President's Blog

Archive for April 2012

Very Cool Project (and just one of many)

Work in progress -- photo by Megan Salazar

At this time of year it’s literally impossible to keep up with all the wonderful academic events on the calendar. This week we’ve had multiple senior thesis presentations, the spring dance concert, the Pannell Scholars fair, an exhibit of African Art related to a religion class, and countless other displays of the scholarly achievements of Sweet Briar students. If only I had the time to blog them all! Take my word for it: every single day in April brings new evidence of what students accomplish under the guidance of their faculty mentors.

Today I’ll share just one of the many impressive projects I’ve been learning about this week. It’s from Professor Tracy Hamilton’s Land as Art class. The students are creating a work of “land art” inspired by Native American earthworks and land sculptures. Which is cool enough in itself — giving students an opportunity to better understand the achievement of another culture’s artists by creating something similar with their own imaginations and hands is the best kind of experiential learning. A few other points make this project even more remarkable.

First, in order to accomplish it, students have had to reach across the curriculum.

Drawing by Prof. Brinkman's class

Creating earthen land art requires understanding how soil works, what forces need to be balanced to create stability, and how to assess geology so as to identify an appropriate and feasible site. So Art History and Engineering joined forces to address these questions. Professor Bethany Brinkman and her students provided essential expertise.

A Rock Circle from Chelsea Kane's Blog

And Professor Hamilton, while exploring an ancient artistic technology with her students, has encouraged them to capture what they’re learning in up to the minute digital technologies — such as tumblr blogs. Here, and here, and here, and here you can see some of the images and thoughts that students working on this project have been collecting.

What could better tie together the central academic strengths that our strategic plan emphasizes? This is a “learning on the land” project if there ever was one, combining experiential learning with digitally sophisticated documentation, and engaging students in contemplating the artistic achievements of another culture. I can’t wait to visit the work, and to come back to it again and again as the passage of time deepens its associations.


Final Diversity Symposium for 2011-12

Education Professors Jeff Frank and Jim Alouf

This week, the fifth and final Diversity Symposium was held at Sweet Briar House. Professor Jeff Frank, of the Education Department, spoke on James Baldwin‘s analysis of the moral and epistemic costs of racism and the impact that reading Baldwin had on his own understanding of racial issues.

(Previous symposia included Professor Steve Bragaw on economic bubbles and inequality, Professor Bill Kershner on anti-Semitism in Shakespeare, Professor John Casteen on travel study and social privilege, and Professor Cathy Gutierrez on spiritualism and women’s roles.)

Each and every one of these presentations was stimulating and eye-opening for me and, I believe, for others who attended. The symposia were intentionally kept small and designed to bring together students and faculty members from various departments in an environment that would encourage conversation.

Students enjoying tea before the presentation

Marvelous as Professor Frank’s paper was — and it was marvelous; I’m thinking of ways to share it with a broader audience — what made the evening really special was the conversation that followed. A classicist, two scholars of education, a poet, a writer of creative non-fiction, a dean and a college president, some first-year students and a sophomore sat in a parlor and talked about such questions as:

  • what do Baldwin’s ideas imply for educators?
  • is racial justice a moral issue? a political one? or is it “simply” pragmatic?
  • what is the role of education in developing the capacity for empathy?
  • what is the relationship between empathy and self-awareness?
  • what do people of the professorial generation need to know about how first-year college students see these issues?

Dean Amy

Nothing is more genuinely satisfying to me than to have such discussions taking place in the home of Sweet Briar’s founders. Nothing could be a more suitable celebration of their legacy!


(And by the way: clicking on some of the links above will take you to videos in which professors who participated in this series talk about why they love teaching at Sweet Briar.)


The Gerhard Masur Lecture

This weekend, like every weekend in April, has been full of campus activities. The Riding Reunion just ended this morning, and there’s another Accepted Students event today and tomorrow. The Campus Events Organization sponsored Spring Fling last night (which, judging from my facebook feed, was enormously successful) and the Friends of Art and Friends of the Library both held their on-campus meetings. Whew!

Professor Diana Robin, '57

Friday evening the festivities began with this year’s Gerhard Masur Lecture — a very special one because this year’s lecturer was Diana  Maury Robin, member of the formidably distinguished Sweet Briar Class of 1957 and internationally recognized scholar. I had the privilege of having dinner with Professor Robin before her talk. Our conversation was as interesting as it was wide-ranging, from the implications of American spiritualism for women’s public status to the novels of Hilary Mantel (we discovered we are both great fans) to how influential teachers shape their student’s paths through life.

Her topic was “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of Italian Women Writers in England, 1500-1820.” She spoke to a crowded room about how much information about Italian women writers has been available to English researchers since the mid-nineteenth century and, most interestingly to me, about how it came to be available.

Her story was one of an individual collector, who for whatever reason accumulated an enormous catalog of works by early modern Italian women and whose collection found its way into the British Museum after being purchased by George III. I found myself reflecting on the idiosyncrasies of history. Would we know about these women today if this collector had had different tastes? If George III had preferred to spend his resources elsewhere? What amazing information have we lost over time because the stars did not align and, for accidental and arbitrary reasons, it was not preserved?

Students from the row behind me

Professor Robin was thoughtful, detailed, precise, scholarly, and generous; everything a liberally educated researcher should be. Students, faculty, staff, and friends of the college lined up at the end of her talk to ask questions. It was one of those evenings that reminds me of what a privilege it is — and how much fun it is — to live and work in an academic community.


Some Pretty Cute Visitors

This week, Mrs. Tomlin’s K-4 class from Temple Christian School visited campus for an egg hunt in Daisy’s Garden followed by lunch in Prothro. I’m told Sweet Briar is one of their favorite destinations for a field trip.

I stopped by to welcome them — well, to welcome them, and to enjoy being outside on a gorgeous spring afternoon with a group of charming 4 and 5 year olds! I kept it brief, since I was standing between them and a garden full of brightly colored eggs, and then I enjoyed the chance to chat with their parents.

Having neighbors visit campus and enjoy our wonderful grounds is a great pleasure. Sweet Briar is an enormous asset to Amherst and the greater Lynchburg area generally, and we’re glad when members of the community are able to take advantage of everything Sweet Briar has to offer. Colleges and the communities in which they operate rely on each other in many ways and have the potential to greatly enrich each other.

Whether it’s Mrs. Tomlin’s class, or a corporation booking a conference at the Inn, or families coming out to hike the trails, or the high school using our facilities for prom, or birdwatchers staking out the Observatory field, or the historical society visiting our museum, or local families attending theater performances, visitors remind us of the community with which we are inextricably connected and remind the community of why the region is better because Sweet Briar is here.

Goings on going on. . .

What a weekend this has been!

Friday was a glorious day, one of those spring days when everyone’s just looking for reasons to spend time outside.

Professor Tracy Hamilton and I watch the preparations

So we gave everyone on campus a great reason to be outside — we experimented with creating a “lipdub” video to showcase our campus and our community. Here’s a story from the local TV news about the project.

Approximately 400 people participated in creating lighthearted outdoor scenarios of campus life, all performed to the rhythm of a song composed by an alumna and filmed by Media and Marketing staff from a moving golf cart. There were horses and riders, dancers (one suspended from a tree), chemists performing experiments, athletes kicking goals, readers in comfy chairs, international students in gorgeous costumes, drama students setting off pyrotechnics, seniors releasing balloons in their class colors, and too many other things going on for me to remember them all now! For good measure, we also had a bagpiper, the Amherst High School marching band, Daisy and a camera suspended from a remote control helicopter.

How will we use all the images we captured? Don’t know yet, and we won’t know until we can see what all we’ve got. But did we have a great time? You bet. And the afternoon wrapped up with popsicles for all in the lower quad — one more reason to be outside and among friends on a beautiful afternoon.

Sarah Muth and Molly Harper as Maureen and Mag

Then, Saturday night, I caught a performance of The Beauty Queen of Leenane in Babcock. I was impressed by the bravery of the performances given by our students. Mother and daughter characters  Maureen and Mag are complex and problematic, unappealing and alienating in their frustration, resentment, and dependency. The character of Ray, too, struggles with long-simmering angers. Sarah Muth, Molly Harper, and Caden John Campbell embodied these limited, complex, and embittered characters with insight and compassion, never shrinking from the dark and off-putting truths of the playwright’s vision. So, once again, holla holla to Sweet Briar Theatre for giving its audience something to think about and talk about. . .

Then, today, a large group of excited and enthusiastic admitted students arrived for the first Spring Open House program. As I stood before them in the Chapel a while ago, thinking of what to say about everything Sweet Briar has to offer and why it is so very special, I found myself thinking that if they could just have seen what I saw across campus all weekend they would understand it all!