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Classroom sessions: A private music lesson: “There can be no right or wrong when you are living your life through art.” * #highered #augustanacollege

I had the privilege of sitting in on a private voice lesson with Dr. Sangeetha Rayapati and a senior preparing for her senior recital. My presence in this intimate setting was a remarkable and emotional experience for me. 

I was able to watch first-hand the personal attention that a student musician receives at Augustana. I listened to the vocalist (and her roommate, who will be singing in a couple of duets) warm up, using a “yippy dog,” exercise and then I heard them sing two gorgeous duets. Rayapati worked these two students hard for about a third of the lesson and then coached the senior preparing for the recital. 

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Rayapati teaches by example—and occasionally by a look, as she was accompanying on the piano. As a teacher she is constructive, affirming and direct. She clearly has high expectations. Most importantly, she has fun and encourages her students to do the same. 

In many ways, this one-on-one teaching and learning experience was a remarkable example of the wonder and promise of a liberal arts education. Here are some things that stood out: 

Effective storytelling – Throughout the lesson, Rayapati continually emphasized that singing and performing, when done well, effectively tell a story. The whole session was about refining the story that will be told at the recital. 

Conquering challenging material – This student will perform music in foreign languages at her recital and will push her voice range—both high and low. One could tell that the numbers she chose and the diverse genres are intended to challenge her in every conceivable way. 

Learning to work together – Listening to Rayapati coach and the two students work together to blend their voices was an example of the type of teamwork that I hope we teach here. There was plenty of give and take and there was compromise. 

Connecting with an audience – Rayapati really emphasized the importance of reading the audience and making a connection. She encouraged the student to place the audience above herself and to think about what they want and need from her performance. A great liberal arts education encourages students to reflect on their impact on others to build a deeper connection.  

Building confidence through challenge and support – A senior recital is intended to be a culminating, capstone experience. During moments of uncertainty on the part of the student, Rayapati skillfully built the student’s confidence with an encouraging word. I also saw the student respond with an “I got this” attitude that only a senior, with countless hours of practice and performance experience, could have.  

Developing a deep appreciation for beauty — I admit there were two moments during this session when I had to swallow pretty hard and look away from the others in the room. I was overwhelmed with the beauty of the music and the gifts these musicians have been given and are sharing with the world. 

In addition, there was a moment that symbolizes what I hope happens all the time on a campus like Augustana’s. 

On the student’s program for the weekend is “Ave Maria.’ The student was struggling to convey the emotion because she professed to be non-religious. It was an interesting moment, but Rayapati didn’t miss a beat. She immediately asked two questions: When have you been in a religious setting and what did you witness? And, what is the context for people praying? The student reflected on both of these questions in a very thoughtful way. Then Rayapati shared advice she once received from a friend who is an opera singer: Singing is really about “doing something for other people.” 

For me, it was a magical moment that reminded me of how important it is for all of us to help our students think about the impact they have on others, and—perhaps in this moment of i-everything—to place others before self. 

This one-hour private lesson went so far beyond simply practicing the music for the weekend’s recital; the session emphasized all of what I would expect from a rigorous liberal arts education. 

Long live the arts and liberal arts education! 

*From the playful duet performed at this senior’s recital 

You can learn more about Dr. Rayapati here.

Classroom (science lab) Sessions: How about a little research with some really talented students? #liberalarts #augustanacollege #stem #highered

Earlier this fall when I’d asked Dr. Kimberly Murphy of the biology department if I could attend one of her classes, she urged me to attend a lab session rather than a lecture. I enthusiastically agreed, with visions of a white lab coat and goggles! 

I am confident that I was in this lab with some of Augustana’s very best students and an outstanding “guide by their side” in Dr. Murphy. I didn’t follow everything, since the last biology class I took was in 1988. There were words like protocol, plasmid, E. coli, controls, pellet and supernatant, and instruments like a centrifuge and vortexer. 

But, what I saw really impressed me and I left with some thoughts that shape my observations about the serious science that is happening in Hanson Hall of Science at Augustana College: 

Side-by-side teaching is awesome to observe—I don’t think there is any better example of side-by-side teaching than what happens in a lab. Murphy spent time with every single student. She was coaching, clarifying and querying constantly. I think it’s important to note that Murphy is not a graduate student or a lab assistant working with these awesome students…. She is a tenured member and chair of the biology department. Think about that! 

Augustana’s science facilities are amazing—Hanson Hall of Science was built in the 1990s, but this building and facilities are excellent. The labs are spacious and have the equipment needed to do serious benchtop research and experiments. Like a good Hootie & the Blowfish song from the same era, Hanson Hall holds up very well. 

Student interactions in a small lab are powerful—Watching lab partners work together is a thing of beauty. These teams of two or three are learning how to work together, negotiate, interrogate and solve problems. They have to work together—no soloists here—and they have to communicate. Lab partners did their best to find a solution together before engaging Murphy. I also noticed that students serving as lab partners seemed to take a genuine interest in their partner’s, and others’, success and learning. 

Real scientists don’t simply follow directions—Murphy carefully described the steps for the experiments, but I don’t think the object was for students to just follow directions. Murphy and the other lab instructors for Biology 130 are using this lab session to teach students about failure and success and how to navigate both. Through teaching about process and testing and retesting, these students are learning to conduct serious research and what it takes to succeed. 

Murphy contextualized what the students are expected to do in lab within her own pursuit of outside grants. She skillfully connected the task in lab that day to her own need to illustrate the value of her research to others, articulate the reasons for her research and the controls she uses. She implied that anyone can follow directions, but she wants these students to be scientists. 

Active, hands-on learning in the sciences is critical—in higher ed we talk a lot about hands-on learning, but a lab session is where the rubber meets the road. As an observer, even I got ridiculously excited when the experiment that was described at the beginning of the class actually came out exactly the way it was supposed to. I found myself thinking about that TV credit that has the audio of “I made this.” There is no more powerful learning than doing something for yourself and experiencing success. This is what we do at Augustana College! 

Perhaps my favorite part was overhearing two pre-vet students talk about a study-away opportunity in South Africa. One told the other about a $3,000 stipend available (in addition to $2,000 with Augie Choice) to bring the cost down. When one of the students brought up the fact that only 8 spots were available, the other replied, “Well, really, only six, because there is no one more qualified than the two of us.” 

I liked their spirit. This was a great reminder of the confidence that a liberal arts education builds in young people. These two are bound to have a great experience in South Africa!  

The lab was awesome even if I didn’t get to wear a lab coat. Maybe next time. 

Dr. Murphy joined the biology department at Augustana in August of 2011. Her interest in science has been life-long. Her desire to teach and mentor students developed from observing her father’s interaction with students as a professor and from the excitement of her undergraduate professors. 

In class, in the teaching lab, and in my research lab, she aims  to help students understand how science works, how to think like scientists, and to cultivate excitement for learning.

Her personal research has strengthened her abilities to develop scientific skills in students, and her current research projects are designed to include undergraduate students.

Dr. Murphy earned a Ph.D. in Genetics and Cell Biology from Washington State University.  

Her current research activities include identification and characterization of genes involved in fruiting body formation and motility in Myxococcus xanthus.  M. xanthus is a model organism for studying bacterial biofilms. In addition, her research includes annotation and analysis of a microbial genome from the U.S. Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute and a third project on how amphibians use agricultural landscapes to move among wetlands.

Dr. Murphy’s personal interests include hiking, travel for pleasure, watching sports, and time with my family and friends.

Classroom sessions: History 300: What do you mean Lincoln didn’t really do anything? #liberalarts #humanities #augustanacollege #history #highered

Is history objective or subjective? That was the question Dr. Brian Leech posed to the dozen students in his class at the beginning of this Monday morning session in Old Main on one of the first days that really felt like fall at Augustana College. 

What a provocative question to set the tone for a fast-moving discussion. 

The class session was divided into two portions. First was a thought-provoking lecture and discussion, and next was a student presentation. I’ll share a bit about both, but want to begin with a couple of take-aways. 

  • Feedback helps shape the discussion of history—The first question Leech asked was about the text students read in advance of class. They thought it was “too dense” and complicated. Leech agreed with the observation, but pushed back a bit and asked for a few take-aways, which the students provided. I think everyone was reassured of the value of the text. The constant refrain of “what did you think of…” forced the students in this class to move beyond a superficial response and think. 
  • Leech’s teaching style invites a feeling of familiarity—I was very impressed with how comfortable the discussion was. Everyone contributed and I even heard a “hell yeah” at one point. During the student presentation, Leech sat down at a student desk and surrounded himself with the class. It was pretty clear to me that he encourages the type of in-depth discussion and deep learning that one could expect in an upper-level history class. 
  • No one gets off with a weak explanation or position—Leech is tough and strategically inserts information to make the students even tougher. The number of times that a clarifying or impossible-to-ignore follow-up question was asked reminded me how important small, intimate classes are to honing and improving communication and problem-solving skills. Everyone held each other accountable, which was the case when one student posited: “President Lincoln didn’t really accomplish much.” After the gasps, there was a rich discussion of Lincoln’s presidency.  

Leech’s lecture on whether or not history is subjective or objective revolved around the viewpoint of what he described as “positivists, idealists and postmodernists.” He asked students to vote on how they view most historians. Ten voted for idealist and two for postmodernist.

Leech’s lecture posed questions like the following to get these students to really think:

What is the impact on history if only certain peoples’ records are preserved?

What if documentation is limited? 

Does one really know about XX or just what was written about it? 

I could see these students really thinking about whether or not history is objective or subjective, and am quite sure Leech accomplished his task. 

The second part of the class involved three students leading a discussion of a reading on the Midwest as a region. There is too much to discuss about the content, but the assignment was clearly intended to help students understand how to organize information, work in a team, think critically and communicate persuasively. 

Small, upper-level courses like Leech’s are essential to a liberal arts education—not just because of the content, but because of the skills developed through complex reading, challenging and engaged discussion, and on-stage student presentations. Attending this class was a great reminder that no class of 100 or 300 students can build the skills needed by today’s and tomorrow’s leaders like this class of 12.

Brian Leech teaches courses in the first-year sequence about food studies and images of the natural world, as well as courses for the history department on modern U.S. history, oral history, public history, the environment, and health.

Students in his recent courses have researched health care artifacts for the museum at Palmer College of Chiropractic, developed a digital historical map of the nearby Keystone Neighborhood, and crafted an oral history of the local WWII homefront with the help of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Leech also serves as a first-year advisor and teaches an advising course. 

A native Montanan, Leech uses his personal research as an excuse to return to the mountains. He recently has published a book about the intended and unintended consequences of open-pit mining in Butte, Montana.

The book is “The City That Ate Itself: Butte, Montana and Its Expanding Berkeley Pit” (University of Nevada Press; Feb. 28, 2018). In this podcast, Dr. Leech discusses the book and his interests in history with Christina Lamberson, assistant professor of history at Angelo State University.

He also recently has started research on a couple of new projects. One looks at the portrayal of mining in popular culture and another investigates the history of speed limits in the American West.

Classroom sessions: Serious stats and some skepticism with Dr. Austin Williamson #augustanacollege #liberalarts #highered #psychology #stats

Dr. Williamson started Statistics for Psychology (Psych 240) by challenging his students with an article from Vox that described research concluding that children who grow up in religious households tend to be less generous and philanthropic. He challenged the class to think: How could this conclusion be accurate? He asked whether or not the conclusions jived with their life experience. 

The class showed some serious skepticism about the conclusions he described, which is exactly what Dr. Williamson was trying to illustrate! 

He went on to describe that the scholars responsible for this research made an error with one of their variables, leading to an erroneous conclusion debunking the whole premise.  

THIS was a very compelling and impressive way to introduce the complex topic of decision errors in research. And throughout the entire classroom session, Willimason quizzed and queried students about what might be wrong or right within a certain data set or conclusion.

Here are some take-aways from my visit:

  • Williamson’s students will be equipped with serious research skills. A review of alpha, beta, the null hypothesis, type 1 errors, type 2 errors, effect, statistical significance and an overview of the Bonferroni Correction demonstrated a serious and complete approach to research. Students were fully engaged throughout the entire class and were diligently taking notes on slides he had provided in advance. I have a whole new appreciation for the expectations that the faculty in psychology and neuroscience have for Senior Inquiry capstone projects for our students. 
  • Williamson used clear illustrations to help students understand complex concepts. Another example he used was of the impact of meditation on ADHD. It was a consistent and accessible illustration that enabled the students to have a constant throughout the class. I also noticed that the slides had some pretty amusing illustrations to reinforce the concept of data errors. Williamson has a gift for making a complex subject easy to follow. 

This was a far more technical, content-driven class than others I have attended. I left very impressed with Williamson and his students. There is no question that his students will possess the quantitative reasoning skills to be excellent critical thinkers. They were learning how to ask difficult questions, interrogate data and findings, and approach information with a healthy degree of skepticism. 

These graduates will not simply buy into a conclusion; they will ask the tough questions needed for any organization they are affiliated with to survive and thrive. I am absolutely certain that each of these students will draw upon this class and what they learned throughout their life and career.

This was one of those classes that builds lifelong skills. It was the kind of experience, for me, that reinforced again what makes a liberal arts education so valuable. 

Dr. Williamson teaches and conducts research in the clinical area of psychology. He leads teams of student researchers who study the social experiences that influence a person’s risk for depression and other psychological disorder. He is also a licensed clinical psychologist with an active practice. His continuing experience in the field greatly informs the teaching he does with my students, the questions I pursue with my co-researchers, and the guidance he gives to students who are interested in mental health careers.

Education

  • B.S., Psychology, Vanderbilt University
  • M.A., Clinical Psychology, University of Iowa
  • Ph.D., University of Iowa

Class sessions: Incredíble! My visit to Spanish class after 27 years. #augustanacollege #liberalarts #highered

Last Friday I sat in on an advanced Spanish class with Dr. Megan Havard-Rockwell and a group of really talented students. It was espléndido!

This post is a little different because it’s also a quiz, since I shared it with Havard-Rockwell and invite her candor about what I understood about the class and what I completely missed. Her comments are at the end of the post.

But first, some observations.

●     This entire class was in Spanish! There were only three times that an English word was used, seeking meaning. And I was greeted enthusiastically with, “Hola, Kent.” I probably blew it by not describing my role at the college in Spanish, but I was scared!

●     Everyone spoke in the class. They spoke confidently and volunteered to answer questions. I noticed Havard-Rockwell’s skill in engaging the less confident speakers. Calling on one reluctant student, she asked him a question that allowed him to choose between two things and essentially use terms that had just been used. He answered boldly, and the question she asked was the right question to get a response. It was a neat technique.

●     Havard-Rockwell also forced conversation between students at four different times. It was one of those turn-to-your-partner-to-discuss questions. What impressed me was the level of comfort these students had. It was really great to witness.The question was related to which type of architecture the students liked, and the choice was between Gothic and Renaissance.

●     As this was a class about Spanish culture, not only were the students speaking Spanish, but they were conveying complicated themes and ideas. The topic today was the Renaissance in Spain. There was lots of discussion of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, which sounds much better in Spanish—“siglo”is the word for century.

At the end of the class, Havard-Rockwell asked me if I wanted to ask the class any questions? I asked a few, but two elicited great responses that reinforce the value of the liberal arts. I asked, “How many of you studied abroad?” 80% had already done so! I also asked why they were taking advanced Spanish. There were a couple of good answers, but one that stood out to me was, “This is a class in Spanish, but it’s really about learning about a different culture, and that’s what I like.” That’s a darn good answer in my book.

So, what follows are a few things I picked up in the class. .

A question asked by Havard-Rockwell: “Among the many things impacted by the Renaissance, what were some?” Students answered: art, cities, politics, knowledge and science. There was also a bit of discussion about how Spain was a bit different from the rest of Europe during this time because of the heavy influence of the Catholic Church.

Another question that was asked was, “What was the impact on society of the birth of the university?” This question came out of the acknowledgment that during this time books, and therefore knowledge, were more available because of mass production.

One student earned a lollipop because he knew the word for “compass” and shared that it was invented during this time period!

I also picked up on Havard-Rockwell’s affirming and encouraging phrases she used with her class throughout the discussion. In response to one student, she replied, “exacto.” Exactly!

To another, she said, “una buena pregunta.” What a great question!

And, during a discussion of architecture, she pushed the class, “es bonito, no?” It’s pretty, right?

But, my favorite exchange was when Havard-Rockwell asked the class to decide which sonnet they liked better: one about the death of the poet’s father or one about, as one student replied, YOLO (you only live once). By the way, this great class nearly universally preferred the YOLO sonnet!

Being back in Spanish class brought up many memories of my time studying Spanish in college and while living in Seville, Spain during the fall of my junior year of college. And, while it’s not a sonnet, I want to go back— because YOLO.

************************************************************************

 Dr. Havard-Rockwell’s response after reviewing my blogpost follows:

This is great, thanks for sharing! Your comprehension of the discussion was quite good! The only correction I would offer is in regards to the relationship between the establishment of universities and the advent of the printing press. While the latter does indeed provide some democratization of access to knowledge, as I mentioned in response to one student’s question, both of these late medieval advances continue to privilege certain groups along lines of gender, socioeconomic status, ability, and other factors. Also, the first universities worldwide were established a few centuries before the period that we were discussing (the late medieval into the Renaissance), but this period does see the establishment of some of Spain’s most prominent institutions that continue to thrive today.

I give myself a B!!!

Dr. Megan Havard is an Assistant Professor of Spanish in the Department of World Languages, Literatures, and Cultures. She hails from Texas, where she completed her B.A. at the University of Texas at Austin. She then moved to the Midwest to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on Medieval and Early Modern Iberian literary and cultural studies. She is also interested in Gender and Masculinities, as well as Second Language Acquisition and Pedagogy.

Megan is an experienced traveler and has studied, lived, and worked abroad in a number of Spanish-speaking countries including Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina and Spain. She also speaks Portuguese and has spent time in Brazil and Portugal.

In 2014, she completed the Camino de Santiago, a 1,000-year old Christian pilgrimage across northern Spain to the tomb of the apostle St. James. She looks forward to walking the Camino again with students and faculty from the Augustana community in 2017. 

Education

  • B.S., University of Texas
  • M.A., Ph.D., Washington University, St. Louis

Classroom Sessions: “Let’s fight:” My visit to Natural Resource Management with Dr. Matt Fockler #liberalarts #augustanacollege #highered #geography

Dr. Fockler asked me to introduce myself to the class and describe what I do. During my brief introduction I mentioned I focus primarily on external stakeholders, but am visiting classes to learn more about the ways faculty interact with our students and create a meaningful classroom experiences. I am also sharing my experiences with my team and the stakeholders with whom we work so they have a complete picture of how amazing an Augustana education is.

Fockler followed my introduction by mentioning that, “as a faculty member, he’d never really thought about external stakeholders.” 

He continued by reminding the class how important one’s “lens” is and that as he thought about having me in class, he had to see things through my lens to understand why it was important to me to sit in. 

In the moment, I had no idea how important the concept of one’s lens was going to be to this classroom experience and how expertly and imaginatively Fockler had set up today’s classroom discussion. 

In a nutshell, the class was about the conflict between horses and cows (both novel functional groups, I now know) in rural areas of Nevada, where Fockler grew up, and the cultural, societal, symbolic and economic conflict inherent in creating policy. While the subject matter was fascinating, the purpose of the class was not to steep these students in policy surrounding land management and grazing rights. 

It’s presumptuous of me to speculate on the intent of an instructor, but I think the actual purpose of the class session was to remind students that one’s lens is focused on what is important to them as an individual, and that it is critically important to seek to understand someone else, even if you don’t see the world the same way. 

Through a discussion about cows and horses in the American West, Fockler introduced the deeply complex and often deeply personal perspectives that citizens may have about the same issue.

At one point, he shared a personal anecdote about a friend who lived in a sod home and drove a car that ran exclusively on biofuel, but also would take the maximum number of deer (11 in this case) allowable annually. I am pretty sure this was Fockler’s way of saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” 

Fockler pushed students hard to consider all of the lenses of everyone involved in cows v. horses. At one point he said, “Come on, let’s fight.” He asked:

What should be done? 

How would you deal with this issue? 

Where do you draw the line?

Where do you quit if you don’t know where to start? 

Fockler’s students responded as they were pushed. They pushed back. They formed their own ideas. They thought about each lens impacted. And, they discovered that there are no easy answers when it comes to cows v. horses or life in general. 

Fockler concluded the class by describing what it takes to make progress when people with deeply held beliefs find themselves on opposite side of things—as is often the case in Natural Resource Management. This is my summary of what he said: change seldom happens when the presumption starts with remaking everything. 

He went on to say that success comes when we ask what can we try? Where can we start? 

Watching and listening to the students engage left me with no doubt that this set of students will encounter the world in a way that involves awareness of another’s lens—and they will ask, 

What can we try in order to move forward? This is exactly what a liberal arts education is intended to do. 

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Matt Fockler earned his M.S. from the University of Nevada and his Ph.D from Montana State University. He began teaching at Augustana in 2013. 

Fockler has geographic teaching and research interests in nature and society interaction, natural resource management, and social and environmental responses to resource management and adaptation in mountainous environments. 

His research has explored irrigation and water management in Nevada and United States Forest Service landscapes in Montana. 

Currently, Fockler is researching historic and current forest canopy cover in Army Corps of Engineers managed forest lands along the Mississippi River and investigating how Army Corps fire management policy has contributed to current forest cover.

Specializations: Human and environment interactionNatural resource useManagementResilienceVulnerabilityAmerican WestPublic lands and managementHistorical geographyNatural hazardsNatural resource policy

If you are interested in reading more Classroom Sessions, you can read more on my blog

Classroom sessions: Sophisticated analysis, serious discussion, information synthesis and mature insights: My visit to Dr. Rupa Gordon’s Advanced Seminar in #Neuroscience #highered #augustanacollege #liberalarts

Twice while attending Dr. Rupa Gordon’s class I got the feeling one gets while going down a very steep roller coaster.  

Why?

Because in the 70 minutes I spent with Gordon and the 19 students in class last Friday, I witnessed the complete masterpiece that is a liberal arts education. This class offered a case study in the modern value of liberal education. 

This was a class full of seniors – enthusiastic, curious learners guided by a teacher on par with my vision of Socrates. Gordon’s perfect Q&A sequence allowed her to ask a question and teach through each student’s response.

Here’s what I learned.

Students prepared for classroom discussion, and they were anxious to do so. There were a couple of hands up ready to respond to every single question Gordon posed. The students’ notebooks revealed as much, as they consulted the articles assigned and their own notes. I’d like to think that the level of preparedness I witnessed is exactly what employers and graduate schools get when they land an Augie grad.

Every single student was engaged. Nobody was hiding in this class. Students moved their desks into a circle for better discussion and eye contact. In fact, I didn’t see a single student glance at a smartphone.

Their curiosity enriched the discussion. Students asked Gordon lots of questions, even some that seemed off topic or unpredictable. They asked questions about compensating subjects of experiments, and why some subjects were tested twice and others three times. One challenged the ethics of experiments described in the reading material. The questions revealed they were not in the class simply to soak it all in. They displayed the type of critical thinking that students educated at a liberal arts college are known for.

A deep mastery of material, serious content knowledge and synthesis were on display. The seniors in this class were clearly at a stage in their academic journey where they are putting all the pieces together. They referenced previous classes that touched on related content and demonstrated well their recall of theory. 

These students challenged Gordon and each other and did so fearlessly. While there was quite a bit of head-nodding in agreement throughout the class, there were also moments during which students challenged each other and their professor. This was done respectfully, in the spirit of the best possible discussion, debate and dialog. They gave me confidence that these graduates will be comfortable challenging authority and speaking truth to power.

Gordon’s techniques contributed to such a high-performing class. She assigns a manageable amount of reading for discussion. She also asks students to complete an online form about the reading in advance, which she reviews for misunderstandings to clear up during discussion. She tailors her questions. And, she uses a classroom discussion to double down on some of the special benefits of a liberal arts education. It was clear to me that she was testing recall of content, synthesis of information, and the ability to read critically and communicate clearly.  

Now I want to go back and ask about the neuroscience behind the feeling (roller coaster butterflies) I experienced as I witnessed this impressive group of students. 

Dr. Rupa Gordon earned her bachelor’s from Purdue University and Ph.D. at the University of Iowa. An assistant professor of psychology, she teaches neuroscience courses, and she is an advocate for interdisciplinary learning and experiential learning. See her here: https://youtu.be/OfRGJ0ntQSk