The Colgate Scene
November 2006

A message from President Rebecca S. Chopp
Leading out
Faculty-student interactions are the key to the liberal arts

Analyzing samples in Mineralogy class with Rich April, Dunham Beldon Jr. Professor of geology and natural sciences [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Hundreds of alumni have described to me the importance of their Colgate teachers. Some remember a professor who believed in them when they had little confidence or hope of succeeding. Many describe the sheer excitement of seeing new worlds in art, science, history, or religion because a faculty member led them on a journey of seeing and understanding. Colgate alumni often succeed in critical analysis and "thinking out of the box" -- they attest to the times their professors guided them in analyzing problems or texts and then using the results in new and interesting ways. The word educate is from the Latin educere, meaning "to lead out" -- and yes, many alumni have spoken, often reverentially, about professors who "led them out" of naïveté or false beliefs onto the path of knowledge and mature understanding.

All these alumni voices -- an incredible chorus representing different ages, political perspectives, religious beliefs, and professions -- are in my thoughts as I watch our faculty and students working together. I now enter my fifth year at Colgate and continue to be fascinated by and in awe of the commitment of our faculty to their students, of the eagerness of the students to learn from their teachers, and of the many connections among them. Last year I spoke with many members of our faculty about what makes Colgate special to them. One said, "It's the relationships between faculty and students, the creativity and commitment to learning." Students, like alumni, often rush to tell me how they "love" their professors and what incredible teachers they are.

These personal, anecdotal experiences parallel the results of studies that show the impact of a liberal arts education. Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus of higher education and organizational change at UCLA, has studied the educational efficacy of liberal arts colleges. Astin's review of the empirical evidence leads him to conclude that "residential liberal arts colleges in general and highly selective liberal arts colleges in particular, produce a pattern of consistently positive student outcomes not found in any other type of American higher-education institution." (p. 77). He argues that students experience educational outcomes (educational change), existential outcomes (meaningfulness), and fringe benefits (life and career advantages from becoming a member of a tight-knit alumni community).

President Rebecca S. Chopp
Astin maintains that liberal arts colleges (especially selective ones such as Colgate) are characterized by a strong commitment of faculty to students, a residential nature, and relatively small size. Students who attend such schools are more satisfied with their experience than students who attend other types of institutions. He also notes that liberal arts graduates tend to be more likely to attend graduate school, win graduate fellowships, and earn doctoral degrees. Astin and his research associate Mitchell Chang noted that the educational practices that highly selective liberal arts colleges offer produce the most positive results. These are: "frequent student-faculty interaction, frequent student-student interaction, generous expenditures on student services, a strong faculty emphasis on diversity, frequent use of interdisciplinary and humanities courses, frequent use of courses that emphasize writing, frequent use of narrative evaluations, infrequent use of multiple-choice exams, frequent involvement of students in independent research, and frequent involvement of students in faculty research" (p. 91-92). Astin's research conclusion confirms what Colgate alumni have been saying to me: "the selective private liberal arts college, perhaps more than any other institution of American higher education, exemplifies much of what has come to be known as best educational practice in undergraduate education" (p. 92).

Given our tradition and strength, our strategic plan is focused on continuing, strengthening, and creating new opportunities for interaction between faculty and students.

Naturally, we seek to continue the tradition of faculty and students teaching and learning in both classroom and laboratory settings. One student wrote to me recently about the decision she made in her first year to major in philosophy after taking a course with a philosophy faculty member who opened up for her a whole new way of thinking and seeing the world. The core curriculum continues to be an important place for faculty and student relationships. Core distinction courses allow students in their senior year to have especially intensive learning experiences with faculty members and with each other. Lourdes Rojas-Paiewonsky and Rhonda Levine taught a core distinction course last year; Professor Rojas-Paiewonsky summarized what both professors said was the best course of their careers: "All students read and made substantive comments on each other's projects. The most valuable aspect of this seminar was the quality of student-faculty interaction."

In this 21st-century era of discovery and knowledge, teaching is increasingly blended with research because the critical skills our graduates need involve the acquisition, management, and creation of knowledge. At Colgate, undergraduate research is a signature program, bringing our teacher-scholars together with curious students to experience the excitement of discovery while learning some of those most important skills.

Last year, as part of the first Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Works, more than 200 students presented their creative research conducted under the supportive and challenging eyes of Colgate faculty members. For instance, Sarah Mattes '06 described Fever, Spectacles, and Dust, the mixed-media work she did with Lynette Stephenson (art and art history), designed to inject new life into everyday objects. Brenna O'Rourke '07 conducted research with Graham Hodges (history) on Gouverneur Morris, author of the Preamble to the Constitution. David Simon '07 studied the evolution of managerial incentives in Chinese companies with Cheryl Long (economics). Many science students engage in independent research with a faculty member; Jean Bakey '06, for example, worked with Damhnait McHugh (biology) in analyzing gene sequences of clathrin, a commonly found tissue protein, to explore the genetic relationships among certain animal phyla that diverged hundreds of millions of years ago, and Brian Walsh '06 worked with Tom Balonek (physics and astronomy) to use HI gas to identify galaxies as well as determine several important parameters of these galaxies.

The current generation of students and many of our faculty are also involved in knowledge as transformation -- how engagement, application, and social entrepreneurship are avenues for new and expanded ways of learning. Matt Mills '07 collaborated with Peter Scull (geography) and officials in the nearby villages of Canastota and Chittenango to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants so that they can address issues raised by the EPA Clean Water Act and NYS Environmental Law requirements. Alicia Gleason '08 initiated research at the Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees to identify the cultural gap between refugee groups and regional health care providers. Working closely with Ellen Kraly (geography), Alicia will continue her work this fall, convening focus groups and interviews in order to help support Utica-area physicians and their refugee patients in cultural sensitivity training and informed support. Matt and Alicia join countless other students who work closely with professors to do well and to do good, all the time experiencing that close relationship that opens new doors to the world.

Colgate creates 21st-century liberal arts leaders by adhering to what many see as a very traditional method. Data, interpretive methods, learning styles, and knowledge itself may change -- but the best teaching and learning happen in that close connection between faculty member and student!

Astin, Alexander (1999). How the Liberal Arts College Affects Students, Dædalus, v. 128, no. 1, p. 77-100.

Abstracts volume, First Annual Celebration of Undergraduate Research and Creative Works.

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: Communication, discipline... Next: One cool cat >>