Fall President’s Perspective

In late August I had the privilege to work with a small group of our first-year students through the University Seminar, a wonderful campus program in its second year. From the outset of our students’ undergraduate careers – literally their first hours on campus – the University Seminar sets a tone of serious academic endeavor and close community. Critical thinking, strong writing, the ability to explore issues with peers in group discussions are all skills that will be essential to success in college and in life. At UVM, I’m proud to share, our students hit the ground running.

This year’s seminar had a decidedly Vermont focus through the vehicle of UVM alumnus Howard Frank Mosher’s fine novella,Where the Rivers Flow North. Set in the Northeast Kingdom in 1927, the year of the great floods that devastated Vermont, the book tells the story of a logger under pressure to sell his land to a power company that wants to build a hydroelectric dam. Our faculty chose the book for its potential to launch discussions upon economic, environmental, social, historical, and political issues of vital importance, regardless of region or era. They also selected it to direct our students to think about what a sense of place means and the character of Vermont, its people and its landscape.

Eighteen-hundred copies of Mr. Mosher’s book were sent to our students to read over the summer. They spent their first evening on campus with fellow members of the Class of 2003 watching screenings of the 1994 film version directed by Vermont’s Jay Craven. And on the Sunday of their first weekend on campus, I was privileged to be among the approximately one hundred UVM faculty members who worked with the students in group discussions centered upon this story.

I approached the seminar with a single goal in mind – to set up an opportunity for our new students to discover the delight of the unexpected in the pages of a book. One of the most interesting things today in academia today is that your people often learn differently from the way their teachers learn. For me, a book is a window into another way of seeing the world. For many of our freshmen, a book is an "assignment." My colleagues are sources of new wisdom, new perspectives, and fresh insight. For many of our freshmen, the only source of knowledge is the instructor and their goal is to figure out what the instructor wants. The experiences and insights of their fellow students are not seen as the wonderful resources they really are.

One of the delights of college teaching is that these same young people will emerge four or five years from now with a very different view of life. They will progress from trying to figure out what they are supposed to learn to thinking about how they can learn enough to make wise judgements and live a good life. They will shift from being passive receivers of "facts" to becoming active learners and constructors of meaning.

A few days ago, one of our faculty members who sends me a poem to read from time to time, chose to send me a short poem by Emily Dickinson.

We introduce ourselves
To planets and to flowers
But with ourselves
Have etiquettes
And awes.

In a delightful way, the poem captures what I was feeling as I as I taught at the University Seminar. In a short space of time, the students introduced themselves to each other and began to learn to get past the "embarrassments and awes." They began to see the value of the experience inside themselves and their fellow students, as they explored difficult and unfamiliar issues.

New worlds will open up for our first-year students. They will hardly recognize themselves a few years from now. Each new group of students brings with them promises to be realized, talents to be nurtured, spirits to be given room to grow. The blessing of teaching is to contribute to this process of development.