In a conversation about intellectual excellence at Elmhurst, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty Alzada Tipton says the College helps students succeed by giving them responsibility for their own learning.
What experiences or events come to your mind as illustrative of intellectual excellence at Elmhurst?
I think the Research and Performance Showcase is a good example. At this annual event, students present the results of their research and show that they can make a project their own. This is not dutifully repeating what others have told you or what countless others have thought. It’s about students becoming independent scholars, working collaboratively with faculty. That’s a very important piece of the concept of intellectual excellence at Elmhurst.
That’s such a giant step for students, to take ownership of their own learning, isn’t it?
It is. And in some ways it’s even more important now than it was in the past. Society now conspires to keep young people infantilized. Their parents do so much for them, and a lot of control is exerted over them, so they can tend to be helpless and look for others to solve problems for them. They might see themselves as consumers rather than as contributors to society. So it’s really empowering for them to be in charge of one particular intellectual question and explore it in ways that it hasn’t been explored before. We’re advancing the frontiers of knowledge with the work our students are doing in collaboration with faculty. That’s really exciting.
You mentioned collaborations. Some great examples come from the summer faculty/student research grants the College funds. How does that program work?
That’s a program I started in my first year here. In the summer of 2007 we had two pairs of faculty and students doing research, and I think this year we have 17. And we could do more if we had the funding. We give faculty members a stipend, and even more importantly, we give the student a stipend. Otherwise they would probably have to be working a summer job, and that would not give them the time to do collaborative research. Sometimes students have an idea of something they would like to pursue, and they find faculty members willing to work with them. Sometimes a faculty member has an ongoing line of research, and the faculty member invites the student to join the project. It’s very exciting to see students who have been doing research with a faculty member for, say, three years. They really become junior colleagues to the faculty.
How important are these undergraduate research experiences for students looking to move on to graduate school?
Those opportunities really set Elmhurst students apart from those at other institutions if they’re competing for admission into a graduate program. This is not something that large universities can do. We can take advantage of the fact that we’re small, and our faculty has the capacity to work with students individually or in small groups. So students can have amazing experiences like publishing in a journal or presenting at a conference. And the summer faculty-student collaborations are not the only time and place research happens. A number of departments require research as part of the senior capstone experience. And an emphasis on research has been one of the hallmarks of our Honors Program.
One important measure of excellence for faculty is scholarship—publishing and making a mark in one’s field. Are classroom teaching and scholarship ever at odds? And what is Elmhurst doing to promote and encourage faculty scholarship?
I do think they are at odds in some institutions of higher learning. Research universities often promote an ethos that suggests that teaching is a waste of time and that you need to be released from your teaching to spend more time on your research. That’s not at all the case at Elmhurst College. We have, I think, the best of both worlds. We are able to attract people who are excited about teaching and about continuing their scholarship. When I got here, there just was not that much support for scholarship. What I was able to do, thanks to [former president] Bryant Cureton, who gave me many new resources to devote to faculty development, was establish a Center for Scholarship and Teaching and really beef up faculty grants so we are able to support faculty scholarship in substantial ways.
One of the big stories in higher education at the moment is the rise of new online delivery systems for higher education. At Elmhurst, the relatively new School for Professional Studies is expanding online and distance offerings. Will more Elmhurst classes for traditional undergraduate students be taught online?
I think that’s probably the case. There’s still this distinction between traditional and nontraditional students, and the idea is that online courses are for nontraditonal students and on-ground courses are for traditional students. I think that distinction is going to break down. Some nontraditional students will prefer to do their master’s degree one day a week here on campus. And some 18- to 22-year-olds will want to do online courses. And that makes sense when you think about their busy schedules. With many of them working many hours, the convenience of online courses is attractive to them. The real distinction is not between online and on-ground courses. It’s between courses where there is a lot of interaction—whether that interaction is face to face or on a computer—and one where there is no interaction. Elmhurst College courses will always be courses in which there is a lot of interaction between instructor and students, as well as students interacting with each other.
There has been a lot of attention nationally to the need to retain more students in so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, math. In part because of the difficulty of the coursework, so many majors in STEM fields change majors and move away from those fields--or worse, leave college altogether. How is Elmhurst’s new Keystone program trying to address this?
The idea is that students should be doing work at every step of the way that reminds them of why they were interested in the STEM fields in the first place and what they can do with an education in the STEM fields. So we offer first-year seminars on STEM-related topics. And there are January Term “STEMinars” that focus on professional opportunities in the STEM fields. And there is the opportunity in the summer between a student’s first year and second year to do a research experience. People have always said that the STEM fields traditionally were taught backwards, in that students cram a lot of content in at the beginning and only when they became juniors and seniors did they get the opportunity to do great experiments and blow things up in a lab. The idea here is to change that and have students do hands-on, interesting stuff right away.
Right, start blowing things up right away!
Exactly! Rather than have them be bored and overwhelmed by all this content being thrown at them, we want them to see what the point of all this content is. Rather than taking it on faith that at some point along the line they’ll get to use this for something, we want them to experience that. One thing you can say about today’s students is that they almost all identify themselves as hands-on learners, or active learners or kinetic learners or whatever you want to call it. They’re not very excited by the traditional methods of learning--sitting and listening to someone talk.
How can the College encourage intellectual excellence in its students?
We’ve talked about these two pillars of intellectual excellence: making students into independent scholars, and engaging them in highly interactive classes. And it’s almost paradoxical: We’re supportive and engaged so that they can be more independent and take responsibility for their own thinking. But I do think that’s how we help students: by offering lots of interaction and attention, but also pushing them to take responsibility for their education. We will help them through their difficulties, but we will also recognize their great talent and expect great things.
What are you looking forward to working on in the future?
I’d like to keep breaking down the barriers between what students do in the classroom and what happens outside the classroom. I’d like there to be a greater connection to the community and more focus on students going out on service-learning projects or study-away experiences or internships. That’s a piece of the hands-on learning that we have talked about. And that’s going to be a very important part of intellectual excellence in the future, especially for our very hands-on learners.
Podcast: Expecting Great Things