President's Blog

Archive for the academics Category

The Poet Laureate Visits Sweet Briar

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Threthewey greeting students after the reading

Yesterday the U.S. Poet Laureate, Natasha Trethewey, visited campus. You can read coverage of the public events here and here; both the afternoon discussion and evening reading were inspiring, engaging, and meaningful to students —  those who are writers themselves and those who are “merely” readers and lovers of poetry.

But here’s part of the story you won’t read about in the press. Before the reading, the dinner table at Sweet Briar House was surrounded by Trethewey, student writers, poet/professor John Casteen, and me. As president, one of the privileges I most enjoy is bringing students together with distinguished visitors and faculty mentors in that lovely home. Sometimes it takes my breath away when I realize that yes, these students really are eating dinner with the Poet Laureate and discussing complex and sophisticated matters. It was a treat to hear the conversation:

Is there any ground to the stereotype that artistic ability is inherently associated with mental illness, addiction, and social eccentricity? (One of the students offered a very astute comment, pointing out that creative thinking is essential in many fields and not just in the arts — yet we do not have the same romantic stereotype about, say, economists. Good point!) Trethewey with JGB

Might a poet whose reputation has been built on social media and digital publishing be named as poet laureate anytime soon? (The consensus was no, probably not.) Why have so few poet laureates been young? (This led to an interesting set of reflections on the difference between early and late career work.) Why do many women who write poetry as undergraduates choose not to pursue graduate school or fellowships? (We were a little bit stumped.)

Why do so many people think that art that is popular is by definition of lesser quality than work that nobody actually reads for pleasure? (Again, a little stumped: isn’t the point of writing poetry for the poems to be read?)

Ashley Tucker '15, whose parents drove from Ohio to join her at the reading, with Trethewey

Ashley Tucker ’15, whose parents drove from Ohio to hear her introduce Trethewey


One of the students who attended had this to say this morning on Facebook:

“Best day ever. I am so blessed to have been able to have dinner with the United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey this evening at President Parker’s house.”

She’s right. It was a pretty great day.

Doing Science at SBC

Bio presentation 1This week biology seniors presented the research they’ve been doing. So many of them are doing independent research that it took two whole evenings for them all to present! (I was able to attend the first evening — and I apologize to those whose presentations I was unable to hear.)

Here are some of the titles of their projects — and don’t ask me to explain what they all mean:

  • Rates of Borrelia in Ixodidae Ticks in Amherst County (worryingly high, if you’re like me and love to take long walks in the woods.)
  • Responses of Nematodes, Mites, and Springtails to the Pesticide Fipronil
  • Effects of Floral Symmetry on Reproductive Success in Lobelia siphilitica
  • Breast Cancer Cell Line MDA-MB-231: Treatment with Anti-Cancer Furanone Compounds
  • Sweet Briar Soil Carbon (a study of historical levels of carbon sequestration, partly supported by a grant from the Tusculum Institute.)

And there were of course many others.

The opportunity to do actual, individual, scholarly research of this kind, under the direction of senior faculty members, is one of the hallmarks of Sweet Briar’s academic program. It’s one thing to learn science: it’s another thing entirely to do science, and these students are doing it. It’s the sort of thing that can only happen on a small campus, where access to faculty, equipment, and resources is open to all.

The audience arriving

The audience arriving

And many of these students were doing science by making use of the richness of our campus environment — dissecting ticks collected on campus, studying the visitation of pollinators to plants growing on campus, analyzing the chemistry of campus soil to learn about past conditions. We’re surrounded by 3,250 acres that our biologists use as a living lab.

Finally, of course, the faculty is very wise to incorporate public presentation into these research projects. Having done important research work, Sweet Briar students are expected to be able to organize and deliver a presentation that will clearly explain its meaning to an audience of both experts and non-experts. Whatever these students go on to do, this is a valuable and too-often-overlooked aspect of success.

Attending these presentations was one of those wonderful occasions that pretty much summarized what a Sweet Briar education is all about. Makes me want to be a student again, at a place like this. . .

Undergraduates, Scholars

Copying inscriptions at Assos, Turkey

Copying inscriptions at Assos, Turkey

Each year the Archeological Institute of America accepts ten undergraduate poster presentations for its national conference. Only ten, from across the country. . . and this year one of them will be by a Sweet Briar sophomore!

She’s been photographing and translating Latin inscriptions at archeological sites, mostly in Ephesus, as her Pannell Scholars project. Working with anthropology professor Debbie Durham and her spouse/collaborator Keith Adams (with assistance on points of language from classics professor Bryce Walker), sophomore Jessica Barry is doing meaningful archeology,  adding to and interpreting the scholarly record of important sites. She is a student in the process of becoming a scholar, something the Pannell program makes possible for several sophomores each year.

With Professor Durham in Pergamum

With Professor Durham in Pergamum

Jessica’s is a project that beautifully represents the integrated nature of a Sweet Briar education. Combining hands-on archeology with classical languages, international travel, photographic technique, historical perspective, student-faculty research, and presentation skills, it exemplifies the way students and faculty work together to bring the theory and practice of multiple disciplines to bear on complex and important problems.

Of course, it’s always a challenge for me to single out any one project for this blog, when so many others, equally impressive, are happening across the curriculum. We’ve recently featured some other Pannell projects in the Sweet Briar Magazine; for example, last February we ran a story on Kasey Stewart’s work on health care systems in Costa Rica (a pre-med minoring in Latin American Studies, Kasey was studying Doctors Without Borders) and last year we presented Ashley Baker’s work on a blog called Chemistry for Everyone. (“Science too cool not to share.”)

Holla Holla to Jessica, Kasey, Ashley, and all Pannell Scholars — and to the faculty members who support, inspire, and guide them.


As you may or may not know, 17-year cicadas are out in force on campus. I’ve never experienced the emergence of periodical cicadas before! It’s something to see, and to hear. In some of the wooded areas on campus their sound is almost a roar.

At lunch Professor Linda Fink took some of us on a “cicada walk.” She’s been reading up on cicadas; in fact, researchers from other parts of the country have been visiting this area to study the current “brood” — ours is Brood II — and she preparing to welcome one visiting scientist to campus later this afternoon.

Here are a few things I learned:

The cicadas we’re seeing now, all of which emerged in the last couple of weeks, are actually from three different species of periodical cicadas; they’re just all synchronized to the same cycle.

Female cicadas etch small grooves into the surfaces of twigs, branches, and limbs in which to lay their eggs. Then, nymphs hatch from the eggs, drop to the ground, and burrow in. By drawing water and some minerals from roots, they remain alive underground for 17 years.

Male cicadas inhabit a defined area and “sing” in order to attract females.

Rick, Coco and Tazz came along

But every so often the males move on and set up in a new area. (Which I had wondered about, as the noise has certainly seemed to move around campus.) Professor Fink isn’t sure why they do this: she speculates that since females lay their eggs near the mating site, once an area has been sufficiently populated with eggs and nymphs the males move on to draw females to a new location.

Some dogs like to eat cicadas and others do not. Coco and Tazz do not.



A Matinee with Students

A nice lady took this picture of me and some students

Saturday Rick and I very much enjoyed attending a performance of Coriolanus in DC with Professor Tony Lilly and several students.

Prof. Lilly proudly wears his P&P ribbon

As regular readers of this blog know, Rick and I go to the theater as often as we can. In recent years, we thought we were detecting an upsurge of interest in Coriolanus (based on a very unscholarly review of our own experience!) We’ve seen RSC productions in both Ann Arbor and London, we’ve seen a production at the Stratford Festival, and of course last year there was a filmed version starring Ralph Fiennes. Now this excellent production at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in DC. (I particularly liked the use of sound in this one, which featured drums and other percussion instruments.)

So I asked Professor Lilly and our students why they thought this particular play might have been of special interest in the last decade or so. Here are some of the ideas we batted around:

  • The play starts with hunger and food riots. Perhaps in a time of growing economic  inequality the question of how government should respond to movements like Occupy Wall Street seems especially relevant?
  • Coriolanus hates “celebrity culture.” That is, he resents having to expose himself in what he sees as pandering for public approval. Maybe we’re beginning to wonder whether our own obsession with celebrity in politics has gone too far?
  • We’ve had occasion to consider the relationship between military leadership and political leadership, arising from  experience in Afghanistan as well as from personal scandals. Maybe the play speaks to those issues?

Gathering in the lobby


At intermission, some of the students were connecting the play to their reading of the Federalist Papers and the concept of the “mask of zeal,” talking about which characters are wearing the mask of zeal and which are actually zealous and whether there’s a difference.

So, just another day on which I was reminded of what a privilege it is to be in higher education. Sitting in a theater, talking with young women about ideas like these. . . how lucky am I?

Brownies Trying Science

Earlier this month 81 Brownie Scouts from 9 troops spent a day on campus “trying science.” By completing 15 science related activities, participating Brownies earned three badges.

The day was sponsored by our chapter of Iota Sigma Pi, the chemistry honor society, and led by students from Professor Jill Granger’s Service Learning: Science Outreach course, ably assisted by many of their friends and classmates.

Seeing undergraduate students sharing the love and the fun of science with younger girls is utterly delightful. Faces light up, brows furrow in concentration, hugs get exchanged. And little girls get an experience that makes it clear that big girls do science, that doing science is fun, and that college is a place where cool things happen. (And where the food is really good — apparently all-you-can eat of lots of different things in the dining hall is a highlight of the day!)

It’s a win-win-win, and pretty cute to boot.

An Academic “Rumpus”

Audience members arriving for the lecture

This week Sweet Briar’s Lectures and Events Committee and the Tusculum Institute sponsored a visit to campus by Henry Wiencek, journalist, independent historian, and author of “Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.”

I was pleased that Mr. Wiencek, also the author of books on George Washington and the Hairston family, appeared on campus for several reasons. First, obviously, Virginia history — and Thomas Jefferson’s role in it — is a topic of special interest; Sweet Briar is so close to both Monticello and Poplar Forest that Mr. Jefferson feels like a neighbor. And then, in recent years Sweet Briar and the Tusculum Institute have launched various projects studying enslaved people on the former Sweet Briar Plantation and their descendents in our community; examining the larger context of slavery in Virginia is essential to those efforts.

Henry Wiencek and Tusculum Institute Director Lynn Rainville arriving

But mainly, I was pleased because Master of the Mountain has been the center of an academic controversy — what Wiencek himself refers to as “the rumpus.” Wiencek argues that Jefferson’s management practices as a slaveholder must be taken into account as we assess his public and private statements (and silences) on the topic of slavery. If you’re interested in the controversy, Smithsonian Magazine published an excerpt from Wiencek’s work which you can find here: the New York Times described the controversy here: Annette Gordon-Reed, distinguished author of The Hemingses of Monticello, published a “debunking” of Wiencek’s work in Slate.

I think too often we forget how much academic debate matters. The heart of academic work is not in declaring what is known or has been learned but in marshaling competing ideas, interpretations, observations and analyses and letting them contend with one another. In his lecture, Henry Wiencek openly considered the grounds on which he and his critics differ. He represented himself not as an authority on Jefferson come to reveal the truth but as an active intellectual engaged in thrashing out contentious issues.

Reminding students that ideas are worth arguing for and over is essential to a healthy intellectual community. As is showing them that vigorous academic debate can be conducted without profanity, personal aspersion, invective, or abuse.

Some people in the audience seemed to agree with Mr. Wiencek. Others challenged him on various points. Everyone heard him frankly describe the differences between his critics and himself and explain why they mattered — and why he cares enough about his subject to make the strongest case he can for his views. Whatever members of the audience learned about Jefferson as a slaveholder, they learned something very important about intellectual integrity and what it means to care passionately about ideas.


Sweet Briar Creates

Last week ended on a lovely note — the opening of the “Sweet Briar Creates” exhibit in Benedict.

The strengths of the professional artists on Sweet Briar’s faculty are well known. Their work is a source of pride to colleagues and students alike. But less well-known are the talents of faculty and staff members for whom art is an avocation rather than a primary professional commitment. “Sweet Briar Creates” showcases and celebrates their work.

As everyone moved around the gallery at the opening, I heard many versions of “who knew?” Who knew a professor of poetry was also an outstanding woodworker? Who knew that a housekeeper at the Elston Inn made beautiful jewelry using reclaimed materials and natural motifs?

The VCCA’s Craig Pleasants and CFO Scott Shank: photo by Rob Alexander

Or that a grant proposal writer in the Development Office both painted and made vividly-colored “slumped glass?” (And yes, I had to asked what that meant too.) An Aramark employee creates multimedia pieces exploring consumer lust for technology products. An English professor makes graceful and subtle ceramic vessels. The Master Naturalist creates musical instruments from from things like gourds and deer bone. And so on. . .

ARAMARK’s Kylene Hayslett and Cheryl Warnock, Theater

Talking with the artists and with those who were there to enjoy the art gave me a renewed appreciation for the creativity that runs through every part of campus every day. Art is one reflection of that creativity, of course, but only one — to me, the display represented the way in which  everyone on campus — whatever her or his title and official duties — is seeking to see things from new perspectives, explore additional facets of a topic or experience, and express insights in original and creative ways.

Doing that requires taking some risks.

Studio Art’s Paige Critcher and Environmental Studies’ Rob Alexander

For a professor of environmental studies to display his photographic work (to a crowd that includes professional artists) might, I imagine, be daunting. Having the courage and the vision to take a creative stretch — that what’s the exhibit reminded me is so special about the people who work at Sweet Briar.



Looking Around and Forward

The time after the holidays and before students return to campus is when many professional conferences and meetings take place. For example, I’ve just come back from the President’s Institute of the Council of Independent Colleges, which was held concurrently with the annual meeting of the Women’s College Coalition.

Like folks in all other professions, college presidents find it valuable from time to time to raise their heads from the daily agenda in order to look around at the larger context shaping that agenda and forward toward whatever might be coming next. There is much to be learned from the experiences and ideas of educational leaders from across the country who share Sweet Briar’s commitment to liberal education and student success. America’s liberal arts colleges share many values, commitments, and challanges. What makes them stronger as a community makes each college individually stronger as well.

Here are things I especially appreciated during my time at the conference:

  • I heard a keynote address by Andrew DelBanco on the value of liberal education. Many of the ideas he shared with the assembled presidents are developed in his book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. DelBanco’s main point is that residential undergraduate education plays an essential role in preparing students for citizenship and community life by sustaining an environment in which they can practice leadership, decision-making, debate, and self-government under the guidance of role models and mentors.


  • I participated in a robust discussion about financial aid policy. This session has received some press coverage; the question is whether financial aid is appropriately allocated between two purposes — to meet the financial need of families and to provide non-need-based aid to students with particular qualifications.





Of course, I also valued the opportunity to pick the brains of other college presidents, hear about interesting innovations moving forward on other campuses, and reflect on the national picture of opportunity for students.

It goes without saying that leading an academic institution in this day and age is challenging work. But a conference like these is just one more occasion on which I realize how lucky I am to have the chance to do it! Providing the kind of education Sweet Briar offers to new generations of women, and advancing the proud tradition of the American liberal arts college as an option for all students, is endlessly interesting and unquestionably important.



This weekend was Homecoming/Families Weekend here on campus, and a fine one it was indeed.

The weather was crystalline and mild; this picture taken by Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall gives you a sense of it. The schedule was packed with events, including soccer and field hockey games (which the Vixens played well, although alas didn’t win), a performance (to a packed Babcock) of the King and I, lectures by faculty members Eric Casey (on libraries and archives in the ancient world) and Padmini Coopamah (on China’s interests in Africa), the induction of four impressive alumna athletes into the Athletics and Riding Hall of Fame, a picnic (BBQ pork, macaroni and cheese, corn muffins), a Guion open house hosted by science faculty, a faculty-led “classroom crawl” through newly-renovated classrooms, a networking event hosted by the Black Pearls, the dedication of a refurbished Music Room, hunter trials on the old proving grounds, and probably lots of other things I’m forgetting to mention. Parent and Alumnae leadership volunteers received special updates and training, old friends reconnected, students enjoyed meeting alumnae and one another’s families. A fine time, indeed.

Reflecting on the weekend I found myself thinking about what really makes these occasions so very special. Clearly the beautiful setting and interesting events are important, but in themselves they don’t explain it. After all, on a gorgeous fall weekend in the Blue Ridge there are lots of opportunities to do interesting things in beautiful places.

What alumnae, family members, and students can only do HERE is celebrate connections —  connections forged in and through this place.

Any fine college strives to make its campus an idealistic place — a place where students can experience a bit of the world as they would have it be. Sweet Briar seeks to be a place where ideas are respected, engaged, and lived by; a place where individuals matter and can develop into their own best selves; a place where faculty and students call out the best in each other and in the college. Students who experience that kind of place during their undergraduate years will, I believe, be inspired to work to make the rest of world more like that after they graduate. . . and as the careers of our alumnae amply demonstrate, in fact they do.

When alumnae come back, when parents visit, they are reminded of those ideals. Spending even a short weekend in an environment where the life of the mind is evident, where individuals are valued for their talents and characters, where achievement is nurtured and recognized, where fair play and respect can be assumed — that is, I think, what really makes alumnae and parents most proud of their connection to Sweet Briar. It’s what makes coming home to Sweet Briar truly refreshing.