Thursday, April 12, 2012

State of the College address by Ed Noonan, with response by Susan Henking

At the Shimer College Assembly of April 1, 2012, the State of the College address was delivered by outgoing interim president Ed Noonan, who has now served for almost exactly two years since the ouster of Thomas Lindsay. A brief response was given by Shimer's incoming 14th president, Susan Henking.

Video here, with transcript of Ed's remarks below:

Text of State of the College speech by Ed Noonan

I don’t like the Assembly.

I love the Assembly.

It is where democracy is learned and shared.

It is the place where you can feel safe and unsure and brave all at the same time.

It’s democracy--the rights and responsibilities for each of us in community learned at the table: discussions at Shimer to be practiced in Assembly and in your lives. The purpose is not to gain power but to participate more openly and add value to community.

“A”: The Assembly is a body open to change, flexible: a place where the kind of thinking that is taught in the classroom can be practiced. There is an openness in the classroom--a willingness to listen, to have one’s mind changed. The Assembly is no more beleaguered than the classroom. Make it an open space that can produce the future of the College, rather than a sealed one that can only safeguard its past. Being open is inherently risky, but our history shows we are very capable of taking on that risk when we are called upon to do so.

The Assembly has in the past functioned well and bravely, and sometimes it just gave lip service to democracy. It has acted when it needed to act, and it inspired others to act. It works sometimes superbly, sometimes awkwardly. It is finding its way now once again as we change more and more. It is learning to trust the judgment of others.

It has helped me, and I’m grateful. I love the Assembly. So keep opening it up.

Two Aprils ago, Don Moon and several Shimer scholars came to Tryon Farm for the planting. I met them all there and the trees have taken root and grown. We were glad you came.

Two days later, I was at Shimer on my first day as the Interim President and they said, “Hey, Ed, what are you doing here?”

That is the question I asked myself. It’s because of you that I was here. Your reaction to the turbulence literally led me to the presidency.

I spoke of the need to get Shimer like a ship into safe harbor and settle everyone down. So I compared myself to a harbor pilot and, since I was not here for the turbulence, I could concentrate on refurbishing Shimer in this interim.

The first thing I did was to go to the dictionary and look up “interim.” It was used by Emperor Charles of the Holy Roman Empire to describe the time between 1546-50 when Catholics and Protestants stopped fighting each other--peaceful times!

Now, we have worked two years together, worked toward unity, discovered strengths in students and staff and faculty--in ourselves, really. We arrive at the point where I can announce to the assembly on behalf of the Interim Presidents everywhere:
The Interim is over and we are underway again; the Interim is over and we are underway again.

And I can tell you that being Interim President is great--nobody expects much from the Interim President and since time is unpredictable you can try things you might not be so quick to do otherwise.

And then you can learn so much so swiftly.

You learn that if you listen, everybody helps you. You learn that if you’re Interim, people outside Shimer think you’re gone already, so I dropped “Interim” outside so donors and authorities and other presidents and parents could take me more seriously when I was serious.

Secondly, you learn to recognize that look on people’s faces when they wonder where it is, what it is and how to pronounce it--is it Shimmer, like “swimmer,” or what?

Then you learn that everywhere you go, somebody’s sister or cousin went to Shimer and that Shimer changed their lives: learning to think for yourself makes you brave, independent.

And then I remembered why I came here, because Shimer changes everyone, even Interim Presidents--I am more careful, listen better, want to hear out others, improved mentally. And I’m much older.

Things have changed. We are structuring and restructuring work and positions.

We have new titles so parents and other schools can better understand us and fit in with us.

When I came here two Aprils ago, I wanted to come because of the central fact which has strengthened Shimer in its 3 locations over all the years: you, the students, the scholars, the faculty and the staff. I was reminded again of it--the bond of Shimer Community as I sat in Marc Hoffman’s film discussion on “the Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” Like most Presidents, I had a tie on but I hadn’t seen the movie so I mostly watched them in what becomes normal here and it is quickly noted by every visitor. Shimer students take the discussion seriously, they express themselves very well and they listen politely to each other so the conversation can become better, deeper, more interesting, more seriously valuable, more fun.

It’s hard to learn, as you know, and as you can see in much of American public life now. Because you can get the best of each other this way.

Anyway, we have grown in size and now in stature, we are bringing back the lost or lonely or disenchanted alums, we are opening ourselves to campus life and to Chicago itself.

We are raising donations and investments.

Our mistakes stand out more now that we are making fewer of them.

We are trying to be more democratic, more trusting, more patient with each other as we get more confidence that what we do here in serious study and good conversation is becoming recognized in Chicago.

“B”: We want to remain open to Chicago, to the world, to new ideas--even as we reject some, some applicants, some innovations, some agents provocateurs. We’ve recently seen again what a nation increasingly focused on keeping the outside outside is capable of in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed hoodied teenager walking along the back alley of the gated community that bordered his neighborhood. Even those who believe that Shimer is threatened would not, I venture to guess, want to be implicated in the creation of Shimer as a gated community. I think bringing current affairs into the conversation about the value of Shimer to foster meaningful discourse is useful: it affirms that it has a place in the “real world.” And it aligns the more local issue of what our Assembly should be with the larger issue of what kind of a democracy we want to live in: one that feels threatened by everything it perceives as an intrusion, whether it is or not, or one that remains open, even if that openness is often a nuisance and sometimes a risk. Let us not become an allergic nation or an allergic institution that reacts to a harmless mote of dust in the same way it reacts to the plague.

We think it is a valuable contribution to our lives and will serve us well no matter where we go or what we do.

We see alums returning now, investing again of themselves in Shimer. We are rising now and we thank all of you for coming (sticking) with us and with each other. It makes us hopeful that all you do here will help make community as you go on.

Serious study and good conversation are the bonds of our community and so as Interim ends and Shimer comes to a new day, I thank you and and you and you for all you have done here. We are Shimer and we are rising. So thanks for the memories.

When I finally realized the Interim is over, I looked up farewells in Bartletts.  I skipped the hemlock of Socrates.  Washington said, “Gentlemen, I have grown grey in your service and now blind,” as he put on his glasses.  Eisenhower said, “Because of the military-industrial complex...”

Then I found it the Shimer way. Horace wrote long ago (when I was a young man):

Happy the man, and happy he alone,
he who can call today his own:
He, who secure within, can say
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.
Be fair, or foul, or rain, or shine,
 The joys I have possessed, in spite of fate, are mine.
Not heaven itself upon the past has power;
But what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Two perspectives on what makes Shimer work

Two insightful perspectives on what makes Shimer work have been posted in recent weeks, one dealing primarily with the community aspect and one primarily with the classroom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both come from people still in the first year of their Shimer experience.

Here is first-year student blogger Isaac Marchant-Shapiro, introducing the Shimer community while en route to Natural Sciences 2:
I am not simply a student, a replaceable part of a couple classes; I am a member of the Shimer community, and that community is what I would like to talk to you about today. As a whole, Shimer is a very tight-knit group, and there are several factors contributing to that.

For one, Shimer is tiny. When I say "tiny," what do you imagine? One-thousand students? Two-thousand? Try about one-hundred-and-thirty students, and about fifteen facilitators (Shimer word for 'teacher'). So, when I say "tiny," you are now aware that I don't mean the 'comparatively small' kind of tiny. I mean the 'Everybody knows you, greets you, and asks how that one-thing-you-said-you-were-going-to-do went" kind of tiny. I personally consider this a strength, since if you really need to study (and get away from your classmates to do it), you can simply walk a couple hundred feet down the sidewalk to the Galvin Library where the vast majority of people are IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) students, and study there.

Second, there is the Assembly, Shimer's method of shared-governance. It takes the place of a student-government, and consists of the student body, the staff, and the faculty. The Assembly is (on the most basic level) responsible for safeguarding the ethos of Shimer, and everyone involved has an equal stake in that pursuit. At its core, the Assembly stands for equality, truth, and intellectual honesty at Shimer, all of which I think lie in the hearts of Shimerians. The aforementioned pursuit is a serious matter, and I have found in my past year that taking part in it not only helps protect the ideals of the college, but also binds Assembly members together in unique ways.
And from the classroom angle, here is new addition to the Shimer faculty Adam Kotsko, on "The immersion method":

It can be pretty rough in the first-year courses, especially toward the beginning — though the difference between the first and second semester is already remarkable. It’s also the case that not everyone “makes it.” But for those who stick with it, the progress is often amazing. By their third year, students are collaboratively figuring out how to work through texts that I never would have thought they could even find a way into — for instance, some of my best discussions last semester were over Teresa of Avila, which is impressive in a room full of mostly secular students.

The key to the model, it seems to me, is that it is simultaneously text-centered. Shimer is probably one of the most liberal Great Books schools out there, with a much greater emphasis on contemporary texts — for instance, the capstone Humanities course includes more Irigaray than you could possibly imagine — and a greater emphasis on differentiating between disciplines than St. John’s, which is often regarded as the archetypal Great Books school. So we’re not making big ontological claims about the Western Tradition, etc. (not to say that St. John’s is either, but early advocates of the Great Books curriculum certainly were). What the Great Books framing allows us to do is to get past the “why are we reading this” syndrome: students may not “like” Plato, but few are going to be so arrogant as to claim that Plato isn’t worthy of attention. Even if they don’t connect with a text personally, it’s generally going to be the kind of thing that one really “should” read.

More important is what the textual focus does to the classroom: it provides a shared point of reference and a standard of relevance. The things that people hate about discussion sessions is basically the bullshitting, the free-associative nonsense spouted by people concerned primarily with getting their “participation points.” The textual focus gets us away from the students’ own arbitrary opinions and puts us on the track of something that we have in common: a desire to figure out what the hell is going on in this text. Over time, students understand that this is their chance to figure that out, and they begin to hold each other accountable for things like textual support. 

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

Shimer College video

Shimer College: About · Early entrance · Shimer in Oxford · BA to JD · Request info

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SCREEN TEXT: Shimer: The Great Books College of Chicago
Michael Doherty reading PEDAGOGY OF THE OPPRESSED
Dorian Electra reading THE PRESOCRATICS
Erik Boneff reading BEING AND TIME
Jill Leslie reading FEAR AND TREMBLING
Mohini Lal reading LETTERS ON CEZANNE
Dinah Gumns reading THE LEVIATHAN
Shimer College
MICHAEL: A Great Books school is a college where people read only source documents, instead of textbooks, and they have generally very small sized class discussions of usually no more than twelve students, having discussions concerning these texts.

HAROLD STONE (professor of humanities): The reason that they're chosen is that they make possible a kind of conversation about fundamental issues.

ERIK: I think it's pretty clear to everybody who's here all the time that everything you read has a purpose, has a point, has a message, and that it's a pretty important one.

DINAH: The student to teacher ratio is pretty small, I mean, in every classroom it's a maximum of twelve people to one teacher.

HAROLD: So much active learning goes on in the interchange between students in the classroom, and between students and instructor, but I'd say mostly the students interacting.

ALLISON: At Shimer we don't call our professors "professors," we call them facilitators, because it based on the idea that the idea that they're not there to profess to you, they're not there to teach to you, they're there to facilitate a discussion.

JIM DONOVAN (professor of natural sciences): When I'm sitting there with ten students around the table and a copy of Newton's Principia in front of us, then I'm not the teacher, Newton is the teacher. I am there helping the students learn, from Newton, physics. He's a better teacher than I am, so I think that's the best thing to give them anyway.

BARBARA STONE (Dean of Academics): I consider that, in fact, probably my major job in the classrom is to work with the dynamics, but make sure that the class is really focusing on central issues to the text and making connections with other texts.

DORIAN: You know, sometimes in class people might get kind of emotionally charged about particular issues, but I think what I love about seeing that is that this is a place where a lot of people really care about what we're reading and the ideas that we're talking about.

ALLISON: One of the most unique things about Shimer is kind of the classroom setting -- is that, there isn't really teachers and students, it's kind of just a gathering of people sitting around this big octagonal table, and there is no sense of hierarchy.

BARBARA: There's a mutual respect, and I never feel as if, you know, "oh, I'm the expert."

ELI NELSON: We're kind of encouraged to put ourselves out there and to argue for a viewpoint that might not be something we would traditionally accept, or might be completely in opposition to whatever either the text is proposing or even the facilitator is.

DORIAN: The goal is to be genuine, and if you genuinely have a question, to ask it, and to be comfortable with not knowing, or being confused or "sounding stupid" -- I've become very comfortable with that.

MICHAEL: The fact that you are in Chicago...

JIM: ... Really a world class city if you really get out there, a phenomenal -- a phenomenal resource.

MICHAEL: Access to all of the cultural amenities and benefits that Chicago provides, both on a university level and also just on a public level, with things like the Art Institute, and there's something else I was trying to think of, but things like that...

JESUS: There's a great metal scene, I'm into metal, I play metal.

ALLISON: I also love the cinema in Chicago, there's a lot of really cool small art theaters.

DORIAN: It's cool being in a big city, when it's a the whole city is your campus kind of thing.

JIM: We share this space with an internationally known and respected technical college, Illinois Institute of Technology, and also actually on the campus here, Vandercook school of music. Shimer has a cross-registration agreement with those schools.

MOHINI: It's really easy to pick and choose what you're interested in, if it's not at Shimer, and you can't get a tutorial or an elective started at Shimer about it, you can conceivably go to IIT or Harold Washington or Vandercook.

JESUS: I've cross registered at Vandercook, which is a music school that's also on campus.

DORIAN: I do want to take an architecture class at IIT.

MOHINI: I've also done courses at Harold Washington in statistics and art.

MICHAEL: I cross-registered for a class in abnormal psychology my second semester here.

MOHINI: When you figure out that not only do you get access to four or five colleges in Chicago alone, but that you can go to England and get credits that don't interfere with your graduation, it's like a whole world opening up.

MICHAEL: Like any other kind of slightly arrogant high schooler, of course, you would want to be able to go to Oxford without having to actually get in.

ALLISON: If you have a really obscure desire to learn something very obscure, it's much more possible to do that in Oxford.

HAROLD: For the students that were there, it was a transformative experience.

ALLISON: Shimer students and staff and faculty and Board of Trustees get a share in how the college is governed, it's not one body kind of laying down the law, but it's everyone involved having a say and kind of pitching in together to create what they want this place to be.

DINAH: You get to hear everything that's being voted through, everything that's being proposed, and your voice is completely heard.

ERIK: Shimer just sort of represented a way for me to take control of my education in a way that I didn't really have the ability to do either at my high school or at most colleges that I looked at.

DORIAN: I visited my junior year and I absolutely fell in love with it, and I was obsessed with it, and I kept talking about it.

JILL LESLIE: Once I came to my mother saying "I found this great school called Shimer that is just so amazing and I don't want to go anywhere else," she knew I wanted to go to Shimer. So she completely supports me and she loves the fact that I'm here.

DON MOON (former president and professor of natural sciences): At Shimer, your son, your daughter will learn to find her or his own voice, will gain a kind of courage.

DORIAN: I've had people tell me, "liberal arts degree, what are you going to do with that?"

MICHAEL BERRY (alumnus and former president of Barnes & Noble): It wasn't strictly knowledge that they gave me, but a methodology of how to approach complex problems with critical reasoning, with critical thought.

DINAH: Because at Shimer you're taught to think critically at every point; so you're not just listening, you're listening and really deconstructing what students say.

DON: The kind of skills that the world needs in terms of being able to communicate, being able to evaluate, being able to speak one's mind, are part and parcel of what Shimer is.

DORIAN: It just changes the way that I looked at the world, myself and other people, and I feel that is to me the most practical thing of all.

JESUS: I remember sitting there and asking the facilitators, have you guys figured it out? Do you guys have an answer? And them looking at me and saying like, welcome to the club, you know?

DORIAN: This is where I was to begin with [makes narrow "V" with hands joined at wrist], and when I came to Shimer, it's like ... [opens "V" shape until hands are spread out wide]

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