Let the Miracles BeginPosted by admin on 3/24/10 • Categorized as Spring 2010
Explaining the transformative nature of a Beloit education is a little like trying to define a miracle. But eight faculty members, who talk about teaching the liberal arts in practice, give us a glimpse at the magic that regularly happens at Beloit.
By Shannon Luckey’92
When College President Scott Bierman addressed new students at last fall’s convocation, it was his first such speech at Beloit, and something of a ceremonial assembly. Bierman could have delivered a deadly serious talk, but his engaging style had him speaking to students about their new-found independence, the 40th anniversary of Woodstock (coincidentally, the day these students arrived on campus), and how the mysteries of the liberal arts journey they were soon to embark upon could be compared to a comic strip by Sidney Harris.
This comic strip features two elderly men, academic types, looking at a blackboard, where a series of connected equations appears. In the middle is a step that contains only text, and it reads, “…and then a miracle occurs.”
“The step that connects the first equation to the last equation is apparently a miracle,” Bierman explained to students. “One of the men says to the other, ‘I think you should be more explicit here in step two.’”
Bierman wanted students to understand that they were about to undergo a transformation. “And there is evidence that some things about this College will be catalysts for this transformation,” he said. “Your own personal miracle will occur.”
But what, he asked, is this miracle of transformation, this “step two” that regularly happens at Beloit?
Explaining miracles is difficult, paradoxical even, but Bierman said that he began to understand how to be more explicit about step two as he listened to eight faculty members present at a faculty conference the week before. The Dean’s Office selected the eight to talk about the ways they teach the liberal arts in practice.
What follows are conversations with these eight faculty members. Their approaches to teaching may be strikingly individual, yet suggestive of a larger teaching philosophy widely practiced at Beloit. Think of these stories as eight ways of understanding “step two.”
As Bierman said to first-year students last fall: “Let the miracles begin.”
Inspring a generation of entrepreneurs
There is perhaps no better candidate to explain the transformation process unique to Beloit than Jerry Gustafson’63, a professor of economics who has been facilitating miracles at the College for 42 years.
“In my experience, lots of students have been so programmed all through their schooling to try to do the ‘right’ kinds of activities, take the ‘right’ courses, get into the ‘right’ college, that they’ve never really been given permission to think about what they want to do themselves. They very often think, almost reflexively, that they aren’t permitted to do that,” Gustafson says.
In the spirit of addressing that challenge, Gustafson marshaled the resources to open CELEB, the Center for Entrepreneurship in Liberal Education at Beloit, a place where students learn how to put their ideas into action. Located in downtown Beloit, CELEB is home to a business incubator, student-run foundation, cable television studio, recording studio, and a commercial art gallery named “Gallery ABBA” after donors Anne and David Myers’49 gave a major gift to the College in support of an Institute for the Art of Business and the Business of Art.
As just one of CELEB’s many components, Gallery ABBA is an excellent place to start talking about miracles.
Students run the gallery as a retail business, promoting and selling art created by faculty, students, and alumni. Student-artists collaborate with fellow artists and non-artists, such as economics majors, to learn how to manage the gallery as a business. This set-up allows students to hone viable skills that help them follow their passion after graduation.
“What I’ve hated for years are the instances of the very talented fine artists who, in their own eyes, sell out and become stockbrokers,” says Gustafson. “We don’t want them to do that. If they like to paint, they should pursue life as artists.”
Although Gustafson has spent about half his time mentoring students at CELEB since it opened in 2004, the students manage their projects with very little direct supervision from him.
“What this actually does is offer a tremendous range of opportunities for students to pursue their own ideas, and the breadth of things students have done there is kind of incredible,” says Gustafson.
He cites examples of students whose experiences at CELEB have paved the way to first jobs or internships. After already running an art gallery or starting an enterprise, they had a real advantage.
“There is magic to this, too, if you allow students to get really engaged in the pursuit of their own ideas, setting their own goals, and learning not merely by imitating or practicing but actually by initiating.”
Studying poverty as a pathogen
While some students learn by doing just blocks off campus, others are traveling to Nicaragua with Nancy Krusko to see how the entrepreneurial spirit can affect health.
Students taking one of Krusko’s classes, Nicaragua in Transition: Health and Micro-Credit, spend the first part of the semester discussing a wide variety of topics across disciplines, including history, economics, anthropology, and biology. They explore what it means for individuals and communities to be healthy; they learn about the history of Nicaragua and why it’s the second poorest country in the Caribbean; and they study microcredit, the practice of making loans of less than $100 to individuals—usually women—who can then start their own businesses.
To prepare for their work in Nicaragua, students are taught to take field notes and conduct interviews. Then they go out into the Beloit community, into areas where they normally would never go, to interact with people and write about those experiences, focusing on what they found most challenging.
Armed with this knowledge and experience, students spend their spring break conducting field work in Managua. They meet with officials from community agencies, microfinance organizations, and Nicaragua’s ministry of health. Students see devastating, abject poverty when they visit an expansive dump in Managua where people live and spend their days sifting through the garbage to find recyclables. But students also see successful economic development in rural villages and urban settings.
At one site students visit, the women keep shoats, a sheep-goat cross that produces good meat, milk, and wool. They start with two shoats and learn how to tend them. The animals reproduce very quickly, so the women have grown the business to the point where they are now diversifying. They have a butcher shop and plan to start a spinning collective for the wool.
As a result of their booming economy, Krusko says the community proudly sent two women to college. They also can afford to send children to school, take them to the doctor, and buy necessary medicine.
“One woman was even able to get her teeth fixed,” Krusko says, of the improving health situation, “and that’s just that one community.”
After the trip, students reflect on what they have seen and heard and devise a way to bring that knowledge back to the wider campus community.
“In terms of this class, I want students to realize that poverty is a pathogen,” says Krusko, “and I want them to think about what they can do to alleviate some of it.”
Krusko has led the trip three times now, and the anthropology department, which she chairs, has proposed an initiative that would make research grants available to students, providing more opportunities to practice anthropology.
Dancing with a conscience
In Chris Johnson’s dance courses, students learn more than kinesiology and choreography. They learn about social justice issues and collaborate with Johnson to create dances that reflect time, place, history, and often feature an international component. Broadening the scope of dance in this way appeals to Beloit students.
“Students here are interested in the world,” Johnson says. “It’s an easy sell because they already care.”
In 2002, Johnson choreographed a dance piece about children enduring life in a Nazi ghetto. It was so well-received that she and her students were invited to perform at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and, later, in Russia. She has also orchestrated a dance piece about hunger, and, in 2009, she and six students traveled to Arusha, Tanzania, to offer movement workshops and dance performances at Peace House Secondary School, a school for children orphaned by AIDS.
While there, Beloit students with majors as diverse as anthropology, biology, and modern languages—as well as dance—applied their unique perspectives to teaching and performing.
Johnson’s teaching paradigm for these projects involves bringing in guest speakers to engage the dancers and the entire campus community in a topic. For the AIDS piece, she collaborated with Professor of Biology Marion Field Fass, who secured a visit from a South African Fulbright Scholar who studies the disease.
Johnson works with students and fellow professors to identify books, films, and other resources to help students “bring information and deep knowledge to the movement.”
“Doing work outside rehearsal creates another level of performance that you can’t get by only working on technique,” Johnson explains. “Technique is important, but there is so much more than that in a great dance performance.”
And Johnson isn’t the only one who thinks so.
The American College Dance Festival Association holds an annual regional festival adjudicated by world-renowned dance professionals. The AIDS dance piece and other social justice pieces by Johnson and her students have been selected for its Gala Concert, which features the competition’s top performances.
Still, Johnson maintains that art has intrinsic value. Dance and other art forms matter, whether or not they were created to draw attention to social justice issues. “A beautiful work of art on its own can change the world,” says Johnson.
Creating art that matters
“Students are not empty vessels arriving in class that I have to fill,” says
George Williams. “Their voices are important.”
Williams cultivates those voices in his new media, drawing, and painting classes by having students tie their work to things that matter to them. They are expected not only to draw from their experiences, beliefs, and education, but also to expand upon them by conducting rigorous research for a thematic project.
“Art is not created in a vacuum. If you can draw from different fields, you will be a better artist,” Williams says. “Significant artists are trained in the liberal arts.”
The frequent integration of learning and doing serves students well in a field that is constantly changing in tandem with evolving technologies. A successful marriage of images and text in print, electronic, and other media demands critical thinking and problem-solving skills in addition to creativity.
Students also learn how to present their ideas to others and take criticism.
Williams invites people from local businesses and others from the community to be clients of his graphic arts students. These clients visit class to talk about their needs for projects like logos and brochures. Based on that information and their own research, students devise a concept for the client on a deadline.
Students present their ideas to classmates for an informal critique and also deliver a formal presentation to the client. They must be prepared to defend their ideas and explain how they meet clients’ needs.
“They learn to be objective,” Williams says of the students, “not only about the process, but also about themselves. Self-interrogation gives them the opportunity to use objectivity.”
Bridging disciplines across time
Civic engagement is a key component of Heath Massey’s first-year seminar, Deconstructing Time. He calls it “a guided tour of time from various disciplinary perspectives.”
Students consider the social psychology of time by studying the tempo of life in different cultures and the varying social norms for standards and expectations of punctuality. From a scientific standpoint, they look at evolutionary time. From a religious view, they learn about the importance of sacred time in rituals and practices that are repeated daily or from one year to the next.
“Philosophy is a topic that pervades all areas of life,” notes Massey. “But philosophy can be very narrow. I want to break outside the bounds of that tendency to stay in an armchair or a single classroom.”
So for the last five years, Massey has sent his first-year students out into the community to volunteer for eight hours at places such as the Welty Environmental Center, where they learned about savanna restoration, and the Merrill Community Center, which serves one of Beloit’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods.
Students are then asked to reflect on their experiences and question their own views of time:
‑What would they have done with their time if they
Would they have wasted time?
What is the value of giving time as opposed to money?
Are time and money equally valuable?
For these first-year students, adding a real-world component to something as esoteric as the philosophy of time is more than an intellectual exercise. It may help them put in perspective what they will do with their four years at Beloit and with the rest of their lives.
“My job is to facilitate discussions among my students and maybe get them to think about something in ways they hadn’t before,” says Massey. “It’s easily as educational for me as for my students. One of the things I like about Beloit College is the opportunity to bridge disciplines or stretch outside our home disciplines.”
Understanding space and place
Contemporary students may have grown up with Google maps, but Kate Linnenberg wants them to use this technology in powerful new ways as she incorporates sophisticated mapping software into the sociology curriculum.
Her interest in the role of physical place in sociology has her developing courses and projects that teach students to think about variables and patterns, and to do so visually, using 21st-century tools like Geographic Information Systems (GIS).
“I want to create a First-Year Initiatives seminar, the Sociology of Space and Place, incorporating GIS software,” says Linnenberg. “It’s a way to sneak quantitative and spatial literacy into the curriculum in a way that feels less scary to students who are math-phobic.”
About to begin a sabbatical year, Linnenberg spoke at the faculty conference about the future, about her plans for developing new ways of teaching students to conceptualize, analyze, discover, and communicate.
In a new course called Comparative Families in Transition, for instance, Linnenberg is developing an exercise in which students use maps and mapping as a way of seeing patterns. This project also has international dimensions.
“I want to create a course that internationalizes the curriculum, picking places where our students study abroad—China, Turkey, Russia, Ecuador, Denmark, Senegal, or South Africa.”
In this course, students will study changes in China’s population, using census data going back 100 years. By overlaying this data on a map of China, students can build a new set of maps that illustrate both the number of children per family and the gender of those children before, immediately after, and many years following the implementation of the one-child rule.
Students will be able to see how the population changes over time in rural and urban areas, identify exemptions to the one-child rule, and recognize how patterns develop in space and place.
Linnenberg is applying for grants to develop more opportunities to explore the burgeoning applications GIS holds across disciplines like history, economics, geology, anthropology, and, of course, sociology.
“Teaching with GIS is also driving a new research path for me and tying into my scholarship as I work on assessing its effectiveness as a tool,” she says.
Applying research to real-world problems
Sue Swanson wants students to understand the complex connections between the natural world, the human impact on that world, and public policy designed to modify that behavior.
She brings them into her research to do work that transcends disciplinary boundaries and shows them how it can make a difference.
Swanson’s research centers on groundwater flow, specifically springs, which the state of Wisconsin protects. Trout streams are often sustained by springs, but not all springs feed into them. Swanson’s research is helping to better define which springs need to be protected and why.
“I like it when scientific results are used in a broad range of applications,” says Swanson.
Beloit is one of 18 liberal arts colleges in the Keck Geology Consortium, which funds undergraduate research experiences. Last summer, a group of six students from consortium colleges went into the field to investigate the geological controls on the distribution of springs in southwestern Wisconsin and the contributions of springs to stream ecology. Each takes ownership of a different aspect of the project. In the fall, they analyze their findings, working on this research with an advisor from their home institution. Finally, an abstract of student research is published for a symposium in which the students come together to present their findings.
During this year-long process, students discover the importance of rigor and evidence and see the applications their work has to real-world problems.
“When students see how scientific research impacts public policy, it’s motivating,” says Swanson.
But students don’t have to spend a year doing research to be able to influence policy. Swanson wants any student who has taken an introductory geology course to be able to speak intelligently at a public hearing that deals with issues such as drinking water standards or where to site a landfill.
“An average citizen can have plenty of input, and students should be confident enough to do this, to make informed comments,” Swanson says. “Ties to everyday life are important. What they learn in a geoscience course will come in handy and touch their lives in the future.”
Making history palpable
Beatrice McKenzie encourages her students to mine Beloit’s extensive College Archives for primary resources instead of relying solely on secondhand accounts, such as history texts and journal articles.
By poring over diary entries, letters from soldiers, War Department records, and census information, students are able to bring to life national and world history through the stories of individuals. They can listen to the powerful personal sagas contained in oral histories, hearing how wars, public policies, and societal shifts have affected everyday people.
“It challenges students to think critically,” McKenzie says. “Who were these people, and what made them do the things they did?”
This type of research makes history palpable in ways that textbook entries cannot. By reading what people wrote and thought at a particular moment in time, students experience history in an entirely new way. Between its extensive archives, the Logan Museum of Anthropology, and the Wright Museum of Art, Beloit is in a position to offer students access to unfiltered historical information in a way that few institutions can.
While these primary resources are a huge asset for students, McKenzie isn’t satisfied to have her students only studying sources in a library or museum archive. She also sends them into the Beloit community to conduct interviews, collect oral histories, and experience firsthand our nation’s history in the making.
Students taking her 100-level History of U.S. Citizenship course, for example, are required to tutor immigrants who are studying to take the citizenship exam. This experiential component gives students an intensely personal view of issues surrounding immigration and citizenship.
“They understand the process much more fundamentally,” says McKenzie, “It does get messy, but it’s wonderful, transformative. Our students are so lucky to study citizenship theory and history in the classroom and then see it in practice in our community.”