen girls. Simply put, as the cheers at every GOTR race have it, YOU CAN DO IT!
This has been one of those weeks that makes it very hard to choose a topic to post about! Let’s see: should I tell you about Molly Haskell’s visit to campus and lecture? After all, she’s one of our most distinguished alumnae and her new book is being very well reviewed . . . or perhaps an update on issues discussed at this fall’s Board meeting? But then my community update is posted here, if you’d care to read it. Or perhaps something about the meeting I just attended with government representatives such as Martha Kanter and Gene Sperling to discuss President Obama’s proposals for higher education? (Whatever your political leanings, I hope you’re following the discussion of these proposals: their implications are potentially very challenging for institutions like Sweet Briar and friends of higher education should be paying close attention.) Or maybe you’d like to hear about what fun it was to welcome nearly 50 families to campus on a gorgeous weekend for an Open House for prospective students?
Instead, though, I think I’ll point you to two clever videos that have just been created by Sweet Briar’s Tusculum Institute. “Virtual” tours of Tusculum have just been posted on line: I really do encourage you to take a look. In these two short videos you can get a dynamic sense of what the family home of Indiana Fletcher Williams’ mother looked like. The digital images are interspersed with historical photographs that add color and dimension to the presentation. These videos are a great example of how technology can allow us to understand space and place in new ways; watching them, you really feel as though you’re moving through this historic building.
Several years ago, as many readers will recall, Sweet Briar acquired the Tusculum house and had it carefully dismantled, inventoried, and moved to campus for safe storage.
Our initial hope was to be able to secure funding to reconstruct it on campus. However, that did not prove to be feasible: we are now making the house available to any qualified organization or individual willing and able to reconstruct it in a historically sensitive manner. Proposals are currently being accepted and the call for proposals is available on line.
Sweet Briar takes its stewardship for this piece of history very seriously. Having preserved the elements of the building, repaired and restored them appropriately, and carefully organized and protected them in storage has been a valuable achievement. But we know that long-term storage is not good stewardship: Tusculum deserves to be reconstructed and used, to come back to life.
Until that happens, however, what fun it is to watch these videos and imagine it!
The annual induction ceremony for the Alpha Lambda Delta honorary society was held yesterday. This society recognizes sophomores who excelled during their first year of study; new members make a commitment not only to continuing their commitment to academic excellence but also to encouraging high achievement in their fellow students — particularly the new first years.
Professor John Goulde serves as the faculty adviser to our chapter. In his remarks at the ceremony, he mentioned that one of the society’s purposes is to “promote the intelligent life.” The moment he said it, I felt the little chime of recognition that an apt phrase often creates.
Why, ultimately, do we celebrate those who do well in academic pursuits? Why should undergraduate students strive for excellence? Of course, one obvious reason is that academic achievement represents future competitiveness; it identifies students who are well prepared to succeed in their future professions or in grad school.
But there are other reasons. One came up earlier yesterday during my regular lunchtime meeting with members of the Faculty Executive Committee. Professor Steve Wassell mentioned that it seems to be a human trait to like doing things we’re good at; people tend to find doing well intrinsically satisfying. Simply put, we’re designed to experience achievement as affirming and gratifying: outstanding students know the joy and pleasure of success, which is in itself a good thing.
But finally, there is the reason Professor Goulde noted. Ultimately, whatever professional paths Sweet Briar graduates choose, whatever degree of pleasure and pride they derive from their personal successes, they become women who are prepared to live intelligently. For me, as an educator, this is the highest motivation: I believe that individual human lives and the lives of families, communities and nations are made better when people are educated to live intelligently — by which I mean educated to assess information critically, analyze complex interactions carefully, communicate effectively, reflect ethically, react with empathy, and contextualize personal experience in historical, cultural, and social frameworks. This is what an education in the tradition of the liberal arts promises, and it’s what generations of Sweet Briar women have experienced.
So holla holla to this year’s ALD initiates! May they embrace and promote the intelligent life.
This week the annual community Health Fair took place in Prothro. Employees, spouses, and campus residents could explore local resources and pick up lots of information — as well as have their eyes checked and get a free flu shot or grab a quick chair massage!
As a nation, we (rightly) worry deeply about the increasing costs of health care and how to provide access to first-rate care as broadly as possible. Those issues are complex, requiring thoughtful and careful work at the public policy level.
At a more local and immediate level, one piece of the health care puzzle that we can each do something about is helping neighbors, co-workers, relatives and friends discover ways that they can improve personal health by making small, consistent choices. There’s no question that getting regular check-ups, making healthier food choices, exercising moderately, curbing tobacco and alcohol use, managing stress, and maintaining strong relationships can reduce the risks associated with heart disease, diabetes, and a number of other serious illnesses. And that people simply feel better when they do these things. . .
As president, each year I encourage each of the vice-presidents and deans to choose one small thing they can do to make a small wellness improvement — park at a distance from Fletcher in order to walk a few more steps each day, cut out one dessert each week, try a new sport, set aside half an hour a week to catch up with old friends by phone or email. And then I encourage them to do the same with the people who report directly to them. After all, we teach Sweet Briar students that wellness and health are an important component of successful adult life: shouldn’t we practice what we preach?
It’s been a while since I posted about what I’m currently reading. One of the great benefits of weeks when I travel a lot is the opportunity for reading provided by long waits at boarding gates, on the taxiway, and in hotel lobbies while they get my room ready.
On this last round of travels my companion-book was The Story of Ain’t, by David Skinner. Nominally about the controversy occasioned by the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, this engaging short book is a collection of episodes and character sketches illustrating changing attitudes in the study of the American language. What constitutes “good” American English, and what is the role of academic institutions, dictionaries, and publishers in defining standards? In 1961, Webster’s Third lobbed a bombshell into the discussion of these questions by taking the view that a dictionary should record the language as it is used, not necessarily as historical authorities believed it should be used. So “ain’t” for the first time had a place in the dictionary, as an incontrovertibly common American usage. . .
It’s the kind of book that’s full of great tidbits. For example, I learned that William Allan Neilson, the esteemed editor of Webster’s Second and a great late Victorian scholar of language and literature, was connected to women’s colleges in various ways. He’d taught at Bryn Mawr and served as president of Smith. At Neilson’s inauguration, in 1918, the speaker was the great Charles William Eliot of Harvard, then 84 years old.
Eliot told the audience that the debates over women’s education, common in his youth, had now been settled by the success of women’s college graduates.
Women have proved themselves admirable assistants to physicians and surgeons, to public health officials, and in laboratories where scientific researches are conducted. . . The College sends year by year into American society a stream of young women well-fitted to be the equal mates and effective comrades of pure, vigorous, reasoning, and aspiring young men.”
1918 was less than a century ago; I have known many people who were alive then. Reading this passage, I was struck again by how very recent is the general recognition of the value of women’s education! And, of course, by how rapidly we’ve moved beyond the idea that that value lies in preparing women to be “assistants” and “mates. . . ”
Last night Sweet Briar hosted a visit by Dr. Tererai Trent — one of Oprah’s “all-time favorite guests,” a remarkable role model and inspiring speaker.
She was invited because this year’s common reading is Half The Sky, in which her story (among many others) is featured. The New York Times called this book a “gripping call to conscience” on the topic of women’s oppression; it is an equally compelling testimony to the importance of women’s education as a primary weapon against oppression.
Over dinner at Sweet Briar House, ten first-year students joined me and Dr. Trent in the dining room. Each student shared her reasons for choosing a Sweet Briar education and for choosing to participate in the Y:1 program, in which the common reading is a central focus. We talked about the parts of the world these students long to visit, the ways in which they want to use their educations to make life better for others, the women who inspired them. Students asked Dr. Trent about the women who had inspired her; she spoke eloquently not only of a representative of Heifer International who changed her life but also of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
A bit later, in the Chapel, Dr. Trent shared her story with a larger audience. Born in a small village without electricity or running water, she longed for nothing but an education. By helping her brother, who was permitted to attend school, do his homework (well, frankly, it sounded more like doing his homework FOR him) she began to learn and came to the attention of the local teacher. Only briefly allowed to attend herself, she was soon married and by the age of eighteen had several children.
The story of how she found her way to the United States and earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees testifies to the powerful force of determination, focus, and hard work. (You can learn more about how that came about in this video.) It also testifies to the powerful force of inspiration, community, and faith in one another. And of women changing other women’s lives for the better.
As our students sat, enjoying an intimate dinner party with this eminent and inspiring guest, I reflected on the ties of encouragement, empowerment, and empathy that can connect women across nations, classes, and generations. And on how much better these networks of women can make life for women, men, children: for entire societies. And on how vital educational institutions are to creating those networks — whether they are village schools in Zimbabwe or or women’s colleges in Virginia.
Each year the Archeological Institute of America accepts ten undergraduate poster presentations for its national conference. Only ten, from across the country. . . and this year one of them will be by a Sweet Briar sophomore!
She’s been photographing and translating Latin inscriptions at archeological sites, mostly in Ephesus, as her Pannell Scholars project. Working with anthropology professor Debbie Durham and her spouse/collaborator Keith Adams (with assistance on points of language from classics professor Bryce Walker), sophomore Jessica Barry is doing meaningful archeology, adding to and interpreting the scholarly record of important sites. She is a student in the process of becoming a scholar, something the Pannell program makes possible for several sophomores each year.
Jessica’s is a project that beautifully represents the integrated nature of a Sweet Briar education. Combining hands-on archeology with classical languages, international travel, photographic technique, historical perspective, student-faculty research, and presentation skills, it exemplifies the way students and faculty work together to bring the theory and practice of multiple disciplines to bear on complex and important problems.
Of course, it’s always a challenge for me to single out any one project for this blog, when so many others, equally impressive, are happening across the curriculum. We’ve recently featured some other Pannell projects in the Sweet Briar Magazine; for example, last February we ran a story on Kasey Stewart’s work on health care systems in Costa Rica (a pre-med minoring in Latin American Studies, Kasey was studying Doctors Without Borders) and last year we presented Ashley Baker’s work on a blog called Chemistry for Everyone. (“Science too cool not to share.”)
Holla Holla to Jessica, Kasey, Ashley, and all Pannell Scholars — and to the faculty members who support, inspire, and guide them.