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Academic Vision

The following is adapted from his report to the St. Lawrence faculty for 2005 by Grant H. Cornwell ’79, vice president of the University, dean of academic affairs and professor of philosophy. We share this essay in the Report of Appreciation in recognition of the individuals and foundations whose gifts and grants always have been and always will be essential to fulfilling our vision.

To prepare our graduates, to equip them with the knowledge and skills they will require when they leave St. Lawrence, the faculty are constantly engaged in a process of research and innovation, changing what we teach and how we teach in response to changes in our disciplines, in our students, and in the world.  We know that our evolving vision will come to reality thanks to the generosity of our alumni, parents and friends.  As we shape that academic vision, we are considering a series of planning papers drafted with diligent care by groups of faculty and staff over the last year.  Individually, they articulate ambitious visions for dimensions of our academic program that are central to our mission.  Together, I believe, they offer an inspiring map that leads to a more demanding, coherent, and compelling academic program. 

The planning papers include:

  • Participatory Democracy and Liberal Learning: The Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership
  • International/Global Studies: Examining the Whole and Its Parts
  • Rhetoric and 21st Century Literacies
  • Academic Planning: Cultivating Student Agency in Their Own Learning

Already we see the connection to philanthropy in these arenas, as past grants have helped us make great progress.  For example, a Freeman Foundation grant enabled us to fund the Undergraduate Asian Studies Initiative, which allowed dozens of faculty and students to travel to Asia to advance their understanding, and a Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation grant made it possible for us to fund several positions in one of our newer academic programs, global studies.

In what follows I want to draw upon some thinkers I find especially insightful to give an account of why I think the initiatives described in the planning papers could together constitute a productively disruptive intervention in the status quo.

Socially Engaged Liberal Learning
Let me first talk about John Dewey and community-based learning.  For Dewey, the fundamental aim of education is to equip students to participate in a democratic society, and he makes a strong case that this cannot happen if education is thought only to take place in the classroom.  Ideas, he says, are anticipations of possible solutions, and they can be tested only in experience.  For Dewey, teaching is not a function of conveying knowledge, so much as it is the process of equipping students with the tools to understand experience.  Ideas are useful if they help you get good things done in the world.  Good professors are architects of experiences which educate. Engaged learning, for Dewey, is problem-solving.

Our campuses today have hugely increased incidents of both depression and high-risk drinking.  What if these are symptoms of a lack of purpose and passion?  There is emerging evidence that students who are civically engaged, who, in a Dewian sense, are testing social theory in practice, have lower incidences of depression and high-risk drinking.  What if community-based learning fosters a sense of purpose, a lived engagement with inquiry? What if this pedagogy at the same time contributes to the well-being of the students engaged in it?

The Association of American Colleges and Universities, in collaboration with an institute called Bridging Theory to Practice, has recently launched a major grant initiative to further test this hypothesis.  I am very pleased to say that our proposal was successful in very keen competition.  As a result, we have $90,000 in funding over the next couple of years both to expand and consolidate our programs of civic engagement and to study, through a very rigorous methodology, whether these modes of engaged learning have the positive influences hypothesized. Support for initiatives in this kind of learning has also come in the recent past from the Alcoa Foundation.

Critical Literacies
Let me now talk a bit about another thinker I find inspiring, Paulo Friere.  Friere, like Dewey, believes that education should be liberating and empowering.  Its purpose is to unlock the potential of students to act in and on the world.  Friere would have us understand education as the process of empowering students to achieve their purpose in the world, to be capable of acting on the world rather than simply being subject to it.  He says, of course, that educated persons act in and on the world through words; it is how we create change, it is how we get things done. As social beings, much of what we accomplish is through communication.
It follows that an empowering education must equip students with a full set of skills of analysis, articulation and persuasion.  Again, though, is the theme of purpose.  One’s investment in listening, speaking, writing and reading is redoubled if the purpose is clear, pressing and one’s own. 

Three previous grants helped lay the groundwork for what our faculty seek to pursue now in this vital area: from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, for the Center for Teaching and Learning; from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for a symposium on oral communication; and from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, for a faculty dialog on democracy.

Students as Agents in Their Own Learning
A central theme of this report is how we can encourage our students to be more intentional about their learning—how they can be led to greater responsibility for crafting the course of their educations. What we should seek, I believe, is a paradigm shift away from academic advising – which is a framing that puts the agency and onus of responsibility on faculty advisors – and toward a program of academic planning, where agency and responsibility rest with students.  Our academic program, beginning with the First-Year Program, wherein students choose to join intentional learning communities around common intellectual interests, and ends with a Senior-Year Experience, wherein students bring their four-year courses of study to bear on an intensive project of integration, beckons for a degree of intentionality in charting and revising the path between the two that is manifestly not the norm right now.

We have an increasing number of programs and initiatives that enable students to create and pursue their own purposes.  Consider what the following have in common:

  • SYE independent projects;
  • University Fellows projects, which are student-initiated, faculty-mentored, University-funded independent research projects during the summer;
  • CIIS Fellows projects, proposed by student/faculty teams, and funded by the Center for International and Intercultural Studies (CIIS), for off-campus field work;
  • Student Travel Grants, funded by the CIIS to support independent educational projects undertaken by students studying abroad;
  • Tanner Fellows projects, which are student-initiated independent projects funded by a special endowment;
  • McNair Fellows projects, which are student-initiated, faculty-mentored, independent research projects undertaken with the explicit intention of orienting and preparing talented students for graduate school who come from populations underrepresented in higher education.

Support for these and similar projects for St. Lawrence student, faculty, and student/faculty collaborative research has come in the past from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Education, the Merck Company Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), many individual benefactors, and the Alumni Executive Council, among many others.

Students who take advantage of these opportunities have a strong sense of purpose; their reasons for being here have a kind of focus, a kind of intentionality, that place these students in a fundamentally different kind of relationship with the faculty and with the University.  They are not here, drifting, collecting “collegiate experiences” as an entitlement of passage. They understand that purposeful inquiry is a form of meaning-making.  The more we can do to promote this culture, the better St. Lawrence will become, and I think the centerpiece of this change lies in a paradigm shift in advising. 

On Change

I see so much potential at St. Lawrence right now.  I am interested only in changes that promise to enable us to better achieve our mission, our collective purpose, as a liberal arts college. In my mind, this means asking more from our students: more commitment, more engagement, more seriousness of purpose.
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