Bates Matters: The President's Perspective

Remarkable Continuity: professors still love the joy that comes from learning alongside their students.

By Elaine Tuttle Hansen, president

I enjoy spending a few days each month traveling to meet alumni and learn about the distinctive ties that bind them to each other, and to the College. Second only to the numerous heartwarming tales about lifelong friendships that began in Lewiston are the many still vivid recollections about Bates faculty: deeply beloved professors who ignited sparks of genius; mildly feared pedants who spurred slackers on; teachers who challenged, inspired, scolded, encouraged, befriended, and otherwise left indelible marks on the minds and hearts of Bates students.

Here on campus, I have embarked on a more local odyssey, traveling from academic department to department, getting acquainted with the faculty. What I hear from the professorate today highlights the extraordinary changes that have taken place in the last few decades — and also reveals one remarkable point of continuity.

Changes in faculty life inside and outside the classroom have been dramatic and have touched every institution of higher learning, not just Bates. Many of the faces, to begin with, look different; more faculty here and elsewhere are women, and more are members of ethnic and racial minority groups. More faculty live in two-career households and take significant responsibilities for home and family.

Such changes seem minimal in their impact, moreover, compared with ongoing transformations in the deep structure of faculty work: ways of knowing and teaching. Take, for just one example, the explosion of interdisciplinary areas of study. On this front as on so many others, Bates has kept pace with the times. While for the most part we organize ourselves administratively around 19th- and 20th-century notions of departments and disciplines, the content and method of those structures have become vast, heterogeneous, and contested. New faculty have often been trained in interdisciplinary programs, and many faculty pursue scholarly topics that bring together the content and methods of two or more previously discrete domains. Most are asked to meet the demands of our curriculum by teaching both traditional, disciplinary courses and innovative classes that question and cross old boundaries.

For another example, look at the way notions about good pedagogy have changed from a teacher-centered model to a student-centered model. Stand-up lectures, in which it is so much easier to control the discourse and exhibit one’s expertise, are widely thought of as dry, old-fashioned, and rarely likely to stimulate 18- to 22-year-old minds. Research and experience tell us that students learn the most by interacting one-on-one or in small groups, through free-flowing discussion and discovery-based exercises, and by doing hands-on research with faculty in the lab or integrating a wide variety of “real” experiences outside the classroom and off campus.

Accompanying, accelerating, and complicating changes such as these is the technological revolution through which we are all living. The faculty’s business is knowledge, and so faculty must continually learn new pedagogical and research tools that have enormous start-up costs and do not (as yet) offer much payoff by way of time and money saved or, arguably, product improved.

A generation ago, Bates students could phone a professor at home or office with questions. Today, the phones ring less frequently, but faculty spend far more time meeting high expectations of responsiveness and accessibility through e-mail and listserv exchanges. They establish and maintain course Web sites, some featuring WebCT, an online course management tool.

Every change we can name has intensified the demands on those who would teach at Bates, and there is not enough time for 21st-century faculty to be all that they are asked to be. Yet despite this fact — and herein lies the miracle — something very important has not changed. What endures can be described, if not explained, very simply: Teaching is more than a job for the faculty I have come to know at Bates. Educators here today love ideas and love students, and they love the joy and excitement that comes from learning alongside their students. They lose themselves in their intellectual relationships with students and each other. In so doing, they find meaning and purpose in a career that is actually a calling.

The final chapter of the history of Bates College published in 1936 by Professor of Christian Literature and Ethics Alfred Williams Anthony, titled “Teachers and Pupils,” opens with this eulogy to the earliest faculty:

The fact that Bates College exists today is due in very large degree to the personalities, the devotion, and the sacrificial character of the first faculty assembled by Mr. Cheney…. They performed the daily task with scant equipment, almost without apparatus, and with but few books, but with burning zeal for the welfare of the young people committed to their care.

I am confident that the efforts of faculty today will be as important to the future of the College as the work of Cheney’s little band was to its origins. My successors will no doubt find themselves many years hence hearing wonderful stories from alums about mentors and models at Bates who changed their lives.