October 2007

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Well, Dean Spears and I hosted the first open meeting to discuss the so-called “4/2″ Commons idea, which was described in an earlier post on this blog.  The turnout was very light, leaving one to wonder whether the changes proposed are a “non-event” as many students have said in recent conversations over lunch in Ross, Proctor, and Atwater . . . or, could it be that those who oppose the proposed changes have yet to weigh in?  Our second open meeting will be Wednesday, October 31, at 4:30 in McCullough Social Space.  I invite you all to come and weigh in with your opinions.

One issue that came up at the first open meeting, as well as in other conversations prior to the meeting, was why a “4/2″ and not a “4/1″?  That is, why make it four years membership in one’s commons and two rather than one year of residency?  Good question, and I recognize there are good arguments for both approaches.  Here is why I have been lining up with the “4/2″ concept.

First, even students who today oppose the Commons system believe the system is very helpful to all students for the first two, three, or four semesters. After that, they argue quite consistently, students have chosen a major, become involved in many on-campus and some off-campus activities, and have grown comfortable enough on campus not to have their place of residence serve as their major sources of support and attention, and find it somewhat stifling when it is.

But if the Commons dean is to remain a “go to” person for students during their four years for issues about which faculty and staff are not as likely or equipped to help, does one year living within the commons allow the time for most students to forge a relationship with a dean to make it natural for them to engage him or her throughout their Middlebury careers?  I don’t know.  But two factors have swayed me thus far into thinking the two-year residency makes greater sense than one year.

First, the second year represents a sort of natural break at Middlebury for so many students.  Around 60 percent of our students go abroad, and so the hoped-for continuing commons communities are naturally broken after the sophomore year.  Most students select their majors during their second year, and so their time and attention shifts from the residence halls to the academic offices of their teachers, and they, presumably, in our environment of close student-faculty collaboration and mentoring, become more important as advisers to students.  Thus, there seems to be a natural breakpoint for a student’s focus on his or her place of residence, and that is during or at the end of the sophomore year.

And second, the possibility to use the sophomore year to build stronger ties among students by spending a second year together, and, equally important, to build meaningful relationships between students and their Commons heads, deans, and faculty and staff affiliates in one’s commons, is very attractive. During the strategic planning process, we discussed ways to strengthen the sophomore year experience, as many in the community felt it was a difficult year for students because it lacked the equivalent of the first-year seminar, junior year abroad, or senior work, usually done through working closely with a faculty member.  A successful non-academic sophomore experience in each commons, such as community-based projects, a year-long symposium, or some other non-graded program that builds community and relationships that will serve our students well as juniors, seniors, and even after Middlebury, can add significantly to our students’ experiences.

The most common argument against having a two-year residency is that it would be “required.”  Asking students to remain in particular residence halls for the sophomore year strikes many the same way as asking them to remain in specific dormitories for four years: it is bad to require that they live anywhere after their first year.

While I agree with that argument (students would prefer no requirements to some requirements), the benefits of what the sophomore year can offer our students — a year in which the geography of where a student lives can still have multiple positive effects and build on the community established through the Commons-based first year seminar program — outweigh this potential drawback.  In addition, the reality of any room draw I see replacing our current scheme would leave few rising sophomores with better choices than they would have in their commons.  That is, by the time rising sophomores would select a room in a strict seniority based room draw, the rooms available would be similar to what is likely to be designated as “sophomore” housing in each commons.  Therefore, in weighing what is possibly gained by having the “2” in the “4/2″ system, rather than a “1,” I have, to date, come down in favor of proposing the two-year residency.

Your views on this?  I am interested in your thoughts.

On my original post about a month ago, I listed items that I wanted to address early in the semester.  I have addressed two of them thus far, and I want to turn, now, to a third: the issue of student workload.

I have heard over the past two years during lunches with students about the “increasing” work load at Middlebury, and how, to some, we are becoming a place that is not in balance—that there is too much academic work assigned, leaving students unable to partake in non-academic pursuits and “have fun.”

The argument I hear most is that faculty are now assigning what has been described as “gratuitous work”—things that do not add to the students’ understanding of the material, but only to the time they need to spend on a course.  The perception voiced frequently is that faculty seem not to know that most students take three other courses and therefore the amount they ask students to do each week is simply too much.

A few things to note on both sides of the issue before I invite students, especially, but others, too, to weigh in on this issue.

  • I have been at Middlebury for 24 years, and I have heard this complaint since I arrived. In fact, I usually hear rising seniors talk about how “smart” and “eager” the first years seem to be about their studies, and how the place is changing. I first heard this in 1984, and it hasn’t stopped.

  • I have spoken with two veteran faculty colleagues, both of whom have taught here for more than 30 years, and asked them this question: has the work load for students increased, in your view, since you arrived here?  Both of them, asked individually, said “no.”  And in fact, one of them even said that he believes he has had to cut some things from what he used to expect from his students.  Each had his or her theories for why students believe that the overall work load has increased, but I am more interested in hearing our students’ perspective.

  • Through my work as dean of the faculty and provost, I was involved directly with the tenure and reappointment review process for many years.  That process includes faculty members up for review submitting dossiers with their professional materials.  Many include their syllabi.  In several cases, it appears as if the traditional assignments that used to make up a course’s “content” have been supplemented as faculty are utilizing new technologies to engage students and have students engage the course materials (such as mandatory postings on class electronic list-serves; searches on the web and of new electronic data bases; etc.). 

  • The rising popularity of the “double major” over the past 10-15 years may be playing some role for those who feel that the workload has increased.  By double majoring, students need to focus on two areas of the curriculum in terms of meeting specific requirements, and therefore have fewer courses to take for “enjoyment,” and, thereby, fewer opportunities to feel less pressure.

  • Some faculty argue that they have indeed become more prescriptive (and expansive) in terms of weekly assignments than they used to be, because, they argue, students are less focused on their work.  If they don’t give specific assignments, they can’t be assured students will do the work, and the atmosphere in class would suffer noticeably.

I am very eager to hear other points of view on this.  One thing is for sure: the student of today, versus the student of 1984 when I arrived here on the faculty, takes the same load each year (four courses a semester and one during winter term).  They do, however, have many, many more opportunities in terms of the number of student organizations they might join, the number of varsity, club, and intramural athletic teams on which they might play, and a whole new world of technology-driven activities to attract their attention.  Video games, on-line social networking, blogging (!), and other technology-infused activities that did not exist in 1984.  Even e-mail, the supposed dinosaur of communications to this generation of students, did not exist: we communicated with administrators through campus (“snail”) mail and with one another by … believe  this … visiting the person’s office, or by calling.  And not with a cell phone.

Just a hypothesis, but maybe the antidote to feeling that there is too much work has to do with exercising more self-discipline in the face of all the information technology-driven distractions that we now take for granted in our daily lives.  Is it possible that the work load has not changed at all, but what has changed is how we spend our time, and more and more of it is being spent on things that didn’t exist even a few years ago?

The Middlebury Initiative

Well, the launch of the Initiative and the start of the “public phase” of the College’s fundraising efforts to support the major objectives in our strategic plan came and went this past weekend.

Why are we doing this? Why have we set for ourselves the huge goal of raising $500 million over the course of the next five years?

Quite simply, we want to ensure for future generations of students the experience that current and past generations of Middlebury students have enjoyed and continue to benefit from throughout their lives; and we want to build on that experience.

The press release about the Initiative summarizes how the funds raised in support of the Initiative will be used. The short version: enhance financial aid; add 25 faculty positions; increase funds for student and faculty research; and increase opportunities for student creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism outside the classroom.

The overall objective of the “Initiative” is to make Middlebury the global liberal arts college for the 21st century, and we have the educational resources in place to make that happen: in addition to our baccalaureate program, Middlebury is also the world-renowned summer Language Schools, our C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad, the Bread Loaf School of English, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Monterey Institute of International Studies (as an affiliate).

In this era of globalization, multiple and competing forces are, at the same time, erasing boundaries of all kinds and strengthening the importance of local languages and cultures. Consequently, the College’s unique and remarkable set of programs, spread across the globe, and, which, for a long time have operated in relative isolation of one another, need to be leveraged so they best prepare our students to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

I see our task as twofold. First, we need to continue to support all of the College’s individual entities so they can best serve the various student populations they have long served—baccalaureate students at the College since 1800; graduate students in the Language Schools since 1915 and non-degree students since 1973; graduate students at the Bread Loaf School of English since the early 1920s; graduate students at our Schools Abroad since 1945 and undergraduates since the early 1970s; and graduate students at Monterey since 1955. And second, we need to determine, with input from current students, how each unit of the College can be leveraged to increase the educational opportunities to students studying in other units.

In trying to link more strongly the many parts of Middlebury, the goal is NOT to make Middlebury more like a university. In fact, the strength and beauty of what I am calling the “Middlebury model” of the global liberal arts college is that, on the one hand, the individual components of the institution as a whole will remain autonomous from one another; on the other, each part of the College will more frequently enrich the educational experiences of students enrolled in other units. For example, during the academic year (September to May), the Middlebury campus will remain fully dedicated to undergraduate education as it has been for 207 years. But our undergraduate students will have greater access to the other programs that are offered away from the Middlebury campus (at our Schools Abroad or in Monterey), or operate during the summer months (the Language Schools, Bread Loaf School of English, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference). By connecting all the so-called dots, and making all of our educational resources more available to our students, we will become the global liberal arts college for the 21st century.

Your thoughts?

A reader of this blog e-mailed me to provide encouragement as I make my way through the blogosphere with my first few posts . . .

He also mentioned that one of the topics I had listed in my original post — the College’s upcoming Initiative — remains a complete mystery to most students, and therefore the big bash dance and great food scheduled for this coming Saturday, is also a mystery.

Well it’s time, then, to de-mystify that event and invite all students, faculty, and staff to Nelson Recreation Center, this coming Saturday evening, October 6, beginning at 9 p.m. There will be a great spread of foods from around the world, and two bands: Freestyle, which will play from 9 p.m. to midnight, and then Orange Crush will play from midnight to 2:00 a.m. I understand Orange Crush is a popular band with students. I hope so.

The reason to celebrate is the launching of the College’s major fundraising initiative that will seek support for three major causes: 1) increasing financial aid to improve access to Middlebury; 2) adding faculty positions to ensure small classes and the ability of students to work closely with faculty members; and 3) strengthening our residential and co-curricular programs. We thought an all-campus dance with two bands known for great dancing music would be an excellent way to celebrate what will be, to date, the largest fundraising effort by a liberal arts college.

Fundraising campaigns typically follow the adoption of strategic plans and our Initiative is no different. The Trustees adopted our strategic plan last May, and we have been working hard to articulate our needs to potential donors and building the base for financial support. We are calling this endeavor an “initiative,” because, unlike a campaign, we believe these three areas will remain priorities beyond the traditional timeframe for a fundraising campaign (typically about five years). Thus, we view the coming years as foundational to building support for the vital areas of financial aid, faculty/academic support, and co-curricular programs.

As I mentioned in my introductory post to this blog, we will be inviting potential donors to campus over the course of the Initiative to see first hand the kind of education that takes place at Middlebury. This is somewhat new in fundraising, as it is more common to have the president and fundraisers out on the road most of the time, visiting with potential supporters and relaying to them information about Middlebury that would attract their support. We will still be out on the road meeting with many people, but we believe the best way to garner support for the College from many potential contributors is for them to see how our faculty teach, research, and engage students and what our students are accomplishing both inside and outside the classroom. My hope is that many students will be willing to share with potential supporters of the College who will be visiting campus the many interesting, challenging, and remarkable things they are doing at Middlebury.

But back to Saturday night. I hope many of you get to Nelson to dance to the sounds of Freestyle and Orange Crush and enjoy the great food prepared by our chefs here at the College.

It is always great to have lunch with students. My wife Jessica and I host a “themed” lunch for students every month at the president’s house, and I try to do “drop by” lunches at Ross, Atwater, or Proctor whenever I can.

During my most recent lunch at Ross, I was able to test the no-tray eating experience, and while it was an adjustment, all the students to whom I made reference about our tray-less eating experience said it was no big deal-they “just put the salad on the meal plate and don’t take the salad bowl.” I found it awkward and uncomfortable, but it was my first try; students insisted it will become old hat after a few more lunches.

My lunch at Ross also reminded me of how good the food is at Middlebury. Of course I don’t recall such choices and quality of food when I was in college, and, to my knowledge, students appreciate the efforts of dining staff. One exception I heard about: the language tables—for those who are not familiar with this part of the language curriculum, these are tables where the language departments host daily lunches at which students and faculty speak in the target language. One of my fellow diners at lunch ate at Ross and then told me he was rushing off to the language tables. Seeing I probably thought he was going to eat two lunches, he quickly said: “one has to eat before eating at the language tables, because the food there is not as good as here.” I am eager to find out from my administrative colleagues why this might be the case. In the meantime, students who attend the language tables: what are your views on this? Is it really true that the food is so different?

During the most recent monthly lunch at 3 South Street, Jessica and I hosted a random subset of seniors who had studied last year at our School in China in Hangzhou. What a fantastic conversation those students sparked. It was refreshing to hear about their diverse experiences, their perspective on their studies, on China as a growing global power, on their Chinese roommates and friends, and on Chinese family life. The opportunities our students have when it comes to study abroad are simply breathtaking, and it is heartening to see how many take advantage of them. It is also rewarding to see the remarkable impact that a Middlebury-quality study abroad experience has on our students not only in terms of one’s education but also personally, something that each of the students spoke to with great passion.

Our last few lunches at 3 South Street—with senior geology majors, the captains of our spring season varsity athletic teams, students who studied abroad in Russia, students elected to Phi Beta Kappa as juniors, members of the Roosevelt Institution, graduating Posse students—as with our recent lunch with students returning from China, have given us the wonderful and incomparable opportunity to engage, through a small group of students, the extraordinary richness and diversity of student talent on this campus.

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