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Category Archive for 'Intellectual Life'

When the trustees were here last weekend, I shared a compelling article with them— “Ways Today’s Students Are Radically Changing Our Colleges” from AGB Trusteeship magazine. The article reviews the findings of a six-year national study involving 33 campuses and thousands of students and concludes that students today are “different from their predecessors in ways that have profound implications for colleges.” Three similar studies were conducted between 1969 and 1993.

Click here to read more

Dear Readers, 

I asked Tara Affolter, visiting assistant professor of education studies, and Hector Vila, assistant professor of writing, to share with us their philosophy about advising students. In this week’s post, Tara and Hector discuss their role as advisers—of the whole student. They provide an enlightening viewpoint. Please chime in with your comments and observations.
—Shirley M. Collado 

Def. Advising. To advise. To counsel, to suggest and give guidance, personal and professional.

“I’m useless.  I don’t know,” said the student.  “I’m feeling lost. Can we talk?”

“Do I have to take a science course, I’m terrible in science?”

“I don’t know what to major in—and everyone I know is either a joint major or a double major.  I’m scared.”

“I can’t seem to fit in. I’m so depressed.”

“If I ask for help, I will have failed.”

The classic notion of the liberal arts requires that we examine the proximity of the teacher to the student. The liberal arts suggest a kind of intimacy existing between the student, the teacher and the exchange of knowledge. Worried that a student may be too reliant on the wisdom contained in books, Seneca in his Letters, says that, “It is one thing to remember, another to know. To remember is to safeguard something entrusted to memory. But to know is to make each thing one’s own, not to depend on the text and always look back to the teacher.”

Seneca provides several challenges to us: we must examine our relations and proximities to our students; that we then likewise describe the context in which the liberal arts are expressed; and that we try to learn about our students’ implicit scholarship in pop music, sports, fashion, and media so as to better understand how to create a dialog between us that is creative, positive, and safe.

When a student first presents herself to us during the extraordinarily short initial advising meeting, at the first FYSE face-to-face, we have but 25 minutes to decide whether we will see the entire student or whether we will be concerned with the students solely from the shoulders up—her academic life solely.  Working to see the entire student is the only possible method by which to ascertain what the student has made her own, as Seneca suggests.  It’s the first requirement of a liberal arts education.

Students are perplexed by many things—the nature of our tightly compressed world, its complexities and future; the nature of the idiosyncratic academy requiring that students enter into and comply with academic literacies that, in their minds, may or may not have anything to do with the world as they experience it; and their evolving identities as they come into close contact with challenging social moments.

Advisers help students navigate these murky waters and invite students to explore. This takes time—and patience.  It requires that we ask difficult questions—why do you feel lost?  Why is it important what other kids are doing?  When did you start feeling like this about science?

This line of questioning brings us closer to our students. It is an essential component of the liberal arts. It enables the student and the teacher to learn together.




The students on Middlebury’s Solar Decathlon team have done something remarkable. They have taken everything they’ve learned in the classroom and put it to work at solving an intricate, urgent problem. They have used their knowledge of math, geometry, physics, environmental science, computer science, esthetics, sociology, art, and more and applied it to a complicated puzzle. Furthermore, they have had to figure out how to research the things they don’t know, and they’ve had to learn how to work within complex systems, manage group dynamics, fundraise, negotiate, and promote their project.

I believe this is an example of what a liberal arts education in the 21st century can be—where learning both inside the classroom and out come together to create a new, dynamic set of skills and knowledge. Most importantly, this kind of learning can help students solve real-world problems.

Working through the Center for Education in Action, MiddSTART, the Project on Creativity and Innovation, and other Middlebury programs, many Middlebury students have embarked on ambitious projects. This summer, for example, seniors Ben Blackshear, Janet Rodrigues, Jacob Udell, and Kenneth Williams started an urban garden with schoolchildren in the Bronx, New York, and they raised the funds necessary to make the project a success. A visit to the MiddSTART website reveals numerous projects students are launching.

More and more students are coming to Middlebury with the expectation that they will be tackling internships, community problems, social issues, projects, and initiatives in preparation for the time when they move out into the world. They want to be able to hit the ground running—learning without the barriers of place, language, or resources. This is exactly in line with the mission of the College.

However, these outside-the-classroom opportunities are challenging those of us in higher education to re-examine our ideas about what a liberal arts education should be. There is a natural tension between the two educational modes: project-based or experiential learning vs. classroom learning. Some worry that if we move too far along the continuum of experiential learning, we will stray from our traditional liberal arts roots and become more of a preprofessional institution. Others feel that hands-on experiences are the best way for people to learn.

We are having lively conversations about these differences here at Middlebury, right now. The academic year opened with a faculty meeting that included a panel discussion about learning outside the classroom. President Liebowitz recently hosted a leadership summit with “thought leaders” about aligning our education with 21st-century demands for college graduates. I moderated a panel at the summit—Katherine Bass ’11.5, Nerissa Khan ’12, Daniel Powers ’12, and Ryan Kim ’14 spoke about the projects they are doing outside the classroom and how those connect to their intellectual interests and personal passions.

I believe this kind of learning is an essential component of a Middlebury education. If we want to continue to be relevant as an institution, we must evolve in the world we live in. The demands that are being placed on our new graduates to actively engage the world, in all of its complexity, require us to help them learn how to apply their knowledge, how to connect the dots.

Leaders at Middlebury are asking, Can we have project-based or experiential learning and still preserve the integrity of a liberal arts education? I think we can. It’s the most powerful way to do it.

But I would like to hear from you. What do you think? How does hands-on learning impact your intellectual experience? What’s your vision for a 21st-century liberal arts education?


Dear Readers,

I have asked Lisa Gates, associate dean of experiential education, assessment, and planning, to be this month’s guest blogger. She is writing about the vision behind the new Center for Education in Action and how the center’s work is critical to a liberal arts education. Not only is her post informative, it also raises some intriguing questions about how we choose to spend our time.

Shirley M. Collado
Dean of the College

There’s a quote on my refrigerator from the writer Annie Dillard. It reads: “How we spend our days is how we spend our lives.” Admittedly, it’s one of those obvious points, the kind of sentiment that ends up on refrigerator magnets in the first place, and yet I always appreciate the message: stop for a moment, think about the myriad things one does in the course of a day, and connect these daily actions to the larger picture. Are the things that I am doing today important to me? What am I learning from these things?

And that’s where the Center for Education in Action—EIA for short—comes in. As students, you are already well acquainted with at least some of our parts—career services, the Alliance for Civic Engagement (ACE), health professions and fellowships advising—but in coming together as one center, our goal is to provide you with a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Together, we bring more comprehensive advising and resources, more funding and more opportunities for interesting, challenging experiences outside the classroom. Because what you do outside of academics, too, is part of your Middlebury education—and it’s a critical part.

So let’s talk a moment about this broad category of out-of-the-classroom experience. These run the gamut from campus jobs to playing on an athletic team, from mentoring kids after school to presenting your work at the undergraduate research symposium, from practicing guitar (or yoga or rugby or you fill in the activity) to doing a summer internship, maybe with a botanical garden in Denver or the Department of Homeland Security in D.C. (examples of internships offered to students for this summer). This is what you do in the course of a given day or week or month. This is how you spend your days. And yet as quotidian—or in some cases necessary—as some of these activities are, they can still tell you something useful about yourself.

Think about these choices you are making. You’re doing all these things, but why these things and not others? What are you learning through these experiences? Are there connections between what you do outside of class and what you choose to study? Can you take what you learn in volunteering, working, or interning and apply it to your academic life? What do you like or dislike? What fascinates you? What challenges you? What puts you to sleep? Thinking about these choices will provide you with valuable information as you make decisions about classes next semester, your summer plans, or what you might want to do after graduation, because, like it or not, that day will come, too. Your learning is cumulative, and the more you can do to make those active connections between these various experiences and your formal education, the better prepared—and successful—you’ll be in choosing your path after graduation. And the happier you’ll be with your choices.

EIA is one of many resources at Middlebury available to support you in your educational journey here. If you haven’t connected with us yet or haven’t talked with us in awhile, take the time to stop by and look at what we have to offer: internships; jobs; funding; community connections, global and local; career exploration; alumni connections; fellowships and grad-school advising; and preparation for med, dental, and vet school applications.

Did you know we provided 91 students with funding last summer to participate in unpaid internships and independent projects? We offered more than 300 Midd-friendly internships and supported community engagement work in Vermont, Gambia, China, and Uganda last year, among other places. We helped students apply for and win prestigious scholarships, like the Fulbright, the Beinecke, the Watson, and the Gates Cambridge. We helped students gain admission to medical and veterinary schools and find jobs with organizations ranging from Teach for America to Goldman Sachs. Behind the scenes, we’re working with our extensive and enthusiastic alumni, parent, and professional networks to identify new opportunities, speakers, funds, and contacts that can help you connect with opportunities and advice in the areas you’re interested in.

Most important, we’re a place for conversation and advice. We don’t expect you to have figured it all out; we just expect to help you in that process. Figuring it all out, after all, is one of those elusive goals that no one, not even a Pulitzer-prize winning writer like Annie Dillard, really achieves. It’s what you do in the course of a day, a week, or a month that matters. One of the greatest joys and challenges of a liberal arts education is that it is not prescriptive. It leaves you to figure out what you are interested in, what excites you, and how you can deepen those interests through the experiences you choose while a student. You’re in charge of your educational path, but we can certainly help you as you explore these fundamental questions.

Want to learn more? Come see us in Adirondack House. Career counselors have drop-ins from 2–5 p.m., Monday–Friday, and all advisers—for community engagement, health professions, and fellowships—are available for appointments and can be reached by phone or e-mail (check out go/eia for a full list). Just give us a call (x5100) or drop by!

—   Lisa Gates
Associate Dean of Experiential Education, Assessment, and Planning

The annual Posse Plus Retreat was held at Lake Morey in early March, and I felt privileged to be there as a participant. This event gave Posse Scholars an opportunity to invite other members of our campus into a critical dialogue for a full weekend. More than 120 faculty, staff, and students attended, committing their time, energy, and personal courage to the process. I was moved by their passion and honesty. The retreat reminded me of how much we, as a community, need to have this type of reflective time. Although it involved a subset of the campus, I believe it has opened lines of communication and brought critical issues to our attention.

The retreat invitation, sent by the Posse Foundation, defined this year’s subject this way: “This year’s Retreat is your time to collaborate, contemplate, and create the life you want and the legacy you will leave behind both collectively and individually. At this year’s Retreat, we’ll discuss what it means to be living as a Millennial; what it means to be happy; what it means to be charged with leading a world you’re only beginning to shape but will soon inherit.” (Read a PDF of the full invitation: PPR.)

It was a provocative weekend. We had many thoughtful discussions about issues such as technology and privacy, ethics, and stress on college campuses. We also explored similarities and differences across generations.

We looked at what it means to be living as a Millennial. People spoke with honesty and passion.

The retreat reminded me of the extent to which students are grappling with complex concerns. They’re bearing the burden of environmental irresponsibility, war, a daunting economy, a challenged and dispirited workforce, and they are thinking about how to apply their educations to the problems that need to be solved.

I heard students saying that although they feel criticized for being “checked out” or for not caring or for being disconnected from reality, they actually care a great deal about what is happening in the world. Unfortunately, some find our societal challenges so daunting they don’t know where to begin to address them.

Students talked about how fast-paced everything seems—how it’s not enough to do three things; they have to do eight things. It’s not enough to graduate from Middlebury; they have to have a plan in place before they get their diplomas.

We explored differences and similarities across generations.

This sense of urgency leaves little room for them to take risks, to possibly fail at something, to be flawed. Students talked about having to carry anxiety as a constant companion, anchored in the fear of not being good enough, of not doing their best at everything.

Even issues of race and diversity seem less straightforward for students now then they were for earlier generations. I heard some students describe wrestling with conflicting desires to be politically correct and at the same time to express their identities. These students try to avoid labels, which also makes it hard for them to state: “This is who I am; this is my identity, and this is what I believe.” Instead, they described feeling that they must be all things to all people. Of course, there’s strength in this type of sensitivity—these students are becoming a new kind of global citizen—but it can also come at a price if they do not believe they can freely express who they really are and what they really think.

Our dialogue over the weekend also included serious introspection about how Middlebury can foster different types of environments for students. Although the sense of anxiety and pressure many feel did not originate at Middlebury, the atmosphere on campus may somehow reinforce it for some. We asked ourselves how we could soften the environment and create an atmosphere that encourages some risk taking, introspection, and a degree of letting go. Some simple ideas were suggested. For example, adopting a pass/fail option might alleviate performance pressure and encourage some risk taking.

Although 120 people talked about these things at Lake Morey, I’d like to expand the conversation to the full campus. Please feel free to weigh in and share your views. What pressures do you feel? What legacy do you want to leave? What could Middlebury do as an institution to help foster a space to make changes, take a deep breath, and just let you be you?


Please weigh in to the discussion. Leave a comment here by clicking on "comments" beneath the post title.


What If?

Last week, we said goodbye to the Feb Class of 2010.5, and this week we are welcoming a new group of Febs to Middlebury. It was an honor to play a formal role in this year’s midyear celebration for the first time as dean of the College. Febs bring with them a certain energy and enthusiasm that seems to characterize the February cohort. Every time I meet Febs, I’m struck by the infectious, vibrant quality about them.

I don’t necessarily believe that Febs are inherently different from other students, but as a group they tend to bring a slightly different outlook to campus. What they have in common is that they took time off from their usual routine to push the boundaries of their lives—to experience something new, to develop a skill, or to simply become more centered.

The things the incoming Febs did between high school and coming to Middlebury are as varied as you could imagine—from working with children in Guatemala to getting Wilderness EMT certification. Some spent their time outdoors, rafting, riding horses, backpacking, or participating in ropes courses. Others took on challenging internships or lived in a foreign country. And some added something simple but satisfying to their experience, for example, one student worked for a while as a gift wrapper and can now make the “most beautiful bow.”

I’m intrigued by the idea of taking time outside of what we traditionally do to enhance our intellectual capacity, our character, and our passion around an interest. These breaks in the routine may be more important than we realize. If they can so energize Febs, they can do that for all of us.

While Febs have time set aside for risk taking and innovation, other students, faculty, and staff have similar opportunities. Students often use their summers and winter term for this purpose. They sometimes undertake an unusual internship or a significant study-abroad experience. Faculty members take leaves, during which they move their work to the next level, and they come back renewed. Staff, too, shake up their lives in similar ways. I know 50-year-olds who have gone back to school, changed careers, studied something that fascinated them. Within the institution, forward-thinking individuals have taken advantage of opportunities to switch to new jobs or acquire a different set of skills.

These “outside the box” ventures not only restore our spirit, they expand our capacity as individuals. They take us out of the comfort zones we all tend to live within and push us to test ourselves in new ways. Setting a challenge and then meeting it can be very empowering. I believe that the self-assurance and self-awareness that result are essential to living a rewarding life.

I’m curious to know whether you agree with me. Do you think more high school students should be encouraged to take time off before college? Do you feel that Middlebury provides adequate opportunities for everyone to do this type of risk taking and dreaming? And, what would you do if you could? I’d love to see a list in the comments section, outlining the aspirations and dreams of our community; what interesting, powerful, and special things are calling to you?
(To leave a comment, click on “comments,” right beneath the title of this post.)

Today, I would like to discuss a dilemma created by cyber-communication (and, yes, it is ironic that I am writing about this topic in a blog). Like many people, I text, post on Facebook, and use other cyber-tools because they are easy, fun, and help me stay connected. But I’ve been thinking about what is lost in the process.

Our campus provides an amazing opportunity—which most students will not come across again—to live among a completely diverse group of people in a safe environment and to get to know them on the most personal level. This unique experience is at the heart of a Middlebury education.

But, as I walk about campus, I see something that worries me. Many students are so profoundly connected online that I fear they are disconnected from life right here.

I often see students glued to their cell phones, disregarding people in the same room. I see students with laptop lives, perpetually Facebooking, tweeting, scanning YouTube, weblogs, podcasts, and wikis. The face-to-face conversation, the hand-written note, and the reassuring touch have given way to the casual, distant interaction that sometimes comes with living life virtually.

If you are living your day more online than in person, you are missing one of the greatest aspects of your Middlebury experience. We want our students to relate face to face, to learn how to resolve differences, to debate and argue with one another in constructive and challenging ways. We want you to ask your friends and acquaintances, “How are you?” and really listen to them—really see them, learn from them.

Computer-based media, by their design, convince us that we are “plugged in,” when actually we may be “checked out.” As we have seen in national examples and tragedies, some people will confess the most intimate details about their lives online, but they do not know how to open up to their friends, and they risk difficult experiences being overlooked. And people witnessing these online confessions often give them only a passing glance—the words become lost in the beehive-like noise, the fast and furious casualness of it all. No one’s paying attention.

I worry that this may be the first generation without sufficient experience in making human connections, that we are encouraging the development of individuals who will not know how to talk directly to each other and resolve conflict across human lines. We may run the risk of simply becoming observers, passive non-participants in our own lives. I worry that technology, to some extent, is pacifying and paralyzing us.

Although I benefit from the advances of technology and use it quite a bit, I still love a hand-written note, a visit, or a phone call. And I hope that we can all strive to make personal interaction the norm in our lives, not the exception.

I am urging students to take regular breaks from their virtual worlds, to seek out directly the people on campus. I don’t want you to have a transactional experience with your education here. Be a part of the process, not observers of it. And perhaps you will end up listening to someone who really needs you to pay attention. Most importantly, I know that this type of real connection will enhance your Middlebury education.

If we lost electricity for a week and our campus were disconnected from technology, I wonder what it would be like. What would your interactions look like? How would you push yourself to communicate? How would you get your work done?

But why wait for a power outage before you disconnect? Try it. Tell me how it went.

As the Class of 2014 and I start the school year together, we share a similar sense of excitement and anticipation of what life at Middlebury will be like. We may also share some concerns and questions. And as I step into my new role as the dean of the college, there is one question I find myself asking often: What should we ultimately be doing for Middlebury students?

Last week, the student life team gathered for a retreat to consider this question. We discussed our vision for student life and the core values that drive the vision. It was a wonderful meeting of the minds, in which we broke down some barriers and expanded our collective sense of our work with students.

The vision that emerged from our meeting is ambitious, global, dynamic, and broad. It requires a huge commitment from students—and to be successful, I believe it requires a similar commitment from faculty, staff, and administrators.

Our vision is derived from Middlebury College’s mission statement, in part: “We strive to engage students’ capacity for rigorous analysis and independent thought within a wide range of disciplines and endeavors, and to cultivate the intellectual, creative, physical, ethical, and social qualities essential for leadership in a rapidly changing global community.” To me, this means that we in student life must focus our efforts on helping develop global citizens.

It is no longer enough for students to come to Middlebury to get good grades, study abroad, and participate in student groups and athletics. While all of these are worthy pursuits, we are asking more of our students. We are asking our students to hold themselves accountable, to show respect for others, and to take risks to be leaders.

We wish to give degrees to young people who have a moral compass and who are using the skills acquired at Middlebury to advance humanity—to become responsible members of this world.

We are asking a lot. And I believe that faculty, staff, and administrators need to model the behavior and attitudes we wish for our students. We must walk the walk. We will need to push ourselves to collaborate across different functions and areas of responsibility, to take risks, to step outside of our own comfort zones, to reflect the culture we strive for.

While our efforts are student centered, we’re not here to provide just for students; we are here to create a complete community, a neighborhood that transcends the local area, moving ever outward, creating a ripple effect. I believe that if we do this, along with all of the other academic and cultural endeavors, we will benefit as a community—and ultimately as a world.

I’d love to hear from the faculty, staff, and administrators. Do you think I have this right—do you see creating global citizens as part our job? And if you do, how do you think it can be accomplished?

And students, I would love to hear from you. What do you think your responsibility as a Middlebury student should be? And how do you think we can help you achieve that end?

When you hear my Brooklyn accent, you know that I am not from Vermont. But I feel as if this is where I am meant to be. When I left Middlebury in 2008, after serving two years as vice president for institutional planning and diversity, I did not anticipate that I would be fortunate enough to return.

But life is always giving us blessings—and challenges—and it has been one of my blessings to return to campus to serve as dean of the college and chief diversity officer. This summer when I drove back into Middlebury, I knew I’d come home.

I am proud to be joining the Class of 2014—to be associated with the students, faculty, and staff who bring so much openness and enthusiasm to our community. And I am pleased to follow Tim Spears as author of this blog, which discusses issues important to student life.

By embracing my expanded role, President Liebowitz and the Board of Trustees have placed diversity at the center of the institution rather than at the margins. This is something we should all be very proud of.

During the course of the year, I hope this blog will open conversations about interesting and challenging topics related to student life and to being fully committed members of the Middlebury community. In addition to my own posts, I will be inviting guests to contribute. These individuals will have interesting views and intriguing things to say about life at Middlebury.

We will always want to know what you think and encourage you to comment here.  And hopefully, the conversations will flow from here throughout campus, and back, making this a lively place to exchange ideas, think critically, and participate in building the welcoming, learning community we envision.

Some of the topics that might be discussed include: How should the College help students become fully independent and yet provide support and structure? Are we responsible for one another? And what does that look like in practice? What is the value of studying abroad? What personal benefit is derived from the Honor Code?

While I have many ideas about who would be good guest bloggers and what issues to discuss, you may have others that I have not thought of. What are your ideas for topics and voices to include in this blog? I hope you will leave your suggestions in the comment section below.

Back From Leave

My leave is over.  It ended on July 1, and the fact that I’ve waited this long to post anything here could be taken to mean that I wish I were still on leave.   But that’s not entirely true since I made good headway on my project—good meaning that I now have a finished manuscript that I can play with in the coming months.  I am also happy to be back—happy meaning that while I am grateful to have had time to work on this project, I also enjoy administrative work.   Administrative work sometimes gets a bad rap in the academy, and I am halfway tempted to go on about the glories of bureaucracy.  However, I promised back in February that I would say something about how I spent these last six months, so any thoughts on that will have to wait until my next post.

As for my leave, I used the time to wrap up a family history of Ivy League football that I have been working on for the past five years or so.   The quick take on the project looks something like this: my grandfather played football at Dartmouth, where he earned All-American honors (as a guard), and then went on to a twenty-five year Hall-of-Fame career as a college football coach; my father went to Yale in the early 1950s, and was captain of the football team there (he played fullback and linebacker); and I attended Yale in the 1970s and likewise played football (I was an offensive guard).  In tracing this intergenerational history, I focus on the relation between football and higher education, trying to get at what the males in my family learned from playing football.  I also look at how the game was passed down from father to son, an emphasis that gives the project a personal dimension and has nudged the manuscript more in the direction of memoir.  Ranging over almost a century of football history, the chapters about my family members—titled “Coach,” “Captain,” and “Legacy”—describe the three different ways in which my grandfather, father, and I played the game.

My first try at connecting family and sports history was an essay I wrote about Bronko Nagurski, whom my grandfather coached at the University of Minnesota in the late 1920s.  My friend Elliott Gorn had asked me if I wanted to write something for a volume on Chicago sports that he was editing, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to wade into family history as well.  Moving from this essay to a book-length treatment of my family’s involvement in football has posed a variety of challenges, not the least of which was getting over my initial worry that writing about my family (and myself) was self-indulgent.  Although we live in the age of memoir and reality television, doing “me-search” and writing first-person history struck me as unseemly.  On the other hand, as I considered the scope of the project, I persuaded myself that I had an interesting if not unusual angle on a much discussed (and debated) topic: the role of intercollegiate sports in higher education, or what William Bowen has called “The Game of Life.” So I moved forward.

To give you a sense of the kind of issues I’ve been writing about, I am including below the captain’s portrait taken of my father in 1951.  It is customary at Yale to photograph captains on a replica of the Yale fence and against the backdrop of nineteenth-century New Haven.  The fence is a vestige of old Yale, and a symbol of the student world that was both separate from and connected to the official college.  Athletic captains were important leaders in this “extracurriculum,” which gathered steam in the early twentieth century, and so the portraits captured the “Yale man” in a particularly ritualized manner.   Of course, since 1969, when Yale went co-ed, captains of women’s teams have been photographed on this fence as well.

This photograph also had a more personal meaning in my family, not just because it hung on our basement wall with other family memorabilia, but also because my father contracted polio several years after graduating from Yale and subsequently walked with a limp (and often a brace).  So when I was a child this portrait—and others—brought into focus an aspect of my father’s life that had slipped from sight.

While this example is specific to my own family, it provides a glimpse, I think, of how imbedded sports are in our culture.

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