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Faculty, students consider academic initiatives

Joe Trombello | Wednesday, November 5, 2003

Although faculty and students may express diverging opinions on the extent to which students are academically engaged outside of the classroom, both sides agree that the University needs to provide more resources to bring faculty and students together.

To that end, numerous initiatives – both student and faculty driven – either exist currently or are being considered for the future to increase funding and provide more opportunities for student contact with faculty members outside of class.

Faculty initiatives

Mark Roche, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters, said a greater number of programs need to exist for students who wish to become more academically involved.

“For students that have the capacity and the intellect … [we] need to provide more opportunities for them to engage in intellectual [life],” he said.

To combat these problems, Roche said numerous programs exist to provide students with funding for academic projects outside of the classroom. For example, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program provided $90,000 in student funding for the 2002-03 academic year, while the Undergraduate Intellectual Initiative Program, a pool of money that allows students to travel off-campus for “special learning experiences,” allocated $40,665 to Arts and Letters undergraduates.

Roche said that other initiatives – such as the first-year convocation, and a new program called Residing in the World of Ideas, which brings faculty and students together in the residence halls to engage in academic discourses – will increase faculty/student contact.

In addition to these programs, a new initiative this year created by Ed Cohen, associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine, provides a more entertaining forum; entitled Irish Inquisition, the program brings faculty together in an inquisition format typical of the Middle Ages to discuss current topics. The next date is tentatively set for Nov. 18.

“If students go to anything, it has to be fun and as little like a lecture as possible,” Cohen said.

Roche said he is considering future programs that will also increase student academic engagement. For example, he is envisioning a summer reading program where seniors will eventually lead juniors in discussions on a book they select. The books will vary based on major and will provide a small group format in which students can engage in conversation.

Some faculty also said that they would like to see undergraduate research become more common. Sunny Boyd, associate professor of biological sciences, said that this requirement, which she had as a Princeton undergraduate, led to her decision to enter the world of academia.

“We could at least give it [undergraduate research] the same push as study abroad programs have had [here],” she said.

Student programs

In response to the need to create more opportunities for student/faculty interaction, student Academic Commissioners from each dorm have been working to invite faculty into the residence halls. With increased funding and support from Maura Ryan, associate provost, dorms are expected to have at least two academic-related events per year.

The Advisory Committee on Academic and Student Life, realizing the need for a link between the University and student academic commissioners, appointed Ryan last year to serve as this liaison. Ryan stressed that her role is only advisory and students are responsible for participation in the planning of each faculty visit.

“Students really do the programming and the organization. I just give them whatever support and assistance they might need,” she said.

In addition to the two academic events each year, all dorms hold a discernment dinner with a dorm of the opposite sex. Ten students — five from each dorm – participate in a dinner with between four and five faculty members to foster greater interaction. These dinners are usually catered affairs, and students are provided with the necessary funding.

Lauren Williams, Pangborn academic commissioner, said she is also working on a Hall Fellows program with Ryan. The program compiles a list of faculty members who have expressed an interest in holding academic affairs in residence halls and distributes this list to the academic commissioners ,who have a network from which to recruit. Williams said at least 40 faculty members from several colleges have expressed an interest.

“Part of the problem with faculty/student interaction is that students never know how far faculty are willing to go, [if they are willing to work outside of the classroom],” she said. “This [program] is encouraging [because] they [academic commissioners] can call the faculty member and not be denied.”

In response to the push to have in-hall discussions with faculty, several academic commissioners said they have already planned activities.

Greg Downey, assistant professor of anthropology, spoke Oct, 8 in Lewis Hall to begin the “Last Lecture Series.”

Downey said although he enjoyed giving his lecture in the hall, he was a bit disappointed with the lack of student engagement in the material. He said very few students asked questions during the lecture or spoke with him afterwards.

“Students didn’t really engage the ideas I was talking about, which is fine,” he said. “I’ve gone to talks and thought about them a lot, but said nothing at the time I heard them. I don’t think students need to be prepared in some sort of ‘cram-before-the-test’ kind of way to engage in discussion, but they have to be interested in discussion for its own sake or because they care about the subject.”

In addition to the Last Lecture series, other dorms have sponsored events that bring faculty into the dorms. Zach Goodrich, Alumni Hall academic commissioner, said that his dorm has sponsored a weekly event called Night of Faith, in which different faculty member discusses the experiences that faith has brought. Pangborn Hall sponsored a “Politics, Pop and Pizza” night, in which Christina Wolbrecht, associate professor of political science, watched two episodes of The West Wing with students and engaged in a discussion on the issues raised after the viewing.

Wolbrecht said she enjoyed the event, which she described as “a nice and unusual opportunity to talk with students [outside of the classroom].”

Wolbrecht also said the activity showed that academic engagement can be packaged in ways that students will also find enjoyable.

“College should be a time to have fun,” she said, “but learning – that can be fun too and should be the central focus and goal [of college].”