CLAS Acts November 2016

Monthly newsletter of the CLAS TT Faculty



Well, I was kind of stumped for a topic this month that wasn’t stunningly predictable.  I hope you already know how thankful I am personally to work with you—you are a faculty of extraordinary talent, from which I learn and from whom I take delight every day.  Taken as a group, you are stunningly devoted to your students; when we all can depend on that from each other, everything else seems doable.  It’s incumbent on anyone lucky enough to be your dean to express gratitude most clearly in the work he or she does—in its quantity, its intensity, its quality, its creativity—and anyway, being a quiet Midwesterner by extraction, I’d rather manifest every day how thankful I am to work with and for you in the cause of CLAS’s mission than to belabor with saying it too often or too inelegantly.  But if not that obvious and unoriginal topic, then in the blur of busy-ness that is November, what should I highlight?

On our website, we say that “it all starts here” in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences—we are “the Foundation of Everything” at GVSU, and we take pride in that.  The site reminds readers that even students who will major in one of the other colleges will take many of their courses in CLAS, and I hope that the thread emerges of how essential we are to the enterprise of liberal education that is Grand Valley State University.  But that fundamental role has several aspects for which our faculty don’t always get recognized—maybe because we’ve set the expectations so high.  Whenever there are new initiatives that require nimbleness and agility, we supply the human capital without which such a new program would remain just an unstaffed gleam in someone’s curricular eye.  More pragmatically, we are an indispensable part of ensuring that important university functions such as orientation, general education, retention and advising are successful. I’m always proud of how generously you volunteer in these particular areas.  We can’t and won’t ever say all that is the business of some other unit or office. It may seem unnecessary to belabor this point—I kind of hope it is—but faculty need to remain involved in the planning and execution of recruitment, orientation, retention and advising initiatives. 

That said, I don’t want us to forget for a second that we are also distinctive in our own right.  As a college we offer over 50 robust majors—a few of which, it is easy to forget, are among the very largest programs on campus.  We achieve outstanding things every year in scholarship and service, with outcomes that range from the more easily measurable grants and awards to commitments to enrich and enliven individual and public life that we take on and fulfill. It’s a point of pride to see, for example, the Classics Department working nimbly and collaboratively with Music and Chemistry to register students to vote.  Indeed, you all contribute to public life through your teaching, and I hope that you have a plan for voting day to make it to your polling place; I’d also ask that you entertain some appropriate degree of flexibility for your students as they exercise their rights and responsibilities as citizens, some for the first time.  What a proud day that is.

Your events for the last two months were a challenge to squeeze onto a double sized “CLAS Happenings” poster.  That—and not cheerleading from any administrator like me—is how a young university builds a tradition of intellectual vitality. Take pride in this; your energy and example in this crucial time in the University’s development will be driving this place long after you leave the scene.  So I thought I’d do more than write a “Dean’s Desk” about the essential and wide-ranging vibrancy of our college, its student centeredness, collaborative accomplishment and inventive agility. Let me tell you about a couple of eminently appropriate Commencement marshals I’ve chosen to symbolize your virtues, though they will blush to hear that.  They are both very accomplished collaborators who work so productively with our students, and both are original and imaginative achievers in their own work at the highest levels in their fields.  Norwood Viviano, this year among other things, has an exhibition at the Smithsonian.  What struck me when I saw a prior iteration was a terrible sort of beauty that showed our place in an expanding and contracting world.  Sok Kean Khoo has created a powerhouse lab which involves many students, is productive year-round in both publications and grants, and which is working on solving important problems such as the detection of Parkinson's.  As you march with them at Commencement, please know that you too are part of such an enterprise in your own way, in all you contribute.

And if you find yourself appreciating the good company and the meaningful work, well, I won’t have to figure out how to write about it. Still another thing for us all to be thankful for.


Reflections on a their Teaching Careers and Beyond—a conversation with Kathleen Underwood and Gary Stark


Kathleen Underwood and Gary Stark wore several hats during their careers at GVSU.  Many will remember that Kathleen in addition to being a professor of history, chaired Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Gary, also a professor of history, was associate dean of faculty for CLAS.  In addition, both took on special projects that shaped what we now see as normal from having a Women’s Center to spearheading international exchange opportunities and other important projects that improved our internationalization.

Now that this empowering couple has tasted a bit of retirement, we thought we’d catch up with them, ask for their reflections on the changes in teaching over their celebrated careers, and find out what is keeping them busy now.  I described the challenges that were at the heart of the Out of the Box discussions last winter (Out of the Box and Beyond the Margins-Connecting with the modern student) and invited their reflections on the changing challenges over the span of their careers.

Gary notes that his administrative posts meant that his teaching was more sporadic after 1994.  He did not have as much student contact as he had had earlier in his career, with the notable exception of leading several study abroad programs in central Europe, including some designed for incoming freshmen.  

Kathleen taught for over 30 years in public institutions and noted a change in who is on campus now.  “Many who would not have come to college in the 1980s were now here in recent years,” she observed.  “When I taught in Texas, the student population was more diverse with African American, Latino, non-traditional students as well as those using wheelchairs because the university was relatively accessible.  When I began at GVSU, the old buildings were not very accessible—but are now much better.”

Kathleen notes that in recent years she had challenging situations in the classroom when students decided not to identify their needs and to refuse the support of Disability Support Resources.  She recalls a student with Tourette Syndrome who in the early days of the course angered the other students until they eventually realized his circumstances.  She also recalls a very difficult advising moment when a student with dyslexia would not concede the inherent difficulty in choosing a broadcasting career.

“I do think that sort of message is better coming from a faculty member than a staff member—we have tenure and can weather the aftermath—but a collaboration between faculty and staff advisors on what else the student can do works well,” Kathleen noted.

Both see a marked change in parents over the time of their careers.  “In Texas, I had no parental conversations,” Kathleen recalls.

While Dean of Arts & Humanities (prior to the formation of CLAS), Gary found that parents were beginning to want to go higher up the administrative ladder and would contact the dean.  

Kathleen recalls a former dean of students to have likened parents in recent years not so much to helicopters as to snowplows.  “Thank goodness for FERPA!”

Gary has heard parental requests such as “why can’t my student get into this particular class?” beginning in the 1990s and increasing over the years.

“I saw a change in parenting styles.  These students were the first generation to wear seat belts, bike helmets, have safe schoolyard equipment.  No risk; no learning by mistake,” Gary observes.

Kathleen picks up on his thought: “It became very ingrained in our culture—and I’m not advocating for not wearing seat belts.”

“Home schooling,” Gary adds, “is also a growing phenomenon.”

“It certainly changes the dynamics of class discussion,” Kathleen recalls.  “In a class of 45, one of my best prepared students was home schooled, but that student had a hard time with not being called on every time.”

Both expressed a sense that parents want to shape the environment to the needs of the child.

Positive changes over the period of their careers included the move toward more study abroad.  Gary expressed that “Grand Valley is particularly good at this.  Refreshingly.  I see students being more willing and able and inclined to study abroad even if they are first gen, have never been on a plane, and have never been outside of Michigan before.  In part they may be doing it for their resume, but whatever the reason it is happening and it is positive.”

Kathleen reflected that the increase of technology in pedagogy was a big change over the years of her teaching.  “Students disdain what you have written on the board but take notes on the content of a PowerPoint slide,” she smiles.

“When I began 40 years ago,” Gary states, “I was giving 50 minute lectures.  By the end of my career, that was not possible to do—and I found breaking the time into sections worked better, too.  Who changed whom?  I don’t know.”

Both noted a considerable cutting back in the amount of reading required in courses--from long reading lists to stopping using textbooks altogether in some instances.

As a final observation about the needs that students bring to their college education now, Kathleen points out that DSR is in place to help students.  DSR helps faculty know their responsibilities, but the pedagogical challenges will be best met through talking with one another, sharing teaching experiences.  One person’s classroom experience can give many others an option they hadn’t considered.

“That Faculty Council wants to deal with these issues surrounding the inclusive classroom and foster this sort of discussion really is commendable.  Talking to each other, sharing experiences, at very least lets you know you are not the first to deal with it.”

Now with their substantial careers behind them, in addition to a tremendous amount of travelling now that they have the time and continue to have the ability, both have involved themselves in projects that use their special gifts.

For instance, Kathleen is busy using her considerable talent for activism toward getting out the Latino vote.  She also continues her work with Friends of the Library, especially on the annual book sale.

Gary has found a way to teach history to very different audiences through programs such as GV’s Grand Forum and a similar lifelong learning program run by Aquinas College.  He enjoys the different formats of these short courses.  The well-educated, well-travelled, lifelong learners in the course put him through his paces.

He has also now twice been a featured lecturer aboard some European river cruises.  He has enjoyed learning how to use PowerPoint to provide only images, to give his lectures a hook, and really bring his presentations face-to-face with his audience.  In fact, he wishes he had known some of these techniques earlier.  “No reading, no tests, no grading, great off-the-wall questions—fun!  You need to adapt to the different set ups and different AV systems, but you meet very interesting people.”