From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Ponder College—Introduction

Click here for the "Ponder College Resource Center"—(all posts available)
One year ago on Round and Square (6 March 2013)—China's Lunar Calendar 2013 03-06
Two years ago on Round and Square (6 March 2012)—Divinatory Economics: Sacred...Incense (i)
Three years ago on Round and Square (6 March 2011)—Kanji Mastery: Introduction
[a] Campus Ponder RF
This post is the only non-fictional thing you will encounter in this series. 

Got that? Readers who do Yahoo or Google searches for a strangely transformational American liberal arts institution named Ponder College will probably be redirected right back here, to Round and Square. Why? 

Well, because I made it up. All of it. 
[b] College Ponder RF

Starting with post number one this Sunday, everything is fictional, including the pictures.

As any experienced reader of fiction knows, however, that will not detract from the utter seriousness with which I take each post. The fictional academic community that you will come to know and.. (I hesitate to utter the obvious next phrase, because we have no cliché at Ponder College), is based on notes I have been taking for twenty years in a file that I have sometimes called "Saving the American Liberal Arts College." 

Every time I see something good, I jot it down. Everything I see something that makes me think that we have lost the point of what we do...I write it down. I have been doing this for more than twenty years.

You see, there is something quite distinctive—just this side of unique, from a global perspective—about American liberal arts colleges. First, there is a whole passel of 'em. Three-thousand or more, depending on how you count (are Bowdoin College, University of North Carolina-Asheville, Southwestern College, and the University of Minnesota-Morris all "liberal arts colleges?" Yes. Yes they are. Are they different in several fundamental ways? Yes, yes again.
[c] January Ponder RF

American college education of this kind is very hard to relate to people in other lands. In all of the places I have lived and studied—China, Japan, Germany, France—I have tried to explain where I went to school and what was distinctive about the place and the education I received there. I add my experiences from the places I have worked. When my colleagues hear about "College" (Carleton, Lake Forest, Colby, Beloit), however, the first question is usually something like this: "Is it for technical training?" When I explain the matter further, they are really baffled. I say something like this: "No. Imagine 1500 students and 150 faculty members, with small classes. Now imagine a kind of teaching that combines the current scholarship of the faculty with flexible, innovative teaching and research."


Silence. Total...silence; would it kill you to say something?
[d] Portal Ponder RF

Most don't believe me, and think that I must teach students how to operate power saws and build furniture (skills that I deeply admire, please note well)...and maybe in Chinese. 

There is almost never a follow-up question, and then they go back to their familiar worlds, where places such as Fudan University, Berlin University, the Sorbonne, Tokyo University, California-Berkeley and the University of Alabama make sense (except that the Sorbonne doesn't have a football team). 

No one is even very interested. I might as well be talking about my fieldwork in southwestern North Dakota.

Seriously, even my Canadian colleagues don't get it unless they actually happened to go to one (down here in these parts) or, like several of my friends, now teach at one. Let's just get this straight, though. There really is no parallel in, say, the colleges within larger universities. King's College and Trinity College are not useful points of reference for American liberal arts education (although the education there is stellar).
[e] Sunset Ponder RF

And that brings me to one more point. It might seem that I am saying that this kind of education is "the best." Please hear me clearly, oh ye critics. That is not what I am saying. It so happens that I know this form of education very well (from the beginning), and have something to say about it. 

Moreover, I think that it is a wonderful educational system, and that we must work to make it as great as possible an experience for students, faculty, administrators, and staff members. It is a distinctive and potentially very positive presence in education around the globe. That it seems not to "translate" easily to other systems and countries is frustrating to me, and I would like to explore this (through, of course, the Ponder College Office of International Education)

Having said that, let me just add one more thing. This is not meant to be "cheerleading." I see much wrong with liberal arts college education, not the least being the never-quite-resolved place of teachers, learners, helpers, and so forth in the mix. It should all be soooooo simple...but it's not. Let me tell you a little story by way of illustration (this particular post is nonfiction, I will remind you). 
[f] Administrative Ponder RF

On a warm early-June day "about" thirty years ago, I attended Carleton College's graduation. I had just completed my sophomore year, and was enthralled with my experience. Garrick Utley (Class of '61) gave a fine speech, and by then I was even more impressed than I was before by the student body that came out of that little corner of education (and Minnesota). This was a few years before the insidious US News ranking started to spread their nonsense, and really mess with the college experience by making too many students and parents smug in all of the wrong sorts of ways.

Then President Robert Edwards spoke, making the usual (and heartfelt) thanks to parents for all of their work over the years. He paused before saying "And now I want to thank our most precious resource, the part of this institution that makes it all happen."

I sat back in my plastic folding chair on the Bald Spot behind Skinner Chapel, and waited to bask in the glow of how great we—we students—were. Curve ball. "I want to thank our faculty. Would you please stand?"
[g] Athletic Ponder RF

Huh? Faculty? I thought this was about students. Why were they so important?

I write this not to agree or disagree with the president's statement. We'll get to that later in the series (in story form). I certainly am not endorsing it because it is the job I now happen to have, or because of a need to justify what I do. It is rather because the roles of faculty, students, administrators, and staff members just seem much more ambiguous in small liberal arts colleges than they do in what are called in the higher education biz, "Research 1 Universities." 

And it all comes together for me in something that one of the best professors (and most productive scholars) at Carleton said to me. I told him that I was planning to go to graduate school and hoped to become a professor. I said I wanted to work at a school like Carleton. He cautioned me. "Liberal arts colleges are wonderful places to be a student; they are merely good places to be a professor."

I have been thinking about the implications of both sides of that statement for many years. I want to "unpack" the implications of it and expand it to include all "sectors" of the campus community (including the towns, and occasionally cities, in which they exist).

***  ***
Readers will also note a little nod to Garrison Keillor. We Upper-Midwesterners (I was born in North Dakota, moved to Madison, Wisconsin, and came of age in Northfield, Minnesota) have a little bit of Garrison in us. Really, we are all in him—he has brilliantly tapped what was already there. 
[h] Journey Ponder RF

Still, although the weekly report from Ponder College will have hints of Keillor, let's not kid ourselves. Lake Wobegon, Minnesota and Ponder, Texas are not the same—although they share certain traits. Both are small oases in the middle of complex states...of being. Both have memorable characters, shops, and activities—the latter with most of those taking place on campus (but not exclusively, by any means). Let's not forget the Ponder State Bank, after all (where students start savings and checking accounts)...and now we ease momentarily toward fiction.

Channeling Keillor, these are the weekly reports (posted late Saturday night) from Ponder College. They are not Ponder College Days. In other words, it is not a grand narrative. It starts up right in medias res, and just keeps on going (sort of like life). We are just thrown in, and have to figure it out on the fly. This series is like that.  

Channeling Heidegger, let's subtitle this Game of Throwns.

So I'll make my nod to Keillor, but this is neither fan-fiction nor parody. Nothing of the sort. It is a kind of playful manifesto...maybe even a modest proposal. Perhaps it is even a template for setting aright what is wrong with education. In other words, this serious. I believe that the education students receive in rigorous study of the liberal arts (and, if you check the definition, this absolutely includes and embraces "the sciences") does all of the things that we want in higher education. I often feel that we as a society (and in many cases the colleges themselves) are losing the thread—forgetting what is important, and why.

So I could pontificate with essays on this-or-that aspect of educational policy, or I could tell a story of college education in the most unlikely of places (but with the perfect name). I know which choice my buddy Jean-Jacques would have picked.

Ponder College doesn't exist...but it should. 

Welcome to the series.
[i] Everyone Ponders RF

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