President's Blog

Archive for the Faculty Category

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.

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?

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.



Why I Love Board Meetings (no, really, I do!)

Last weekend Sweet Briar’s Board of Directors was on campus for its fall meeting.

The Board meeting itself begins on Thursday evening and ends at lunchtime on Saturday. A day and half is a pretty long meeting, you might think: and of course, preparations start weeks before. And each meeting generates important additional work for the weeks after.

Yes, Board meetings are work, but they’re the best kind of work. Reviewing the information and reports prepared for the Board reminds us all of the vital and exciting things that happen on campus every day. For example, this time we shared a new Faculty Achievements publication — it will be on line shortly, in case you’d like to see it — summarizing all the publications, lectures, exhibits, performances, reviews, grants and honors Sweet Briar faculty have accomplished recently. Other materials reported increasingly strong numbers of applications, increasing numbers of donors, and continued success with finding way to reduce operating costs without affecting student experience.

Showing Directors the construction work underway on the library project and the new classrooms installed last summer renewed our pride in the very successful “learning spaces” initiative. And celebrating the completed funding of eight more new classrooms to be installed in the coming year gave us even more to look forward to.

Board meetings create an opportunity for dialogue between faculty and Board leadership groups; this time, for example, conversation focused on the arts at Sweet Briar and the importance of our partnership with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Keeping with the arts theme, students performers did numbers from our recent production of The King and I over lunch on Friday; many Directors also attended the fall dance concert that evening.

And then, after each Board meeting there are the community updates. (You can find the written update report here.) My office buys lunch for anybody who wants to come and hear a summary of the topics on the Board’s agenda and any decisions they made. This is an opportunity for me to hear comments and questions from faculty members, students, librarians, office managers, athletic trainers, housekeepers, physical plant staff, admissions recruiters — in short, from anybody on campus who would like to talk with the President about the College’s plans and priorities.

Perhaps the best thing about those updates, though, is that I get to reflect back to the campus community the appreciation and respect with which their work is regarded by the members of the Board. Finally, that’s probably the best thing about Board meetings and community updates — how much we enjoy sharing our love for Sweet Briar!


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.



And we’re off!

Gathering for ice cream after Convocation

Opening Convocation last week kicked off the new academic year and welcomed the class of 2016 — already known as the “Sweet Sixteen.”

One of those addressing the community was McVea Scholar Katie Bitting ’13: she reminded her peers that “Money, time and energy all tend to be limited resources for college students. What we decide to do with these resources is a great indication of what we value in our lives and our education. College is the best time to discover what we enjoy, to find what interests us and what our passions are.”

Remarks were also offered by Cameron fellow and mathematics professor Steve Wassell. Taking up the theme of “value,” which is the focus of this year’s common reading book — The History of Money by Jack Weatherford — Professor Wassell encouraged students “to appreciate the here and now, which is forever becoming the there and then.” Dean Amy Jessen-Marshall noted that in a liberal arts curriculum “every discipline challenges us to contemplate and test our ideas about value.”

Opening Convocation is, for me, always an inspiring affirmation of why we value Sweet Briar and all the people who make the College what it is. Presenting awards for academic excellence is one highlight of the ceremony; you can find the list of honors on sbc.edu. Another is presenting ROSE awards to staff members for “excellence as a team member” and “excellence in service.” And of course we honor the value of an outstanding faculty: this year I had the distinct pleasure of announcing a new endowed chair in art history given in honor of former professors Eleanor Barton and Aileen “Ninie” Laing. Professor Chris Witcombe was named as the first Barton Laing Professor to loud and prolonged applause.

Leading the recessional out of Babcock and toward the ice cream social waiting for us just outside, I couldn’t help reflecting on the value of rituals like Convocation. We come together as colleagues to celebrate shared values, including our respect for scholarship, for excellence, for history, and for the future our students will create. And we come together to celebrate our bonds to each other as members of a community dedicated to the intellectual values of the liberal arts and the daily joys of discovery and creation.

And of course we  join together to share sunshine and ice cream on a lovely late summer afternoon!

Who knew?

I’ve been reading Savage Beauty, Nancy Milford’s biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, which I’m finding to be quite compelling.  Millay’s was not an admirable life, but its themes are resonant — it’s the story of, among many other things, a talented woman trying to craft a new role for women and poetry in the early years of the 20th century. It’s also a story of ego, lust (for fame, sex, admiration), self-absorption, and addiction.

In my reading I had reached what are clearly Millay’s declining years when I ran across this sentence: “She was also in the care of the distinguished Dr. Connie Guion, who had come to Steepletop.” (At which I sat up with a yelp, causing Rick, who was quietly reading the Sunday paper, to wonder whether a bee had stung me.)

Yes, THAT Connie Guion. After serving on the faculty at Sweet Briar from 1910 – 13, which she did in part to help support the college education of her younger sisters, Guion went to medical school and graduated first in her class. She had a long and distinguished career in medicine; in 1946, for example, she became the first woman professor of clinical medicine. Among her many accomplishments were significant improvements in the hospital treatment available to poor and working class patients and creating a new curriculum for medical students at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Dr. Guion died in 1971, the year I graduated from high school. Hers clearly was an admirable life.

Several pages in Savage Beauty are dedicated to the story of Dr. Guion’s treatment of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Some of it raises interesting questions about Dr. Guion’s role in treating (or perhaps at some points enabling) Millay’s addiction to morphine. Milford also quotes from Dr. Guion’s notebooks on the topic of menopause, which Millay was experiencing at the time: Guion noted wryly that it is in fact “not necessary to get fat or depressed.” (p. 439)  A profile in the National Library of Medicine notes that Connie Guion was known for her “common sense, perennial good humor and collection of outlandish hats.”

A portrait of Connie Guion hangs in the dining room at Sweet Briar House and for three years I’ve shown it to guests with pride. But I now know much more about her career than I previously did and I admire her more than ever. Although her time at Sweet Briar was short, we remember her for good reason; it’s entirely fitting that our science building carries her name.

May the students who work in Guion Hall daily be inspired by her ambition, dedication, care for the least advantaged, and good sense. . . .


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.