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President's Blog

Archive for September 2011

Video Chat — first in a series

Learning on the Land (and in the air!)

This week students are putting together a weather station on campus: the press release will tell you all about it.

There could hardly be a better example of the new strategic plan’s themes. This project represents making good academic use of our “landscape for learning,” creates an experiential learning opportunity, and involves using digital instrumentation to collect and share data. When the installation is complete, live data about temperature, wind speed and direction, humidity, and other weather conditions will be streamed to sbc.edu and, we hope, be picked up by other national weather services.

What I love best about this project, however, is that our students are the ones making it happen. To quote from the press release, students are doing everything “from soldering and running cables to writing instructions for future students. Each of them will write a users manual for one instrument, said Caroline Sorensen, a double engineering and environmental science major from New York.

The Campbell Scientific weather station was purchased to support ecological and environmental research with a National Science Foundation grant obtained by the biology and environmental studies programs. The instrumentation and the data it collects will be useful to students across the sciences for both classroom experience and research, and to the larger community. Farmers will be able to check soil moisture, for example, and biology students can measure sunlight absorption at the surface.”

Look for an announcement soon: as soon as everything is installed and the wireless is working in the field, you’ll be able to check in on-line to see local weather information. . .

Scenes from Founder’s Day 2011

Founder’s Day in the Chapel. Lovely!

Founder’s Day

Today is Founder’s Day. This afternoon we’ll gather to celebrate our origins and the remarkable act of philanthropy that made Sweet Briar possible. (Although, as it’s rainy, we’ll do this in the Chapel rather than at the Monument itself.)

Anticipating the day, I found myself thinking about 1901 as I walked the dogs this morning. In 1901, my grandmother Pearl was probably just learning to walk on her own and my grandmother Lucy was just beginning to attend school (in the one-room schoolhouse in Grundy County, Missouri.) Queen Victoria had just died, Margaret Mead had just been born, and Emma Goldman had just been arrested on suspicion of inciting the assassination of President McKinley. Marie Curie was continuing the work that would be recognized in a couple of years with the first of her Nobel Prizes. Suffragettes were marching in the streets of American cities but would have some years to wait before achieving the vote: 80-year-old Susan B. Anthony would cheer them on but would not live to see their success. Mary K. Benedict was studying for her Ph.D. at Yale and had no idea whatsoever that in five years she’d be building a college in Virginia.

Indiana Fletcher Williams’ will was dated in the second year of the 20th century. In my imagination she swirls around together with Pearl and Lucy and Victoria and Margaret and Emma and Marie and Susan B. and Mary K. That moment– their world — seems at the same time very far away from ours and very close. Could any of them have envisioned the lives of the women who, more than a century later, would cherish and extend their legacies? Could they have appreciated their own roles in creating a world in which women pursue academics and activism and politics and research as fully enfranchised citizens?

As I think about the founders of the College, I think about how remarkably dynamic the 20th century was for women, especially in the United States. On Founder’s Day, here’s to the women and men who, early in the 20th century, laid the foundations for a century of progress for women.

Last year, a sunnier Founder's Day procession

A Workout Update

Fitness Class I Led Last Week

A few posts ago I mentioned that over the summer I was certified to teach fitness classes and that I hoped to begin teaching occasionally on campus.

Well, I’m happy to report I’ve actually started! Here’s a post from the Vixen Athletics blog about a class I guest-led last week, including this quote from one of the students:

“Simply put–it was absolutely wonderful: loads of fun. I was smiling nearly the entire time, and how cool is it that a gym class gets to be taught by the president of the college?”

For years I taught Victorian literature and other English lit and composition courses: believe me, teaching fitness is a quite different enterprise. But what a treat it is to engage with students and colleagues in this additional way, and to participate directly as president in the College’s commitment to health and well-being for our students!

Dinner on MARS

The Medieval and Renaissance Studies Program (sometimes referred to as Med/Ren and sometimes referred to as MARS) had a medieval feast in the Garden Cottage last night.

Professor Laufenberg explained the preponderance of brown food: tomatoes had not yet arrived in Europe from the New World, for example, and cooking and storage techniques resulted in a fairly uniform culinary brownishness. Actually, though, it all looked quite good. Ciders — apple, pear, mixed fruit — were the period’s beverages of choice and a way to make water both safer and more palatable. She assured those attending that next semester, at the Renaissance feast, they will find many more now-familiar foods, including tomatoes and importantly chocolate. Professors Hamilton, Lilly, Reinert, and Witcombe joined in the cooking, serving, and conversation. (I very much enjoyed hearing about Laura Reinert’s work this summer on “performative linguistics” and “pragmatics” as tools for interpreting the representation of women in medieval literature.) Tony Lilly summarized some of the opportunities that students interested in Medieval and Renaissance studies enjoy at Sweet Briar, from field trips to the Cloisters to productions at the Blackfriars to a truly interdisciplinary minor.

Students have pursued their interest in the Medieval and Renaissance periods at Sweet Briar since the College’s founding and our faculty has always been strong in the field. What’s new today is the way that interdepartmental and interdisciplinary collaboration is forging a broader and more synthetic conversation, integrating insights from literature, history, art history, and other disciplines and adding experiential learning opportunities to the mix as well. This is, to my mind, the best kind of curriculum development: the kind that creates connections and collaborations between classrooms and beyond them.

Professors Hamilton and Lilly serving dinner

Students eagerly awaiting the meal

Memory and Meaning

This rather obscure photo was the best I could do with my iPhone to capture the candlelight vigil sponsored by SGA last night in commemoration of 9/11.

As I stood among the students, looking at their faces in the candlelight, I thought about the fact that on 9/11/2001 most of them were 8, or 10, or 12: not far off the age I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the first geopolitical event that I can remember.

And I thought about education and maturation and meaning-making. Yesterday was a day given to efforts to make meaning out of events that still concern and confuse us. Intellectually, we struggle to understand historical, political, cultural circumstances and forces — and at Sweet Briar, this year’s common reading (Reza Azlan’s Beyond Fundamentalism) and the y:1 program are leading the campus in this effort. People of faith struggle to reconcile the intrusion of violence, anger, and hatred into a world capable of compassion, altruism, and mercy — and at Sweet Briar, a Chapel service in the afternoon offered support to those seeking spiritual meaning. And of course, making meaning of the emotions of grief and loss is a lifelong challenge for us all, one we can face by embracing community and fellowship — as, at Sweet Briar, last night’s candlelight vigil helped us to do.

The beauty of a residential college, and of a philosophy of education of the whole person, was demonstrated yesterday. Individuals make meaning from the events of 9/11 in widely varying ways. They start from different memories, focus on different questions, arrive at different answers, and interpret evidence differently. But on a campus like ours, they do so as whole persons in community, honoring the essential and central role that intellectual investigation and understanding must play.

Earlier in the afternoon, Rick and I attended a community theater production of The Merchant Of Venice directed by Professor Bill Kershner. Before the performance Bill offered a few comments. He said, specifically, that this play speaks to us across the centuries about how we behave when we feel wronged by a person from outside our own culture. This was an astute comment, and a new lens on the play for me, and a new lens on 9/11 as well. He and the actors made meaning for and of the day too.

Fall Season Underway

One of the best things to do in the fall is go out, watch the Vixens play soccer or field hockey, visit with students, parents, and faculty on the sidelines, and generally relish being outside on a fall Virginia afternoon. (I’m not neglecting tennis; it’s just that their matches don’t start until later this month.)

Most recently, I caught the greater part of a soccer match WHICH WE WON and saw a goal scored by a first-year player, always good to see. It was the season opener and some soccer players who graduated last year came back to campus to cheer the team on for the first time as alumnae; they were greeted like the rock stars they are. And last Sunday I watched some excellent field hockey play. We didn’t win that match, but we played hard and well and it was exciting to see.

It would be hard for me to overstate my admiration for the values of Division III athletics. Naturally, it’s inspiring to see women developing their competitive abilities and drive for excellence on the playing field. But it’s also inspiring to know that they are developing these qualities in the context of their larger educational goals and personal aspirations. They are truly scholar-athletes, whose athletic experiences enhance, but never eclipse, their academic priorities. And the coaching staff makes sure Sweet Briar players never forget what they’re in college for –

Here’s one example: Vixen athletes have taken leadership this year in partnering with other student organizations across campus to stand up for civility, diversity, and community and against intimidation, discrimination, and bullying. They see the larger implications of the lessons they are learning about being part of a team for community life. Up Sweet, indeed!

(Following our teams is easier than ever, now. First, Vixen Athletics has a Facebook page: “like” it and you’ll get quick updates about how the teams are doing. And then, of course, the Vixen Athletics web site is full of information, photos, and video that will answer almost any question about our players, coaches, teams, and athletic program generally.)

Guion 116

This summer we were able to renovate Guion 116; the students seem to like it!

It was a relatively light renovation — new work tables (movable, adjustable) with flat surfaces to facilitate collaborating over large documents and displays; comfortable (movable and adjustable) chairs; paint and new cabinets, a deep industrial sink, digital projection, new flooring. In general, a freshening up to make the space more functional and appealing.

Best of all, though, it was a joint project between Biology and Environmental Studies. These two departments had realized they faced shared space needs and found a way to develop a lab plan that could serve courses in both departments. The result is a lab that is in use more hours, for more courses, and that promotes collaboration among scientists with related interests.

The sciences, and science teaching, are increasingly interdisciplinary. Supporting the intellectual desire of scientists to interact across departments and demonstrating to students the ways in which scientific disciplines speak to and complement each other is essential to undergraduate education, for future scientists and for scientifically literate non-scientists alike. This lab project is a good example . . .

With Bio faculty and the staff who completed the renovation