September 2010

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With the new academic year underway, it is both a pleasure and relief to be able to spend less time on the implications of the recent recession on higher education and more time on what we do best and love most: education and the curriculum.  This feeling of relief was most noticeable at the opening faculty meeting of the year, which took place, as it does every year, on the inspiring Bread Loaf mountain campus, 12 miles from Middlebury.

After the introduction of new faculty colleagues and the mandated business portion of the meeting, we shifted into our discussion segment of the meeting.  This year’s topic focused on changes in individual fields of study and how faculty, departments, and the College adapt, or need to adapt, to such changes to ensure that our faculty remain current and the College offers a course of study that best prepares our students to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Three faculty colleagues, Jane Chaplin of Classics, Noah Graham of Physics, and Steve Snyder gave terrific presentations on how their fields have evolved over time and how they themselves have evolved in their thinking of their respective fields.  Their talks provoked excellent discussions in small break-out groups about how each level—-the individual, department, and College at-large—-must be able to evolve if even the most traditional of disciplines is to remain relevant to future generations of students.  We will continue these discussions throughout the current academic year.

Following the meeting at Bread Loaf, I couldn’t help but sense that something was missing from the otherwise excellent discussion.  What was missing were our students…or more accurately the views of our students.  What did students think?  How do they see their education fitting into the complex and dynamic times in which we live and into which they will go post-Middlebury?

Of course faculty determine the curriculum and vote on changes to the curriculum, but student opinion and perspective couldn’t hurt, and in fact, could only help our collective consideration of the College’s curriculum.  A number of the College’s most meaningful innovations and initiatives have come from student proposals.  For example, in the academic realm, two new minors—in linguistics and global health—were driven by student interest and lobbying of faculty and administration, and an “unofficial minor” in food studies has garnered significant interest even though it is not in the College’s course catalog and it will not appear on a student’s transcript.  The students removed the term “minor” from the cluster of courses they recommended for those interested in the study of food—its production, distribution, regulation, consumption, nutrition, etc.—so as to avoid confusion over its “official” versus “informal” status, but the interest remains.  That interest reflects a kind of thoughtfulness that we should include in our faculty deliberations; none of the recent curricular initiatives coming from students (linguistics, global health, or food studies) undermines our commitment to a liberal arts education, and in fact, each underscores how what our students learn in the classroom can be applied to help transform or combine traditional disciplines into something relevant to their post-college plans.

There is a student education affairs committee (the SEAC), which meets with our faculty’s educational affairs committee (EAC).  I encourage the SEAC to continue to engage our faculty committee on curricular issues that relate to the many social, environmental, and humanistic issues we teach and study as part of our liberal arts curriculum.  But I also encourage students at-large or in groups that are not part of our committee structure to do the same—to invite discussion of curricular issues that interest them and that they believe will ensure course offerings that reflect the dynamism of our times while remaining true to our liberal arts tradition.  Such input can only strengthen our curriculum and the overall educational experience for our students.

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