It's About Time: A Smith Education Doesn't Stop at the End of Class
By Eric Goldscheider
This year, Friday afternoons for music major Christine Woodbury are all about time. Literally. She and about a dozen Smith professors and students gather each week in a room on the third floor of the Neilson Library to talk, ponder, inquire and maybe even argue about the fourth dimension.
The student and faculty fellows of the Smith Kahn Institute are an interdisciplinary bunch that includes budding and accomplished scholars of history, English, philosophy, anthropology, geology, biology, economics and more. They are interested in things like cultural memory, the archeology of knowledge, temporal scales and rock formations. Their discussions about time are as animated as they are intricate.
But the actual time that the group spends with each other extends well beyond the discussion period: for first they eat lunch together.
Just hanging out with professors, especially during free time, opens up new opportunities for students. At Smith, that time often includes food, which becomes an important part of the college learning experience beyond the classroom. Through dozens of formal and informal gatherings—often over lunches, dinners and even afternoon tea—students and professors bond while exchanging ideas and learning about each other.
The frequent result is that students become more intellectually curious. And they are inspired by the knowledge and confidence gained from sharing face time (and meals) with their professors.
Indeed, studies show that such interaction with professors fosters long-lasting benefits for students, including enhanced abilities to communicate articulately and think critically and analytically. When Smith seniors were surveyed before graduation in 2006, 2007 and 2009, their responses illustrated a consistent satisfaction with the "out-of-class" availability of, and the opportunities to interact with, their professors—98.7, 99 and 98.9 percent respectively.
A project spanning the entire academic year, organized by The Louise W. and Edmund J. Kahn Liberal Arts Institute, Telling Time: Its Meaning and Measurement is just one of many ways in which members of the Smith community mingle free time and meals with scholarship and collaboration. For Woodbury these gatherings are more than a place to develop her research project in psychology on how humans perceive time (a question of no small consequence to a serious musician); it is also a place to form the kinds of relationships that develop when a community gathers for a midday meal.
"You get to really know people when you eat together," says Woodbury.
Past Smith fellows in the Kahn Institute laud having had the experience of an intellectual community that both shared meals and carried out scholarly work together. Many have gone on beyond graduation, taking out into the world a deepened passion for an academic field or a career and unwavering confidence in their intellectual abilities.
"The willingness of faculty members to engage with students as intellectual equals was a valuable bonus. I was never made to feel that my project was any more or less important than theirs, and it was always made very clear by all of the faculty that the student fellows' research, opinions and ideas carried the same weight as those of their faculty colleagues," says Samaiya Ewing '09 reflecting on her 2008-09 project "Deceit: The Uses of Transparency and Concealment," with Mlada Bukovansky, associate professor of government.
"The confidence and focus I developed during the Kahn are already impacting my post-Smith interactions in academic and professional settings," she wrote in the fall issue of the Kahn Chronicle.
Meetings during down time on and off campus take many forms. They speak to mind and body and include open forums where several dozen people show up without reservations to get a slice of pizza and listen to a student or faculty member share her latest work in chemistry or biology. At foreign language tables in a dining hall, professors regularly drop by to converse informally.
Departments like philosophy, English and astronomy regularly invite a small group of students to dine with a visiting lecturer. Then there are the brunches and even dinner parties at professors' homes, a longstanding practice at Smith. And of course meetings over coffee at the Campus Center often veer into unpredictable but no less edifying directions.
Lori Harris, an Ada Comstock scholar in American studies with an interest in black women's health, says she seeks out opportunities to interact with professors informally. So far she has been amazed at how accessible they are. "Last spring I was taking a class with a really popular professor and her office hours were packed with students," Harris recounts, "so I asked her, 'Can we get together for coffee?'" They did twice and then went out for dinner. "We talked about everything but work," says Harris. "There's something about food that lets you let your guard down and relax."
That wasn't a one-time occurrence. "I can't tell you how many professors outside of my major, if I know they're working on a particular project and I want to get some feedback, I'll call them or e-mail them and they're like, 'Hey, where do you want to meet?'" says Harris. Usually it's at Sam's Café in the Fine Arts Center, the Campus Center or Haymarket Café and Restaurant on Main Street in Northampton. "They are all food areas," she says. "It's pretty cool."
The Neilson Browsing Room is the site of a noontime seminar on money every Thursday each semester. The lunch series Financing Life is part of an ongoing effort at Smith to coach women on how to look out for their own financial future. Attendees load up on salad, sandwiches, coffee and brownies before taking their seats to listen to economics professor Randall Bartlett hold forth on topics ranging from the ins and outs of home ownership to the relative returns one can expect from a lifetime of investing in stocks as opposed to bonds and other financial instruments.
"The series really starts with the absolute basics that young people should know," says Bartlett, "from the dangers they face from mishandling credit to the opportunities they face from starting to save for retirement early." Some 50 to 70 people attend each week. "Free lunch will attract people to anything," says Bartlett. "At Smith it's always hard to find a time when people are free, and lunch hour is the time you know everybody is unencumbered with classes or meetings."
Once the food gets them in the door, it's up to Bartlett to keep them there. "It's a radical concept," he says. "There are no grades, no homework, no exams, and if it's not interesting you can walk out without consequence. So that's frightening to the whole endeavor of higher education."
Aside from speaking at this series Bartlett often meets with students outside the classroom, and each fall he invites a seminar of a dozen students to his home for dinner. Who cooks? "I do usually, though last time we cheated and ordered in from India House," he offers. In years past he's been known to rustle up chicken with wild rice and cherries in a casserole. He also stays in touch with many of his students by e-mail when they are off campus for a semester abroad or in another part of the country.
Katie Gingras, a first-year student whose interests tend toward premed, went every week to the Financing Life talks in the fall. "It's really helpful to get a better idea of how investment works," she says, adding that it is unlikely she will ever take a formal class that covers this material. "I know I am free during this time, and finding food here means that I can always fit it in."
Andrew Guswa, associate professor of engineering, says the opportunities he has to interact with students beyond the classroom are many. They include the Engineering Forum in McConnell Hall, a series of informal lunch-hour gatherings the department organizes to bring in professionals to talk about their jobs.
Research forays into the field are also common. "A very close connection develops because you are with the students for multiple hours at a time," he says. "You are trouble-shooting things that are going wrong and you are deciding the path forward for the work and the research."
Etta Grover-Silva, an engineering major whose primary interest is in alternative energy research and planning, sits on the Smith College Sustainability Committee, which brings student, faculty and staff representatives together for lunch every other Thursday. "Having this kind of student connection with faculty makes our campus really progressive in the sustainability movement," says Grover-Silva. "The fact that they have a passion for this, and that we share that passion, makes for some very powerful connections."
Serving on the committee and working with faculty in other nonclassroom settings are integral to er education, according to Grover-Silva. "My class time is the basis for understanding the logistics of materials," she says. "All the amazing opportunities outside the classroom really cement those concepts because I'm applying them in project-based learning."
In the astronomy department, students and faculty gather several times a semester for informal lunches. "We pick up pizza or we pick up Indian food, or we have it delivered," says associate professor James Lowenthal, who sometimes helps organize these gatherings. "Students might share research reports; we might talk about recent discoveries reported in the press or about how to present yourself at a meeting or the finer points of preparing for the Graduate Record Exam," says Lowenthal. "It is important to establish connections because a lot of the education about the craft of science happens in informal settings." Eating together is often an important part of that. "For millennia people have gathered around food. It's a social process. We're not just giving students information to fill their heads, we're trying to address the whole person. We're trying to create an environment in the department that is welcoming and challenging and enriching and nurturing," says Lowenthal.
Smith College has a long tradition of house fellows. These are faculty members invited by the students of a residential hall to be a regular dinner guest throughout the semester. Names are floated, the students vote and then they extend the invitation. "It's very flattering to be asked," says Mahnaz Mahdavi, professor of economics. She has been a house fellow on and off since she started at Smith in 1985. "Usually they asked me to come on an evening when the meal was nicest, like on Thursdays when they had candlelight dinners," she says.
Mahdavi took some years off from being a house fellow when her son was young but started up again when he was old enough to join her on occasion and to be with the students. This year he is a freshman at Vassar, so being a house fellow has new significance for Mahdavi. "I am so very interested in hearing [students'] perspectives. Especially the first-year students."
Discussions range widely. Mahdavi often scrutinizes current events with the students, drawing on popular economics. She tells them about concerts they might want to check out, or she gives them tips on employment. "I always talk to them about expectations at jobs, what is the protocol for being a good colleague, how to present your work," says Mahdavi. "We talk about how to find a job, how to keep it, how to get better at it, and if you really hate it how to change it." Then there are the inevitable chats about relationships. Many of those conversations extend beyond graduation, and she is often consulted on love interests and sometimes even invited to weddings by her former dinner partners.
"If you are a house fellow and you are not their professor, the discussion is not of 'I am teaching you,' but we are having a conversation," says Mahdavi. "They are teaching me as much as I am talking to them about different issues. It is a good connection."
Bosiljka Glumac, associate professor of geosciences, says she is always very enthusiastic about engaging with students in a variety of settings. One of the organizing fellows of the Kahn Institute's Telling Time project, Glumac says that having lunch and extended collegial discussions with the participants breaks down barriers. "We are all fellows and we become friends," she says. The faculty in this setting do not "serve as advisers or mentors," she explains, but as "true colleagues...We offer feedback to the students the way they offer feedback to us on our own work. It really is an exchange of ideas and advice but on an equal level."
Glumac invites students to her home. "I like getting them off campus and showing them a little bit of how we live," she says. "If they feel homesick, they can come and experience a little bit of that home and family atmosphere."
Like many academic departments on campus, the English department has student liaisons who meet with the chairwoman every week to provide a communications link between the faculty and the students. Chelsea Portney, a senior, held one of those positions last year and is serving in that capacity again. "At first I was a little bit nervous," she says, about getting to know the professors on a collegial basis in which they address each other by their first names.
In the English department the liaisons have a small budget to organize events, such as an ice cream social at the start of the semester where students and faculty mingle informally to explore each other's interests. The liaisons have also organized afternoon talks to hear, for instance, a particular professor's thoughts on one of Jane Austen's early novels. Tea and scones might very well be served at such an event.
This year Portney is helping to organize a Scrabble tournament for students and faculty. There will be snacks, small prizes and no doubt some good-natured banter over the legitimacy of some obscure two-letter words. The competition will be friendly but real, Portney promises. Would she like to beat one of her professors at the wordsmith's board game? "That would be nice," she says.