To the Class of 2021: Be Resilient, Like a Tree

By | Dean, The Liberal Arts, The Undergraduate Experience | One Comment

Dear College of Arts & Letters Class of 2021,

Welcome to Michigan State University!

As you embark on the adventure of discovery and growth that is a liberal arts education in the College of Arts & Letters here at Michigan State University, I invite you to consider for a moment what we might learn from a peculiar tree you will encounter on campus.

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Finding Your Place, Leaving a Mark

By | Dean, Education, The Administrative Life, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | No Comments

Dear College of Arts & Letters Class of 2020,

Welcome to Michigan State University!

As you begin your journey in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University, let me tell you a secret.

CF Baker _Charles_Fuller_1872-1927Scratched into the corner of a 135-year old window in Linton Hall is the name of a student who graduated in 1891 from what was then referred to as the Michigan Agricultural College. His name is C.F. Baker; and he is but one of the thousands of graduates who precede you.

Like the man himself, whose scholarly contributions, it was said after his death, “were all too obscured by his indifference to public recognition,” the name etched in glass goes largely unnoticed. Yet, once it is called to your attention, you can’t enter the room without some awareness of the presence of C.F. Baker.

He was a scientist and an educator, the embodiment of an idea that has long stood at the heart of the Michigan State University land-grant mission to “advance knowledge and transform lives.”

After graduating, he received a master’s degree from Stanford, and his desire to advance human knowledge of entomology and fungi led him to the Philippines where the specimens he gathered significantly enriched the collection of the Smithsonian, to whom they passed upon his death in 1927.

During his time in the Philippines, he helped found the Philippine College of Agriculture, fought tirelessly for appropriations and, in his role as Dean, “sought eagerly for a faculty fired by a kindred zeal to his own.”

The tenacity, humility, and diligent commitment to excellence we’ve come to associate with what it means to be a Spartan were handed down to us from predecessors like C.F. Baker, who wrote that one of his most cherished principles was not to give up, who inspired his students — he “could capture their imaginations and stir their hopes as no other member of the faculty could” — who followed his research wherever it led him, and who left a mark, not only here on campus, but on the lives of those he met and on the world he loved.

As you begin your time here on campus, I encourage you to take full advantage of all that Michigan State University has to offer. Explore different majors, embrace the research endeavor, pursue an internship, and study abroad (more than once).

And as you chart a path of your own, pursue excellence in your chosen field of study, and seek to make the world into which you will graduate a better, more beautiful, and more just place, keep the spirit of predecessors like C.F. Baker close to you as a model of what a Spartan’s Will can do.

Welcome home, Spartan Class of 2020.

Sincerely,

Christopher P. Long, Dean
College of Arts & Letters

Paths to Explore

By | Dean, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | No Comments

Last week was the first week of the fall semester at Michigan State. It was my first opportunity to welcome new students to campus as Dean of the College of Arts & Letters.

In order to encourage students to identify with the College and to feel that their Dean is accessible and engaged, we created a fun video, wrote an open letter of welcome, and used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to celebrate the beginning of our academic journey at MSU.

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Beginning Anew with #PSUGenEd

By | The Administrative Life, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | No Comments

At the Penn State General Education Spring 2014 retreat, we decided to begin anew with GenEd as we try to find ways to feasibly adopt a curriculum that would be animated by substantive integrative learning outcomes. At the retreat, we ripped up the planned agenda, and started thinking anew about how to create a curriculum worthy of our Penn State students.

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General Education Reform at Penn State

By | The Administrative Life, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | One Comment

The Information Technology unit at Penn State holds IT Matters breakfasts a few times a year. This semester I joined colleagues on stage to talk about my work and how it intersects with IT at Penn State.

Because we have partnered with Brad Koslek and the TLT Studio to create a dynamic online space of dialogue and conversation about General Education reform at Penn State, they asked me about the PSUGenEd reform process. My 4 minute riff on GenEd, its importance, and how we are trying to change it at Penn State is embedded below.

Our partnership with the TLT Studio has gone some distance in modeling a way of using digital media to cultivate community around an important education reform issue. Because Penn State is a single university geographically dispersed, the GenEd Matters site has become a kind of marketplace of ideas and information about the GenEd reform process. We have sought to include a wide public in these conversations and, as a result, we have received an enormous amount of very helpful feedback on the process and suggestions for the emerging curriculum.

The site is continually being updated, its functionality improved even as we use it to engage in conversation. It’s a little like rebuilding the ship of Theseus as we sail it. Still, it is an intensely collaborative endeavor as we think about how design impacts discussion and how transformative reform can be undertaken in and with a thoughtful public.

You are invited to watch the video and join the conversation.

#PSUGenEd and the Research Endeavor

By | The Administrative Life, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | No Comments

We at Penn State are engaged in an intense, ongoing and, in my view, very healthy dialogue about General Education reform.

In order to integrate the research endeavor into the undergraduate experience, we ought to more intentionally engage leaders of our university institutes and college centers as we develop coordinated clusters of courses around specific research themes.

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Beginning Again with the Liberal Arts

By | Education, The Liberal Arts, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | 4 Comments

The rhythm of the academic year returns us again to the beginning.

State College is charged with energy as parents drop off their children, some for the first time, and students turn and return to a course of study that will transform their lives.

This year, as in past years, I find myself thinking about how to address over 700 incoming freshman in the College of the Liberal Arts at Penn State. I hope to encourage them to take an active role in their own education.

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Twitter, Community and the First Year Experience

By | Education, Technology, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | 10 Comments

Words do things. What they do, depends on the manner in which they are said, written and received.

What they did, and failed to do, last night is something that requires some reflection.

That is the purpose of this post on my visit to the Catholic University of America to deliver a keynote address to the 2012 freshman class.

When I was invited, I was encouraged to do something innovative and unconventional with technology, so I invited students to use twitter to participate in a shared experience designed to perform the central idea for which I advocated in the lecture:

The real value of a liberal arts education is political because it teaches us how to speak, act and respond to one another in ways that enable us, if we are willing and graceful enough, to create enriching public communities that are the conditions under which a fulfilling human life is possible.

The lecture was designed as a performance in which students would be empowered to actively and publicly engage with the question of the liberal arts and politics so that we might directly experience our shared ability (and inability) to create an enriching public space of community and communication.

The Design

The lecture was designed on three levels.

First, the written text was rather traditional. It was organized around Athena’s encounter with the Furies in Aeschylus’s Eumenides. I argued that the story illustrated how our ability to imagine our way into the position of others, particularly those with whom we disagree, is the central virtue of a liberal arts education and the key to establishing healthy and flourishing communities.

Second, I used Keynote to create slides with images and quotations that supported and augmented the points the written text made. These slides were not merely designed to reinforce the written text, but were themselves meant to add value to the lecture by exposing students to a rich history of artwork and imagery about Athena, the Furies, and the judgment of Orestes.

Third, through my keynote slides, I was able to live tweet my own lecture: when a slide appeared, I had pre-written a tweet to go with it. These tweets, like the slides themselves, were designed to add another layer of meaning and texture to the lecture.

To give you a sense of how the images and the tweets were designed, I created a specific Storify just with my tweets and some of the artwork included in the lecture.

A Good Plan and a Calculated Audible

Because I had experience using twitter in front of a large audience of first year students at Penn State that deteriorated quickly once students realized they could tweet snarky comments to a screen that everyone would immediately see, I knew I would need a way to moderate the tweets before they appeared on screen. We used the #cuafye hashtag (Catholic University of America, First Year Experience) to curate the tweets, but we needed a way to filter out those that were immature, overly snarky or otherwise impoverishing of the community we wanted to cultivate.

The plan was to have Taylor Fayle use the @MyCUA_FYE twitter account to retweet only those tweets he felt added value to the conversation. The idea was not to censor students–they would still be able to see anything posted to the #cuafye hashtag on their personal devices. Rather, we wanted to add a layer of review to ensure the level of the conversation reinforced the points the lecture articulated.

We thought we had it worked out too, but about 20 minutes before we started, we realized that the way it was set up would not update and scroll quickly enough to accommodate the tweets we were by then already receiving.

So I called an audible and told Todd to allow the raw hashtag feed to run, knowing full well that the dynamics of the entire lecture would thereby be altered.

It was … and not for the better.

And yet, strangely enough, I think the shared experience was educationally richer, if intellectually and emotionally more taxing.

Here is the Storify of the event with tweets from the students to give you a sense of what happened.

But this doesn’t really capture what was happening in the room. That is partly because students went back and deleted some of the more vulgar and disrespectful tweets (about Penn State, Sandusky, and other immature rudeness). But it is also because the twitter feed did not capture the overwhelming sense of respect and maturity I felt from a majority of students in the room itself. That respect and maturity was felt more palpably in the question and answer period, when we had the chance to reflect upon what we had together experienced.

What we experienced, however, was a failure to use words to create an enriching community. The twitter stream deteriorated quickly into immature snark, and students were not able to pull themselves out of that cycle of immaturity, despite some valiant attempts by some to convince their colleagues to imagine their way into another possibility.

Now, for my part, I knew exactly what was happening, though I could not follow all the posts as they were coming so quickly and I was, after all, trying to speak and tweet my lecture. Still, by calming the students down at specific points, speaking extemporaneously to refocus their attention and by emphasizing the things I had written into the text to invite their generosity and grace, we were able to proceed … for a while.

Then someone of the faculty decided the twitter feed needed to be shut down.

When it was, you could feel the frustration of the students, but you could also feel their attention turned more fully to me, and I was able to finish the lecture in a much more traditional way – with more passively receptive students for the words I was articulating. Of course, students still had access to the live stream on their devices, but not having the feed up on the “big screen” robbed them of a shared experience and thus diminished the allure of the snarky tweet.

Shared Reflection

The most rewarding aspect of the lecture for me was the question and answer period, because we were able to reflect together on the experience we’d just had. A central point of the lecture was that a well cultivated ethical imagination is required if an enriching community is to be created.

What we experienced, among other things, was a collective failure of ethical imagination. But it is not only that the students failed to imagine their way into the position of a visitor who had travelled a distance to speak with them and who had put a lot of thought and energy into the design of an interactive lecture. Rather, more fundamentally, we failed together to imagine another possibility for ourselves as a community.

Perhaps once I called the audible to allow the raw feed to roll, the die was cast and we were destined to descend to the shallowest expressions of ourselves.

But even so, there was something redemptive about that failure and the opportunity we had to reflect upon it together afterwards. During the question and answer period, we tried to come to terms with what we had experienced: was it right to have the feed pulled? Did that go against the very points I was trying not simply to argue, but also to perform? Were the students treated fairly by requiring that they attend a lecture in which they would be expected to participate freely and in good faith?

And what about the content of the lecture itself? There were excellent questions in this regard; questions that demonstrated without a doubt that many students were not too distracted by the experience to understand at a deep level what I was trying to accomplish.

One does not often have the privilege to reflect so candidly and insightfully with one’s audience about the very dynamics that emerged between us during the performance of the lecture itself … perhaps that elusive, more enriching community began to take root during those shared reflections reflections at the end. Perhaps those roots are continuing to grow as faculty teach into the experience in their classes.

Here, in fact, is an example of what can happen when faculty do just that:


As I think further about it, and as I continue to engage in ongoing conversations with students via twitter about what we experienced, I have come to recognize that the performance of the lecture itself had all the beauty, and all the ugliness, all the hopefulness, and all the disappointment, all the complexity and nuance and texture of all our attempts to enter into public communication with one another in order to establish a more fulfilling community together.

Words do things; and what they are capable of doing depends on our capacity to imagine an enriching life for ourselves and our ability to put that shared vision into words.

An education in the liberal arts is schooling in the beautiful life.

Liberal Arts Voices Hanging Out on Google

By | Education, Technology, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | 11 Comments



Student Panel at LASTS11

Originally uploaded by LAUSatPSU

On Wednesday, September 28th at 4pm eastern, we in the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Studies office will take another step out into the great technological unknown by recording an episode of our Liberal Arts Voices Podcast live on a Google Plus hangout.

I hope that anyone interested in what we are doing in the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Studies office will join us. Here is a link to my Google Plus profile where you will find the Hangout when it is available.

The official guests on the episode will be leaders from the Liberal Arts Undergraduate Council, a dynamic group of student leaders who have always been willing to engage with new technologies with me in interesting and enriching ways. That they will be with us for this experiment is only proper since they have helped us grow our community through Twitter and Facebook.

The impetus behind this experiment is first to perform what we preach about the importance of practice in learning about new technologies. We will see what Google Plus adds to our discussions on the Liberal Arts Voices podcast, and we will experience directly what it takes away.

The second reason for this use of a Google Plus Hangout is that I think the ease by which this technology makes face to face conversations public is very compelling. It is a simple broadcasting platform that can be used to raise the level of discussion online by adding the ethical dimension of the face. In our attempts to use technology to enrich the undergraduate experience in the College, it seemed timely to try to put Google Plus to work in this way. 
Finally, we now have a number of members of our community out in the “real world’ – as if we in Happy Valley don’t live in the real world. But I digress… In any case, these friends who were so engaged when they were physically here as students or staff members remain engaged in various ways. It will be interesting to see if that distance can be traversed by the G+ technology and we will once again be face to face, talking about the importance of the liberal arts.
I am looking forward to what this little experiment will bring. 

Transformative Education

By | The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | 2 Comments

I first met Ruth Canagarajah in an honors course I taught a few years ago.  She already struck me then as a thoughtful, engaged and creative student.  She wrote an excellent paper for that course on Female Leadership in Sri Lanka.

Since becoming Associate Dean, I have had the privilege to follow the course of her education which, it seems, has led her back to Sri Lanka, the place from which her family comes.  The Liberal Arts Undergraduate Studies office loaned her a Flip Video camera during that trip so she could chronicle the work she is doing.  This is the video she produced with the help of Jillian Balay in the LAUS office.

I present it here as powerful testimony to the transformative possibilities of a liberal arts education:

Some Initial Thoughts on the iPad

By | Education, Technology, The Long Road, The Undergraduate Experience | 5 Comments

It is already clear to me that the iPad does not replicate the experience of the iPhone even though many of the apps serve the same functionality.

The iPad is much less intrusive in collaborative contexts than either a laptop, which tends to come between members of the group, or an iPhone, which isolates individuals, severing each from the dynamics of the whole.

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