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President's Blog

Archive for March 2011

A Crisis in Creativity?

Today, on the radio program Virginia Insight, the topic will be educating for creativity. The three guests will all be connected to Sweet Briar: Professor Dave Griffith (Creative Writing, and director of the new summer program for young artists), Professor Tom Scott (Business, and coordinator of pilot “entrepreneurial educator” initiatives), and Geoff Kershner, founder and director of endstation theater company, our official theater company in residence during the summer months. I understand that the program will be available later this week as a podcast and also that it will be repeated next Sunday at 3 pm on WMRA, 103.5 in Charlottesville, if you’d like to listen.

Educating for creativity does not mean simply preparing students for careers or avocations as creative artists. It means developing the kind of creative problem-solving and innovative thinking that lead to greater achievement in all kinds of endeavors. BLUR is already being recognized as a distinctive program that reaches across artistic disciplines to develop flexibility, innovation, and creativity as intellectual capacities that are invaluable in all fields.

If you’re interested in the role of creativity in education, you might enjoy this TED talk by Ken Robinson, a leading advocate for creativity in education at all levels. Meanwhile, of course, the creativity and innovation demonstrated by all those who have put the Blur program together represents the kind of innovative approach to pedagogy and program development that makes what we do here at Sweet Briar so continually interesting.

And finally, London.

The last stop on last week’s whirlwind tour was London, where I had brunch with a lively group of alumnae and friends of Sweet Briar.

It’s always interesting what people choose to ask about. At this event, I received a number of questions about how the recession has affected Sweet Briar and what kinds of students seem to thrive best on campus these days. There was also strong interest in various forms of hands-on and experiential learning, from engineering to internships to practica. The conversation was so engaging that poor Rick had to stand by the door with my suitcase in his hands, pointing at his watch to indicate that we really needed to start moving toward Heathrow!

(We hadn’t had much free time in London, but to my delight we were able to stop by the tickets booth in Leicester Square and get tickets for a West End production of Blithe Spirit, great fun. And of course I found a few minutes for the chocolate cafe on the second floor at Harrod’s.)

This trip made visible the extent of Sweet Briar’s reach — there are women in Spain, France, England, and in fact around the world who have been influenced by their time at Sweet Briar and who carry a bit of the College with them wherever they go! It’s always good to to hear questions and comments from people whose perspectives are not US-centered. (For example, some of our European alums were interested to learn more about how financial aid works in the States these days: they are less familiar with that than our US alumnae tend to be.) The reminder that other societies organize higher education in very different ways and bring very different assumptions to questions of educational value and policy is valuable. Our American model of liberal-arts colleges is a rare and precious tradition, not to be taken for granted.

And then, Paris

The second stop on my Spring Break travels was Paris, where I got to spend time with the staff and students of JYF. More dedicated teachers, more students having the time of their lives!

Visiting with some JYF students and faculty

Of course, I wanted to stay and take several of the courses the program offers, especially perhaps the ones that take students out into the city. “Monuments of Paris” sounded fabulous, and the instructor kindly invited me to come along on that afternoon’s trip to the Pantheon, but the schedule didn’t permit me to accept.

During my visit, the inaugural Patricia Nichols Lecture in French arts and literature took place. Philippe Labro spoke both wittily and movingly (at least, he seemed to so far as my limited French would let me understand) about his time as an exchange student at W&L and how falling in love with the U.S. at an early age affected his subsequent career as a journalist, author, and filmmaker. Students were joined by alumnae and other friends of Sweet Briar in Paris for the lecture and a lovely reception afterwards.

Philippe Labro at JYF

M. Labro’s remarks led me to reflect on how we don’t simply live in or surrounded by cultures, we have relationships with them. His description of the transformative effect of falling in love with another culture, rather than simply observing it or negotiating it, gave me a new perspective on what it is that makes study abroad so very powerful. Here’s to the generations of students who have fallen in love with French culture through their experiences with JYF.

An inspiring trip

I’m home again, headed back to campus this evening  after a truly inspiring trip. I’ll share just a few of the highlights in the next couple of posts.

Visiting the JYS program in Spain was the first order of business. Having never been to Seville before, I appreciated getting an impression of the city and the University so that I can visualize the places where our students are spending their time. And what an amazing city it is! On every street we walked down, it seems, there were orange trees laden with ripe fruit and the scent of orange was everywhere. I will recall that scent every time I read the words “Seville orange.”

Rick and I got to visit the Alcazar — here we are on a rainy afternoon in one of the courtyards. It was moving to walk among so many artistic and architectural reminders of a time and place where Islamic and Christian cultures were intertwined and mutually celebratory. This evidence of a deeply multicultural but coherent sensibility was a reminder of the kind of world today’s students need to envision, experience,  and lead us toward.

At a reception at the majestic Alfonso XIII hotel I had a chance to talk with students on the program this semester. What fun that was! They come from a wide range of colleges and universities and had lively answers to my questions about what they hoped for in studying abroad, how it connected to their majors and career plans, and so on. More than a couple were science students who were using time abroad to strengthen their understanding of the arts, history, and humanities generally. Others were specialists in European history, art, or languages who were enriching their majors. Without exception, they were having the time of their lives. They were also without exception very grateful to the staff of JYS and the leadership of Celeste Delgado-Librero, our impressive Director. Here Rick and I are, with some of the wonderful faculty and staff who provide such an outstanding experience for JYS students.

Spring Break, and I’m hitting the road!

It’s Spring Break and students are off on their various adventures. A few of the daffodils around campus have opened, and a couple of flowering trees are just about to pop, and that means it’s time for me to hit the road to spend time with Sweet Briar’s alumnae and friends.

This time, I’ll be visiting our international programs and alumnae who are in Seville, Paris, and London. (Rough duty, eh?) It will be a bit of a whirlwind doing three countries in a week, but it’s high time for me to get to know more about the JYF and JYS programs of which we are so proud.

One of the highlights of the trip will be a lecture by M. Philippe Labro, part of a distinguished lecture series sponsored by JYF, which will take place during my visit to Paris. Another will be a tour of the library at the Universidad de Sevilla, where I’ve been promised a glimpse of some of the incunabula for which their collection is famous. And in London a kind alumna and her husband have offered a special tour of the Benjamin Franklin House!

As an undergraduate, I didn’t study abroad. But I’ve had many opportunities to travel and have spent a good part of my career working with international education. I do believe that international experience is fundamental to a liberal education. Why? Well, it goes back to an idea I posted about recently: the world is much bigger than any one person’s experience of it, and exposure to perspectives other than the ones we take for granted develops both open-mindedness and critical reflection.

Formal study abroad is one great way to gain that kind of exposure during college, and I encourage every student who can possibly participate in an international program to do so. But it’s also true that there are lots of other ways to gain meaningful international experience by working, volunteering, or simply living in another culture.

In the next week I’ll get to spend time with students and alumnae who are studying, living, working, and representing Sweet Briar abroad. I look forward to hearing how they reflect on the ways higher education generally, and Sweet Briar specifically, can promote what is sometimes called “intercultural competence” in students.

(And if I find it difficult to post to this blog during my travels, I’ll look forward to sharing the highlights with you when I return.)

Last Week’s Faculty Meeting

I’m a little embarrassed to say it, but I found the report from the Instruction Committee at last week’s faculty meeting rather exciting.

Here’s the list of 1-credit Honors Inquiry courses that will be available to next year’s first year students:

  • Molecules — featuring a “molecule of the week” each week.
  • Memory and Mortality
  • Egyptian Life and Afterlife
  • Gender and Globalization
  • French Heroes
  • People in the American Landscape
  • Sacrament and Civil Unions: the History of Marriage

I’m afraid that I missed part of the discussion that followed, as I found myself wondering whether I could possibly manage to take one of these, if so which one I would take, and whether first year honors students would find it too odd to find the president sitting among them. Then I wondered when I could get the reading lists, so that even if I can’t take a seminar I could perhaps make some additions to my book pile  for the coming months.

The Honors Inquiry program and our new y1 program share an important goal, which is making sure that intellectual sparks start flying for students during their very first semester on campus. Undergraduate study is such a great adventure: so many doors fly open, so many interesting ideas seize hold, so many perspectives unfold. Making sure students share that heady experience with professors and each other from the beginning of their college careers sets the tone for four years of exploration, achievement, and engagement.

For me, it was Zeno’s paradoxes in “freshman phil.” For next year’s Sweet Briar first-years, it may be one of the Inquiry courses we approved last week.

(So, Professors Casey and Laufenberg, how about it? Any space in “Egyptian Life and Afterlife” or “The History of Marriage” going to be open next fall, do you think?)

“Community Comment” strategic plan draft posted

We’ve just posted the “community comment” draft of the strategic plan. This version reflects the thoughtful and dedicated work of four study groups and the contributions of many other individuals who participated in planning activities or responded to earlier drafts.

This version will be available for comment throughout the month of March. Click on the link above to read it and to learn how you can offer your comments and suggestions. (And when you go to the strategic planning web site, look for an image like the one to the left: if you click on it you will be able to read the draft in “book” format rather than as a simple word document.)

At the end of the month, the public comment period will close and all responses received will be considered as we do one more revision. In April a final draft will be presented to the Board of Directors for its consideration.

To whet your appetites, here’s a brief quote from the introduction:

“Sweet Briar seeks to be the example that proves that “small” can be dynamic and vital, that “rural” can be sophisticated and connected, and that the “ivy-tower” liberal arts gain meaning when they engage reflectively with practical experience. Sweet Briar seeks to be the example that proves that “institutional” and “entrepreneurial” thinking add value to each other: that innovation keeps tradition vital while tradition keeps innovation grounded.”