Re-Joycing in the Classroom
One of our trustees recently told me of a conversation he had with a friend of his, the president of a selective liberal arts college. Acknowledging that all of higher education is suffering in this economic climate, he said something rather striking: In difficult times, having a distinctive “product” is enviable, and Sarah Lawrence offers just such a distinctive, even unique, education.
It is hard not to envy his institution’s billion-dollar endowment, reduced as it may be these days, but he makes an important point. Ours is a highly accomplished and productive faculty, and although they are often cited nationally for their creativity and research, the clear mission of our college is to offer inspired and inspiring teaching, delivered largely through small seminars, conference work, and an open curriculum, with students wisely guided by the donning system. That’s our signature.
I chose to teach a course this year— my second as president—to try to gain a real understanding of what it is like to be a teacher and a student at Sarah Lawrence. Admittedly, one course is a small sample, but there seemed no better way to understand this singular education, to get to know at least some Sarah Lawrence undergraduates as students, to have a sense of the rewards and challenges our faculty experience, and to charge my own batteries, since I love teaching.
The particular challenge of teaching at Sarah Lawrence is the intensity of the experience for both students and faculty. I definitely did not want to shortchange my students in my own desire to experience the Sarah Lawrence classroom. And I realized that if I went halfway in teaching “the Sarah Lawrence way,” it would be worse than not teaching at all.
I sought advice from colleagues— other new college presidents; the dean of the College, Pauline Watts; and literature faculty members, including Joe Lauinger, who became my don. In the end, I decided to teach a fall seminar titled “Who’s Afraid of James Joyce?” The one concession to my role as president was the size of the class—nine students rather than 15—but everything else was the same as in other courses: the interviewing process (a little like speed dating, I thought, although I have never done that), the biweekly conferences, the papers, and the conference work.
One of my students, India Nicholas ’09, wrote a funny (and slightly embarrassing) piece about the course in the Sadie Lou Standard. To rebut one of her claims: No, I do not have a tattoo of James Joyce anywhere on my person. And I did fulfill my promise to wear a different James Joyce symposium T-shirt at every class. Lest I shred any semblance of presidential gravitas with these disclosures, let me move on to more academic aspects of the course.