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President's Blog

Archive for June 2010

Summer Honors

The other night I joined the summer honors students and their faculty mentors at a picnic given by Dean Jonathan Green. Unfortunately, I forgot to take any pictures that evening, so here’s one of Dean Green and students at another recent alfresco gathering.

Summer honors students work intensively with faculty mentors on campus for several weeks. Here are some of the topics our students and faculty are working on right now:

  • A prosthetic hand suitable for use in the developing world. How can a design maximize function while minimizing cost?
  • The “Beauty and the Beast” narrative as it has appeared in various languages and historical moments. Why does this particular narrative seems to be resonating so strongly in American culture at the start of the 21st century?
  • Colo-rectal cancer cells. I’m a little embarrassed to admit how little I understood about the specifics of this work: suffice it to say that a couple of our students are deeply involved in understanding what affects the growth of these cells.
  • Women in the Middle East. How do variables such as national wealth, strength of democratic institutions, educational attainment, and so on affect the welfare of women in some Middle Eastern case studies?
  • AIDS in Africa. Haw effective have public-private partnerships been in addressing HIV/AIDS in Botswana?

And these are only the questions being asked by students I happened to talk with. There are other fascinating projects underway as well.

Walking home from the picnic, I found myself thinking about what makes this kind of undergraduate experience so powerful. (And it IS powerful; all sorts of research points to the impact that student-faculty research has on undergraduate learning.) Certainly, content is important. Students learn a great deal about specific topics during such programs and they also gain significant experience in the methods of their disciplines.

But I suspect that role modeling is at least equally important. During this summer program, students work side by side with faculty as research partners. And as they do so, they begin to see themselves not as students but as scholars. A new identity begins to take shape, their imaginations begin to form visions of what life as a professional researcher might be like, and they emerge from the experience with a new sense of their power to attack important problems and create knowledge. And that, I think, accounts for the wonderful vibrant energy that is so evident in talking with our summer honors students.

Personally, I never had this kind of experience as an undergraduate. For me, and for a great many faculty, that evolution took place in graduate school. What a privilege it is for these Sweet Briar students to get the kind of head start that this program offers!

An interesting article

Here on campus, and in discussions with alumnae and friends across the country, I’ve been talking a good deal about “digital sophistication.” And of course that’s the focus of one of the strategic planning study groups.

Sometimes the first reaction people have is that I’m talking about some reductive form of “distance education:” that is, about replacing pedagogical interactions connecting students to dedicated live professors with mechanical, impersonal idatabases and simulations.

But that’s not at all the case. If you’re interested in this topic, I thought I’d recommend this article, from yesterday’s edition of Inside Higher Ed. Its author is Eric Jansson, a longtime colleague from my work at NITLE and one of the people who is most involved in thinking about what technology can mean for the liberal arts.

OK, if you read it you’ll notice that Eric links his article to one of  mine from several years ago. His article reflects ideas that several of us, in liberal arts colleges across the country, have been pursuing for some time.

Thoughts, after you read it? Email me!

Blog Year 2

A few posts ago I asked for comments about this blog as it approaches its first birthday.

No, I didn’t really think many people would write and say, “no, don’t bother, we’re bored with it.” :)  But I certainly was curious to see how many of you would send me thoughts and what themes might emerge from your comments.

First, lots of you wrote, and I thank you for the encouragement and appreciation you expressed! Several current parents wrote to say, in one way or another, that they don’t actually hear a lot about what’s going on on campus from their daughters, so they appreciate the blog giving them a sense of campus life. Many alumnae said, in one way or another, that they haven’t felt as connected to Sweet Briar since they (graduated) (served on a committee) (last came to Reunion) (moved further away) and that reading the blog has revived their sense of being involved. A couple of prospective students let me know that they’ve been reading along to get a sense of what it might really be like to live and study here.

One theme surprised me a little. Several people told me they don’t have a very clear sense of what a college president really does and they have enjoyed getting a sense of what this president pays attention to and thinks about. And a few others told me they have been interested to see the benefits of hearing from the College in a new medium.

A couple of folks offered suggestions. One was that I might, from time to time, address some of the more weighty or controversial issues facing higher education generally. (I am actively thinking about how best to incorporate some of this.) Another suggestion was that I enable public comments. (Sorry; although I can certainly see the value of that, I’m reluctant to commit myself to the extra time monitoring and responding to comments might require. For the time being, I think I will keep to the practice of asking those with important responses to send them to me via email.)

So, no doubt about it, I’ll be blogging into Year 2.

Faculty Summers

Every once in a while, someone will say something to me that suggests that she or he isn’t exactly sure what faculty actually DO during the summer. In fact, sometimes people seem to assume that faculty have the summer “off” because classes aren’t in session.

So, I thought I’d just take today as a small case study to illustrate what Sweet Briar faculty are up to. Here are some items that came to my attention during the day today:

Professor Cathy Gutierrez (Religion) is attending a seminar for humanists with the support of a grant from the Jessie Ball DuPont fund. She blogs about her experience here.

Professors Raina Robeva (Math) and Robin Davies (Biology) are hosting biology, computer science, and mathematics professors from across the nation for a weeklong workshop on “mathematical biology.” They’re doing this with the support of a grant from the Mathematical Association of America. Right after graduation, Professors Davies and Robeva spoke on their work developing biomathematical curriculum materials at the National Academies of Science.

On my way to lunch, I waved to Professor Dave Griffith (Creative Writing) who was leading a group of elementary and middle school students across campus. He’s teaching “Nature Writing” as part of Kids in College, an enrichment and outreach program now in its eighth year.

When I got to Prothro, I ate with faculty, librarians, and technologists who are part of the new iPad users group, including folks from Environmental Sciences, Biology, Education, Creative Writing, and Theater. All these faculty members are working through the summer on ways to incorporate iPads into their courses in the fall. At my table, Professor Rob Alexander (Environmental Studies) was talking about his upcoming trip to a field station in the Amazon, while Professor Holly Gould (Education) told me about the summer course on the pedagogy of diversity that she will start teaching to our Master’s degree students very soon.

And this is just the faculty activity I came across in the course of a few hours on one day! Classes aren’t in session, but the essential work of the faculty continues in full force . . .

Happy Centennial, Amherst!

Today Rick and I spent the afternoon at the Centennial celebration on Main Street in Amherst. Here’s Rick, with Suny Monk (Director of the VCCA and spouse of Professor Joe Monk, some of whose work you can see here): look closely and you’ll see that Suny artfully fashioned a dress appropriate for the occasion from several of the souvenir T-shirts! 

I was struck by the fact that the College was founded before the town was. Generally, in the early 19th century, towns  newly settled by people migrating west actively encouraged the founding of colleges. The thinking was that a college would draw educated citizens to the new community and create cultural resources from which all residents would benefit. I’m not sure I’m personally familiar with another situation in which a college was founded before the nearest town, so I had just assumed Amherst was older than Sweet Briar. . .

Whichever came first, however, it’s clear that healthy towns and healthy colleges are good for one another. Recently I spoke to the Amherst Chamber of Commerce, which was having its annual awards dinner on our campus. To prepare for that occasion, I did a little research and learned some interesting things:

  • More than 70% of Sweet Briar’s employees live in Amherst County.
  • This year, 76 Sweet Briar students were doing student teaching, internships, volunteer work, or were in some other way involved in the Amherst public schools.
  • On average, about a dozen students from Amherst are admitted to Sweet Briar each year.
  • Last year, 124 programs or events were open to residents of Amherst. Some of these were art or library exhibits, some were lectures, some were professional dance or theater events, some were student performances. Most were free of charge.

The original 1906 Sweet Briar Institute charter states that the object of the school is to “impart to its students such education . . .  as shall be best fit them to be useful members of society.” It’s important to me that the College itself also be a useful member of society; I hope our Amherst neighbors are as glad to have us as we are to be here.

One of the Centennial celebrations was a street art project, a joint effort of the town and VCCA. Artists painted the parking meters with local scenes. Here’s “ours” — painted by local artist Brooke Irwin.

Blog year 2?

I can scarcely believe that my first year at Sweet Briar is nearly at an end; in about three weeks I will have been here for a full turn of the wheel! I find I can hardly wait to plunge into the next academic year. Now that I have a sense of the structure and rhythms of life on campus, I look forward to being a bit less of a rookie. . .

When I started this blog, I described it as a blog of my first year as Sweet Briar’s president. In the posts I’ve made since then (172 to date) I’ve tried to share things I’ve learned about the College, things I’ve experienced for the first time in my new role, and to offer some reflections on what they’ve meant to me.

But now I face a decision. Should I continue to blog year 2? I’ll admit that I’m tempted to do so for purely selfish reasons. I’ve found posting to be a wonderful way to step back once or twice a week to reflect on what’s happening, and I suspect in a few years I’ll be pleased to look back on this record and refresh my memory of this eventful and wonderful year.

As I think about whether to continue the blog, I’d appreciate your comments. Please write to me if you have suggestions about a possible continuation of the President’s Blog. Are there issues or kinds of posts you’ve especially liked? Ways the blog could be more interesting or useful in keeping you abreast of campus life? Things that you would recommend I stop doing? Things you wish I had done that I haven’t?

I’ll consider carefully any perspectives you share with me as I plan for various ways to communicate with all of you next year.

A Fellowship for Cris Gonzalez!

My last post was about a wonderful Sweet Briar woman who graduated in the 40s. Here’s a story about a wonderful Sweet Briar woman who will graduate in a couple of years — and who will be doing important work from the get-go.

Amanda Cristina Gonzalez, from Indianapolis, has been awarded a very prestigious fellowship by the National Security Education Program. This highly competitive program supports an undergraduate to study abroad in an area of strategic importance to U. S. interests. As our press release puts it:

“Gonzalez chose Vietnam because her research on study abroad destinations led her to believe it’s an up-and-coming economic and cultural power, poised to become the next Japan or China. As its importance to U.S. interests grows, people who know its languages and culture will be in demand.

By the time Vietnam is a major player I will be ahead of the game,” she said.”

To prepare for the future she envisions, Chris will study the Vietnamese and Khmer languages, as well as international relations, at Vietnam National University.

In my last post, about Peggy Wyllie, I celebrated the spirit that leads women from women’s colleges to pursue what seems most important and meaningful to them, whether or not that matches up with what others might expect them to do. Chris gives us just one more example: she sees a future in which Vietnam is a “major player” and is preparing herself to shape that future.

Holla holla, Chris, and all other students who are stepping off the beaten path in pursuit of their goals.

Profile of Margaret Jones Wyllie, ’45

Virginia Business has published a wonderful profile of alumna Peggy Wyllie, for whom our Engineering Program is now named.

Here’s a quote from the first paragraph:  “In the 1940s, when diminutive iconoclast Margaret “Peggy” Wyllie went to all-women Sweet Briar College, it didn’t offer engineering classes. Today, thanks in part to a $3 million gift from Wyllie, 86, and her late husband, Jesse, her alma mater turns out women engineers.”

What I love about this piece is that it captures a quality that so many graduates of women’s colleges possess — the spirit of simply doing what one needs and wants to do in the face of assumptions, limits, or expectations to the contrary. For Peggy, this involved racing cars and going to grad school in chemistry. For others like her, it involved teaching in Asia, or starting a business, or writing experimental fiction. Part of the reason I love women’s colleges so is that they create the opportunity to meet and spend time with women who have this spirit, from many generations and many parts of the country. My life at Sweet Briar allows me to meet them almost every day.

As I reflect on this first year, I realize I’ve met many alumnae from the war-years classes of the 40s. It’s been a special gift to get to know them and to listen to their reflections from lifetimes of just getting on with it and getting things done! Today’s students are the inheritors of this wonderful legacy, the metaphorical daughters of amazing mothers and grandmothers. . .