President's Blog

Archive for October 2011

Sweet Briar and the Cownose Stingray

These three students actually delivered the baby ray they are holding!

Here’s a recent story on local television about some important student research. In case you didn’t see it, I thought you might enjoy knowing about how a Sweet Briar senior is trying to help the cownose stingrays in Chesapeake Bay.

Nobody ever said science was easy, or pretty: figuring out what a cownose stingray had for its last meal can be, well, unappetizing.

“(Sweet Briar senior) Grey says she can dissect about three sting ray stomachs without losing her lunch.

“This one doesn’t smell bad, but I’ve gotten physically sick from these,” said Grey.”

Sometimes when people express a concern about liberal arts colleges and “the ivory tower,” I wonder whether they know what actually goes on in our classrooms, studios, and labs. This is just one example of an undergraduate at, yes, a liberal arts college doing hands-on research that has immediate scientific, environmental, and policy impact. And is just really cool to boot.

Rumors, Flames, and Social Media

In the last few weeks I’ve been thinking a great deal about social media — as have others on campus. Late last week, for example, a student taking a journalism course interviewed me about the effects of facebook and twitter at Sweet Briar and on college campuses generally.

This is the sort of thing I’m prone to thinking about generally, but my recent thoughts have been quite specific. As some of you may know (and as others of you will probably not!) a couple of rumors have been circulating of late, fueled largely by exchanges on facebook and twitter. One is that Sweet Briar is going coed; this is “known” because I am said to have mentioned it to some first-year students when they were at Sweet Briar House for pizza. Another piece of supporting “evidence” is the use of brown as a contrast/background color in some of the new admissions materials, which is seen as an attempt to appeal to male tastes. (Another current and more vivid rumor apparently has to do with the fate of stray cats being “rounded up” on campus. . . and I’m sure there are many others of which I’m not aware.)

Rumors have always spread like wildfire on college campuses: I can certainly recall many late-night discussions fueled by speculation, hearsay, and vivid imagination during my own undergraduate years. Campus rumors are nothing new: what is new is that facebook and twitter increase both the speed and the volume at which rumors can travel. So, before long, parents, alumnae, and old friends back in high school are all hearing whatever’s going around on campus or who is said to have done what to whom after the Boathouse last week.

Social media offer the same amplification to concerns and complaints. People who dislike a particular dish in the dining hall, or a particular image on the web site, or the conduct of one of their classmates, or the dress of a guest at a party, can now announce their displeasure to an enormous audience instantaneously. (Again, nothing new here: we all know the satisfaction of a good gripe session — ) But on twitter or facebook, of course, that audience includes everybody who can see your posts as well as anybody they might forward it to and everybody who can see what those folks choose to re-post or re-tweet. It’s like shouting your complaint through a bullhorn into a large crowd of people, many of whom you don’t even know. Which, frankly, can be pretty satisfying in the moment. Problem is, that audience may or may not include the people who can actually respond to your complaint. (Paradoxically, on the other hand, it is almost certain to include people whose feelings will be hurt by it.)

Those who are old enough to remember when e-mail was new will remember a great deal of commentary and concern about “flaming.’ In the early days of email, people had a tendency to fire off intemperate messages in the heat of the moment; they allowed the immediacy of the tool and the fact that the recipient was safely out of sight on the other side of a computer screen to overcome their sense of civility and effective communication. This phenomenon caused enormous concern and extended public commentary: would social and business relationships be able to survive “flame wars?” Would the general level of discourse plummet to the lowest level of aggressive spontaneity?

Now, that concern seems rather quaint. Most people have developed a sense of email etiquette; most users of email have figured out how to be brief, quick, and yet cordial, and most of us understand that email is not the preferred medium for emotionally delicate exchanges. In time people will, similarly, learn how to make more effective use of social media. Users will develop ways of dealing with “cyber-bullying,” figure out structures for effectively targeting messages, develop better rumor-control mechanisms, and become more thoughtful about what they want to make visible to unknown viewers.

But at present, we’re still in the early stages of that process.

As we work through the social, ethical, and rhetorical implications of these new platforms, this I know: the central values of liberal arts education are as relevant to social media as they have been to writing, print, speech or “web 1.0.” That is, critical thinking, awareness of audience, civility, and the anticipation of implications and consequences are as crucial in social media exchanges as they are in conversation, letter-writing, public speaking, essay construction, or any other communication situation. There may be — indeed, there are — some specific wrinkles to acting upon those principles in new circumstances, but the principles remain the same.



Holla Holla, 2015

The class of 2015 continues to thrive! Last week was their class banner hanging and I thought I’d share a group portrait with you:

Remarks offered by Celia Lee ’15 on this occasion will give you a sense of why everybody on campus thinks 2015 is such a terrific class. “I want to share a quote by Aristotle that describes my vision for us as a class in our four years here: ‘We become just by performing just action, temperate by performing temperate actions, brave by performing brave action.'”

First, of course, is the simple fact that Sweet Briar first-year students are quoting Aristotle! As for the quote itself, it represents an idea dear to any educator’s heart — the idea of self-fashioning through principled action. It reminds us that we become what we do, and that choosing right action is a way of growing into the virtues we admire.

In fact, it reminds me of the motto of the class of 2012; “Factum non Verbum” or “Actions not words.” Now, as a literary scholar,  I might have been tempted to modify this: I have profound respect for the power of words and might have said something like like “not ONLY words.”  But “Factum non Verbum” was a favorite motto of Emmeline Pankhurst and the founding principle of the Women’s Social and Political Union, so it is a phrase with a worthy heritage for students at a women’s college.

Both the first-years’ quote and the seniors’ motto emphasize the link between learning, values, and action — as does Sweet Briar’s founding commitment to educating women to become “useful members of society.” To hear from our undergraduates that they understand that words without actions can be hollow, that their actions will not only reflect who they are now but also help them become the women they wish to be: nothing could make me prouder.


Spectacular Homecoming/Families’ Weekend!

This weekend Sweet Briar welcomed alumnae and families to campus to enjoy a variety of events and programs.

Guest lecturer Kate Chenery Tweedy (in sunglasses) with students

In terms of weather, it may have been the most glorious weekend I’ve experienced in the two years I’ve been here; it’s hard to imagine the campus could have looked to better advantage.There’s a terrific gallery of images here if you’d like to see some pictures.

The appeal of such a weekend is different for different visitors, of course. Some alumnae and parents, our key volunteers, were here for formal updates and training sessions. Some recent alumnae returned eager to see friends who are still enrolled, while some alumnae from past decades arrived interested in visiting with old friends and learning about our newest facilities. Parents of hockey and lacrosse players were eager to see their daughters compete, while other parents were glad to scoop their daughters up to visit local shops and restaurants. What everyone shared was a sense of the energy and fun of a glorious fall weekend on campus.

My conversations throughout the weekend were a fascinating blend of past, present, and future. I heard great stories of many decades, snapshots of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s here at Sweet Briar. And, of course, there was lots of talk about how things are right now: a wonderful group of students gave snapshots of their current experiences in the engineering, BLUR, and y:1 programs, for example, while a demonstration of the pilot classroom gave visitors a sense of what it’s like to attend class there today.

And there was lots of talk about the future of Sweet Briar, too. Most parents and alumnae visitors seemed to have read the Plan for Sustainable Excellence and to be thoughtfully engaged in questions about higher education in general and Sweet Briar in particular. The theme that I heard again and again went something like this: these are clearly challenging times for small private colleges. The difficulties presented by economic circumstances, demographic changes, and increased competition are undeniable. And at the same time, as our students, their families, and our alumnae all know, there is something rare and precious in the Sweet Briar experience that we have wholeheartedly dedicated ourselves to sustaining. And, as we well know, when Sweet Briar women wholeheartedly set their minds to an effort. . . .


Storytelling in the Digital Age

Bryan's new book is available on Amazon

Yesterday we had a lively and engaging visitor on campus. Bryan Alexander, senior fellow at NITLE, visited several classes (in Dance, Art History, Journalism, Anthropology — a wide range of fields) to talk about digital storytelling. In the evening he gave an open lecture which I found especially thought-provoking.

Some of the thoughts it provoked: as Dr. Alexander pointed out at the start of his talk, storytelling is a pervasive human activity. We tell stories verbally, we dance and mime and enact stories, we write our stories down. When new technologies evolve — writing, printing, television, radio — we use them as vehicles for our stories. As we are doing now with digital technologies. . .

The really interesting question is what difference technology and media make to this central human activity. Does telling our stories in writing make them different stories from the ones we tell face-to-face? Or are writing and recitation just two different ways of telling the same story? How different is a story crafted today through the intersection of Twitter and YouTube from one crafted a decade ago through hyperlinks, really? And how different — in meaning, in impact — is a story disseminated on a web site from one disseminated from a printing press and through a book store? Questioners posed some version of this question, both during the session and at the reception afterwards.

Walking home, I thought about the fact that we simply can’t say, yet — and about how valuable and exhilarating it is to pose precisely the questions to which we don’t yet know the answers! Academically, storytelling is studied in many different fields: literary studies, of course, but also anthropology, folklore, and psychology. Professors discuss the sociology of storytelling, study the economics of the distribution of stories, and analyze the history of narrative forms. (As well as the narrative forms of history.) Storytelling is one of those profoundly interdisciplinary topics, and last night it seemed to me fundamental to the liberal arts.

It was one of those evening when I felt strongly what a gift it is to live and work in a place like Sweet Briar, where the opportunity to be part of wide-ranging and interdisciplinary conversation is everywhere.

More Recognition for SBC Engineering

Yesterday the Lynchburg newspaper ran an excellent article on the recent accreditation of Sweet Briar’s Wyllie Engineering Program.

Here’s a quote:

“Six years after its launch, Sweet Briar’s engineering science program received full approval this semester from the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) — the industry’s main accrediting body. The accreditation is a significant milestone, positioning Sweet Briar as the only college in the Lynchburg region to hold an ABET accreditation.”

It will be no surprise to readers of this blog that here on campus we are immensely proud of this achievement. What’s especially wonderful about article, though, is seeing Sweet Briar’s leadership in the local academic community recognized. The article goes on to note that “having an accredited engineering school in the region will strengthen the local workforce and send a message to other companies that Lynchburg is committed to engineering.”

As a college president, I know how essentially the health of any academic institution is related to the health of the community that surrounds it. Every contribution Sweet Briar makes to economic and cultural life in the Lynchburg only strengthens the college and expands the opportunities available to our students. Many of our programs do this, of course — not only engineering but also business, performing arts, and many other programs are actively involved in the Lynchburg area — and in each case I am very proud when our neighbors recognize our leadership.

And, since we’re on the topic, here’s another piece from today’s paper about our participation in a local entrepreneurship initiative. . . .

One of a kind

Sweet Briar lost one of a kind recently. I’d like to share with you the College’s official announcement:

“It is with sadness that we report the death of Dr. Ernest P. “Buck” Edwards, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology, emeritus. He died on Tuesday, September 27 in Lynchburg, VA at the age of 92.

Buck grew up on the Sweet Briar campus.  His father was a physics professor at the College from 1927 to 1943 and his mother, a librarian. He graduated from the University of Virginia in 1940, and then earned his doctorate from Cornell University. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II and the Korean War. After his military service and time at Cornell, he worked as a civilian with the U.S. Army Chemical Corps in Frederick, Md. where he met his wife, Mabel Thacher.  After they married and before coming to Sweet Briar, he taught at Hanover College, served as associate director of the Houston Museum of Natural History, and then taught for five years at the University of the Pacific in California.

Buck came to Sweet Briar in 1965, and taught ornithology, ecology, and field natural history in the Department of Biology until his retirement in 1990.  He was probably best known as having been Sweet Briar’s ornithologist, or “bird man,” for decades.  He wrote several books and field guides including, “Finding Birds in Mexico,” “Finding Birds in Panama,” “A Field Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Adjacent Areas” and “A Field Guide to the Birds of Shenandoah National Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”

In addition to birds, Sweet Briar’s hardwood forests were of special interest to Buck. He established permanent research plots in three of Sweet Briar’s forests, and he was instrumental in expanding the college’s network of nature sanctuaries.  He and Mabel knew every fern, orchid and wildflower on Sweet Briar’s 3200 acres, and they were a distinctive pair as they rambled the forest trails.  Buck, taller than 6’4″, always wore a fedora and carried binoculars around his neck; Mabel, white-haired and diminutive, always wore blouses embroidered with wildflowers or birds.  In 1991 Buck and Mabel used their botanical knowledge to produce an exhaustive, annotated list of the vascular plants growing in Sweet Briar’s forests.  The forest plots, sanctuaries and plant list are valuable educational and research assets for the Department of Biology, and will serve as a legacy from Buck and Mabel to future generations of students.

A memorial service will be held on Saturday, October 8 at 2:30 p.m. at Westminster Canterbury,501 VES Road, Lynchburg, VA 24503.  Buck is predeceased by his wife Mabel who died in 1996.

Buck is survived by a sister-in-law, Anne Hill Edwards ’45 of Portsmouth, VA, niece Anne Cary Edwards of Newport News, VA, nephews Dr. H. Berryman Edwards,Jr. of Bellevue, WA, Dr. Preston H. Edwards of Galax, VA, Dr. Benjamin G. Edwards of Chapel Hill, NC, and their families.”