Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gratituesday: Sarah Lawrence College

Have I mentioned before that I went to the world's best college?  I did.  When I applied, it wasn't totally on my radar, and the truth is, I sort of accidentally ended up there.  For some bizarre reason, when I was applying to schools, I wanted something hyper-traditional, maybe something Jesuit or Ivy League.*  Sarah Lawrence is none of these things.  Instead, it's the best place in the United States for an undergraduate education, and, needless to say, the best accident that happened to me.  Here's my brief** take on why:
  • The System.  You take three classes per semester, and with each of them, you conduct conference work, and independent but interrelated project that goes along with the class.  These projects can take on many incarnations (I once wrote a chapbook of poems for a psychology course on Human Resilience), but are often large-scale research papers.  You meet individually with your professor every other week to discuss your ideas, research, and progress.  The system is based off of Oxford and Cambridge's tutorial system, and it forces you to think for yourself, to focus academically in a way that many people never do.  Classes are kept small (under 15 people) and are discussion-based.  My reading load was incredibly heavy, writing was the primary focus in every class, and being able to hold my own in conversation was one of the best skills I learned there.
  • The Professors. They're amazing.  The only ones who ever rang a false note with me were guest professors who didn't quite understand the system.  Everyone else teaches what they love, and loves teaching.  You have to, because even though a full-time schedule is only teaching two classes, you have to be available for conferences in addition to your classes.  Every professor I had took my work seriously, and fostered my research.  Some of the hardest-working, most generous people I know are professors there.
  • The Students. I think we SLCers can get a bad rap for being spoiled hipsters, and there's some truth to that stereotype.  But we're also, for the most part, really brilliant and also fun.  Even when I avoid my former classmate's eyes on the subway, even when I groan about trustfund babies, even though I am sick to death of art films - I love everyone I went to school with for making it such a special place.  And also for coming to our Halloween party in 2007.  You guys rocked.
  • The Bubble.  When I decided to go to SLC, one of the women who used to frequent the beach I lifeguarded at told me, "Oh, that's a good school.  They coddle you too much, but I guess that's what you get when you pay $40,000 for a year at college."  Ouch.  But, you know what, it's okay.  She's right.  The bubble, the coddling, the amazing world of studying and creating and building a thoughtful mind?  That's what you pay for - the time to discover your passion and then to figure out how to build a life around it.

Yesterday, I began a certificate program for people who want to teach in higher education.  We talked about our favorite professors, the best academic experiences we had, and how to replicate that in our own classrooms.  Almost everyone in the room was teaching a massive course at my university, to undergraduates who pay almost as much as Sarah Lawrence undergraduates do.  Almost everyone in the room felt totally lost, like they couldn't possibly give enough time to their students, and like they didn't know how to convey the teachings they wanted to.  Some spoke of the rare professor in their college years who would talk to them for an hour, even though that professor had his own research to be doing and even though they were but a lowly undergraduate student, and how much that meant to them.

I never had that experience.  I was never taught by a TA, let alone one who wasn't quite sure what they were doing.  I never felt that I was wasting a professor's time because I wasn't a graduate student.  While I know all teachers start somewhere, and that my professors didn't wake up one day and know all the secrets to building a good course, for the first time, after hearing these stories I realized what a privilege it was to be taught by professors who were not only tenured experts, but also who loved teaching and cared about undergraduates.  When I grow up, this is who I want to be.

*Um, yes.  I know.  Was I totally off my rocker?  Yes, pretty much I was.
** Seriously, I could go on for years about this. I have gone on for years about this.  If you're thinking of applying, or just want to nerd-chat about pedagogy and higher education with me, shout out in the comments.

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