I usually try to avoid posting long texts here, but I’ve just come from opening Convocation where I delivered a brief State of the College report. It’s an important message, so I’m sharing the gist of it here with all of you. (We also present student and staff honors and awards at Convocation. I’ll post information about the winners of this year’s prizes soon.)
“I realize, of course, that the calendar year actually begins in January, but I have to admit that what really feels like New Year’s to me is the first day of school. The exhilarating feeling of fresh starts, expanded potential, renewed energy, and momentum belongs to the beginning of the school year, and for me at least it still smells vaguely like pencil shavings and fresh paper. As we gather today, I have a bit of that excited and optimistic feeling that a new lunch box always used to give me, and I hope that you do too.
It is good, very good, to see you all together here. This year, we have changed the calendar of opening ceremonies in order to create a true convocation, one in which all faculty, staff, and students assemble to celebrate our shared commitment to Sweet Briar and to each other. Following this ceremony, we will have our first true all-campus picnic, which is being provided by a catering firm so that all employees may enjoy it. Here, today, we together are the College. Welcome, all, to the 2010-11 academic year!
As we open the year, it is my privilege to offer you a brief report on the state of the college. There is much good news to share. On Saturday, we welcomed the class of 2014, 197 strong. This year’s entering class is approximately 10% larger than last year’s, which is especially impressive given the continued economic challenges facing the nation. It is also gratifying to tell you of the increasing diversity among entering students; 18% of our new students identify themselves as other than white, which is a significant increase over last year’s 14%. And, in addition to welcoming a robust and diverse class of new students, we welcome a number of new faculty and staff to campus this fall.
Over the summer, while students were enjoying internships, travel, employment, study, and maybe even a little vacation, faculty submitted grant proposals, edited journals, finished books, conducted field work, and prepared for this year’s classes. Back on campus, Strategic Planning study groups continued the important work of analyzing the present so as to envision the future. Director of Institutional Research Christy Cole provided large comparative data sets to support the work of each study group, and each group has articulated interesting ideas and possibilities that arise from their consideration of that information. The strategic planning blog contains updates about their summer’s work; I encourage you to catch up on the progress the study groups have made there. Throughout this semester, the strategic planning teams will be sharing their findings and inviting your ideas, questions, and comments. Please respond to these invitations; I believe firmly in the tech-world adage that “all of us are smarter than any of us,” and the more you contribute to the process the better the ultimate plan will be.
But we are not waiting to complete the strategic planning process to move important initiatives forward. There are several important pilot projects underway this semester, many related to strategic planning. First, this fall 15 faculty members and 30 entering students will be participating in an iPad pilot project. These faculty member and students have agreed to dedicate time and thought to exploring whether and how iPads might enhance learning and teaching in a variety of disciplines. These innovators will be sharing what they learn as part of a strategic effort to ensure that Sweet Briar is providing a digitally sophisticated education to all students. Of course, what is meaningful in this pilot is not the iPads themselves: they are simply one opportunity to examine the ways in which digital tools can – or can not – enhance pedagogy. In other words, this pilot project is about teaching, not about devices.
A related pilot project is the result of the work of the faculty technology committee. In late summer, representatives of that committee came to see me to present the results of a faculty survey they had conducted. This survey had identified those technology and classroom upgrades that faculty respondents believed had most potential value. After reviewing the results, the faculty IT committee developed a design for a classroom prototype or model that they dubbed the “pilot classroom.” This prototype represents the faculty IT committee’s vision of a teaching and learning space for a liberal arts college of today.
Well, if you’ve walked past Benedict 101 lately, you know that we are in the process of installing that faculty-designed pilot classroom. (And thanks are due to the physical plant and technology staff members who are essential to making this happen.) This project will create an environment in which faculty can experiment with teaching in a new classroom design and technology configuration, providing feedback to the faculty IT committee as they go. Ultimately, the goal is to refine the initial design based on pilot experience and to remodel multiple classrooms across campus in light of what we’ve learned. When the pilot room is finished, we are planning a small celebration, dedication, and demonstration; I hope you will come by then to see a new kind of learning and teaching space in action.
There is yet another and very important pilot project underway this semester, to which I would also like to draw your attention. This year, Sweet Briar enters into the active phase of its regular reaffirmation of accreditation process. As part of this stage, we are undertaking a project called the QEP, or Quality Enhancement Plan. Sweet Briar’s QEP has been designed by a committee of faculty and staff: its focus is on creating a shared intellectual experience that entering students will undertake early in their time on campus. This experience is constructed to emphasize the active and collaborative learning that is at the core of academic engagement at Sweet Briar and to help students develop the attitudes and skills that will make them truly engaged learners at the outset of their academic careers.
In our QEP pilot, two sections of English 104 students will be doing additional reading and assignments related to this year’s common reading, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (Which they will be reading on, yes, iPads.) This text provides a wonderful core for the project; I think all students, faculty, and staff will find it an interesting and provocative book and if you haven’t read it yet I encourage you to do so. It places ethical reflections on medical research in the context of the history of race in America and the collective biography of one family. Reaching into science, ethics, sociology, history, public policy, economics, and other disciplines, it exemplifies the fundamental way in which the liberal arts and interdisciplinarity can illuminate complex controversies; it models the liberally educated intellectual engagement at the heart of a Sweet Briar education.
As with the pilot classroom, the pilot QEP is intended to be a learning experience for all of us. The team involved will be gathering data on the impact of the experience on student engagement; this assessment will lead to modifications in the model, and a revised program will be rolled out across campus next year.
You will find much else new on campus this fall. You may not have noticed, but the web site has a new design! The Honors program has been revised and strengthened. The curriculum of the Business major has been revised to focus on social entrepreneurship. The minor program in Communications has also been revised: it is now a minor in Journalism, New Media, and Communication. And there is a new and exciting interdisciplinary minor in Medieval and Renaissance studies. This summer we signed an agreement making the Endstation Theater Company an official theater company in residence at Sweet Briar for the next several years, and henceforth we will be promoting the Blue Ridge Summer Theater Festival as a joint Endstation/Sweet Briar project. There are new items on the menu in Prothro (last week, sushi and gyros, believe it or not!). And, of course, there is a new and independently-operated day care center on campus, which replaces the former Campus School and which for the first time provides infant care as well as toddler and pre-school programs.
Whew. I think I’ll stop now. But I won’t yield the podium until I say, in addition to welcome back, thank you all. Everything I have mentioned is the work of the community assembled here. Your daily efforts, whether you are a student, a faculty member, or a member of staff, are the beating heart of this wonderful college. Its energy is your energy, and its imagination is your imagination. I look forward to the wonderful year that I know we will create together.”