Click here for the introduction to the Round and Square series "Ponder College"
This is an "long post" (大)—click here for an explanation of Round and Square post lengths.
Two years ago on Round and Square (6 April 2012): Fieldnotes From History: Gordian Knots
Three years ago on Round and Square (6 April 2011)—Endings: Tristes Tropiques
|[a] Back to Work RF|
It always is. That's how we roll here.
|[b] Movin' On RF|
Spring break seems like a blurry memory now for the Ponder College staff, faculty, and students. How could just five days of back-to-work focus bury a wonderful spring break week of reading and exploring that quickly? Well, that has everything to do with the academic calendar. Now the push toward finishing is on. And that leads to the big challenge of the week. You see, in one way or another, everyone from the accounting or registrar's office staff member to the professor of psychology (or Vice President for Development) has the same "problem."
It's a big one.
How do I get this big train moving again?
This is a much bigger "deal" than you might imagine.
|[c] Retooling RF|
Let's look first at those people who have to get control of their classes again. A week (really ten days for almost everyone) is a long time, and the special nature of the Ponder College spring break makes it even harder. Almost every bit of scholarly momentum that was painstakingly developed over the first seven weeks of the term is gone. "Meeting class after the break," says Associate Professor of Biochemistry Marlyn Forschung, "is almost like the first day of the term, all over again. I love break—both for my students and for myself. Every Monday after break, though...I curse it. For what, exactly, did I work so hard in the first half of the term, only to have it erased by ten days in the Yukon with a book?"
Many faculty members agree with her. "This is the hardest teaching challenge I face, other than keeping my motivation to read student essays," notes Assistant Professor of Scandinavian Languages, Arne Sjørnsen. "I know what Marlyn means, but I think it's even worse with language instruction. I mean, really...they have been at this for seven weeks at a time, with breaks in the middle of it every semester. It is very hard to build language momentum. By the time that a first-year student has a very basic grasp of, say, Norwegian, she goes off to Alabama to read a book on the Gulf Coast. When she gets back, she speaks bad Swedish...and with an Alabama twang."
Not everyone agrees with frustrated colleagues, though.
|[d] Every Semester Is Different RF|
"Yes, I see the basic point," says Stephanie Wight, a five-time recipient of Ponder College's R. Buckminster Fuller (or "Bucky") Award for Excellence in Teaching, and indisputably the "best" teacher on campus. Our task as teachers, however, is to figure out these things."
"I think that a colleague of mine mentioned this in a discussion session a few weeks ago. Our job is to find the best way to create those continuities, and even to stimulate students to make connections outside of class that can help to smooth the discontinuities. This requires creative and even rigorous planning and thinking, of course, but that is what we do. That is why we teach."
President Andrea Blume had a tough week, too. After allowing herself to become "lost" in her book and the world of Vancouver Island, she traveled this past Monday to San Diego, where she spoke at a Ponder College alumni event. "I had to write my entire talk out to be sure that I stayed on message," says Blume. "I feared that if I just spoke from notes (or just 'winged' it, as I sometimes do), I might just drift off into discussions of Tocqueville and early America. My audiences would probably indulge that (we are a liberal arts institution, after all), but it really wouldn't help me in the long run."
|[e] Re-grooving RF|
Oh, and let's not forget the Ponder College students who face another "angle" of this momentum problem. They may be reacting to their professors (what choice do they really have?), but they feel the challenge just as acutely. First-year students have some of the greatest problems, since they have less experience with the transition than their more seasoned peers. "I thought that I had this figured out after going to Maine last October for autumn break," Carla Thiersch told me. "All I could think about for three weeks after break was pine trees and moose tracks. By the time I re-focused, I had to work harder than I ever have in my life. I was lucky—two As, a B+, and a B. I was lucky. Those moose tracks could have led me to academic probation." After a little pause to sip her tea, Thiersch whispered "This might have been worse. I had such a good time at the Great Salt Lake that I just can't seem to get my head back into things. I'm really worried."
|[f] Tired Too Soon RF|
Seniors are the most stressed of all. The required senior thesis at Ponder College makes senior year a particularly special...and fraught...time. Any kind of "senior release" that their high school friends might be experiencing at other—less demanding—schools is gone at Ponder. Here, seniors spend their entire fourth-year on campus, writing significant pieces of original research, creative writing or art, or laboratory work. It begins in the junior year, and continues throughout the senior year. When "thesis" work is finally turned in by mid-May, seniors are both exhausted and exhilarated. We'll talk about this process in the coming weeks.
For now, though, let's just realize that seniors have a very great challenge as they approach spring break itself. That is why most of them find a way to use the break to "channel" their thesis work. Richard Van Galder, a senior Chinese Studies major, went to the University of Chicago during break so that he could read from among the thousands of gazetteers in their collection and speak with librarians and Chicago graduate students (not to mention faculty, since he has an eye on graduate study there). He is working on a thesis about Chinese sacred mountain pilgrimage.
|[g] Flow RF|
"During my first three years, I went wherever my interests led me. If I was thinking about early American literature, I would go to Boston (as I did sophomore spring). Now, it's different. I need to focus. I both love...and utterly despise...that about academia. I am still working that out, but there was no choice. I had to read gazetteers. And, whoa, walking into the library stacks, it was like mountains—rows and rows, twelve feet high, of these studies of what we would call "county-size" histories. I was blown away. I am not sure that I even scratched the surface, but I am ready for the rest of the term."
And that's the wonderful "problem" and "opportunity" that is the Ponder College spring break. It has the potential to destroy all of the continuity that faculty, students, and staff members created in the first half of the term; it also has the possibility of moving things to an entirely new level. There are many new dimensions of this that we will discuss in the coming months, including returning to the idea of ten-week "quarters." For now, though, everyone is getting back into the "flow."
We're all Stella here this week.
Well, sort of. There's a lot of work to do.
|[h] New Day RF|