Professors’ Personality, ResearchInform New Courses

January 10, 2005

Flip through your latest academic catalog. Do you see a space somewhere between Fundamentals of Graphic Design I and Interior Materials for a 200-level course in contemporary art? Can you visualize Contemporary Southern Women Poets listed with courses on autobiography writing and romantic literature in the English department offerings? How about shimmying Topics in African-American History in with the established course The United States: America Comes of Age?

New courses are developed regularly at Mary Baldwin; this spring semester and May Term will be no exception. But before a succinct, intriguing paragraph appears on the annual course list, faculty pour hours — sometimes years — of preparation and planning into crafting new classes.

“I certainly have more ideas for new courses than I have time for,” muses Kenneth Keller, professor of history. “When you’re in the process of developing a course, you’re learning, learning, learning.”

PICTURE DESCRIPTIONPICTURE DESCRIPTIONKen has been building up Grafton Library’s collection of books, hoarding materials, and attending conferences for a few years to support the creation of his latest colloquium course: The World of Lewis and Clark. More than a dozen students are already signed up to journey with him this semester up the Missouri River on the pair’s route, called the Core of Discovery. Like other classes he has proposed and those he hopes to introduce, Ken’s new course responds to a current event – the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the Pacific.

“I wanted to capitalize on the bicentennial and the fact that there are new editions of books, manuscripts, and their journals that I am excited to use,” said Keller, adding that he will work to weave Native American life into the college’s multicultural understanding.

Of course, generating a new class isn’t all fun and heady exploration. There is the paperwork, too. Proposals for fall 2005 courses are due this week, said Sara Nair James, chair of the 14-member Education Policy Committee. Deadlines rarely interfere with professors’ bliss at sharing a passionately loved subject with their students, though.

The course listing reflects changing political events, social movements, and the college’s increasingly diverse faculty and student population, James said.

“I’m sure students today would look at the course catalog from when I was here and think it was quite stodgy,” said James, associate professor of art history and a 1969 Mary Baldwin graduate.

Dean of the College and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeff Buller said academic disciplines are periodically evaluated on how they advance the goals of the college’s strategic plan, and new courses are expected to add dimension to the plan as well. As a member of the Educational Policy Committee, Buller looks at what the course offers beyond the exploration of new material, such as how it will expand critical thinking and feed into other classes.

The number and variety of new courses longtime EPC chair Terry Southerington has seen over the years is a testament to the grassroots creation of a liberal arts education and to the respect faculty members have for each others’ expertise, she said.

Sarah Kennedy, associate professor of English, said May Term is an ideal session in which to try out a new course as a colloquium and tweak it for permanent status. Her course Contemporary Southern Women Poets will join new offerings in photography, anthropology, English and interdisciplinary studies.

“I start thinking about new courses when I notice a gap in the curriculum,” Sarah said. “This one was obvious for me: We are at a women’s college in the South surrounded by accomplished female poets.” She came up with the idea for the course, which will feature local authors such as Rita Dove and Claudia Emerson and national names, while helping to edit an anthology on contemporary poets.

“Ever since I offered it in May Term 2001, students have asked me when I am going to teach it again. That was the biggest indication to me that I needed to make it a permanent course,” she said.

Paul Ryan’s new spring class Themes in Postmodernism and Contemporary Art grew from a similar desire to bring students up to date in his area of expertise. “I wanted to let studio art majors, in particular, know how contemporary artists are thinking and responding to the world so the students will be prepared if they go to grad school or become practicing artists,” he said. The course will supplement the art history curriculum with readings and discussions about how postmodern theory, new technologies, and the development of different media have influenced art since the late 1960s.

“Whenever I’m thinking about a new course I keep in mind what the students really need to be better prepared. It’s an added benefit when it’s something that I love,” Paul said.

Mary Baldwin professors take seriously their responsibility to add to and adapt the college’s course offerings. A complete list of courses for spring and May Term 2005 can be obtained by contacting the college registrar and individual professors can provide more information about specific courses.