Geological specimen outside of Mackinac Hall

CLAS Acts October 2017

Monthly newsletter for the tenure track faculty of the college

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Frederick J. Antczak, Dean

When this newsletter started a little over ten years ago, we were coping with the challenges of rapid growth.  Now we are one of the 100 largest universities in the country and working hard to keep the virtues of a smaller liberal education setting at a scale that affords our students many opportunities they would not otherwise have.  Last year was a record year; because of a slightly smaller entering class, we have come down slightly off that peak.


Students have many choices of where to study and as the pool of college-ready students graduating from high schools contracts (as it has been for some years and will continue for some more), competition is growing stiffer. 


The first mandate is simple: what faculty can most importantly do is to teach well. We can provide the quality education that the Provost has called for us to be known for, by looking for ways to include our students in our scholarly and creative work, being open to potential improvements of all kinds, and (as I said in a speech a decade ago) keep the bushel off your light.  Today, I want to make a few more particular suggestions. 


I’ve noticed that it’s the case in rather many departments that there’s a scholarship that has yet to reach endowment or that could be working much harder for our students if it could be more routinely supported.  This is the time to take it, in the contemporary cliché, to the next level.  If, in the spirit of the current GVSU capital campaign, each department would do three things, we could more effectively address real needs of our students as they strive to complete their degrees.  Those three things are simple, but they’re not always easy for a department: to look after your relationship to your alumni, to make sure that the opportunity to give to your department fund/s is visible on your website, and to ensure that all your departmental faculty and staff know the impact your scholarship funds have for your students.   Well beyond those few to whom the scholarships will be awarded, we’d also be sending a strong message of faculty, staff, and alumni support.


We talk a great deal about retention between the first and second year, but when we look closely at the numbers in CLAS, we also see that many students stop out for a while and then return.  I admire the persistence of these“Students, Interrupted.”  I’d also like to see us lessen their need to disrupt their journey.  The sooner they can get back to school, the better their chances of earning the degree they are pursuing so tenaciously.


Soon you will order your textbooks for next term.  I ask that you pay close attention to their total price.  If you spot cases where the cost and benefit equation doesn’t seem right, some creativity may be in order. 


I’d also recommend that each year every member of the faculty take a quick look at the accountability report of the university.  It speaks to where we are and what we are striving for. And since you are splendid ambassadors for our university, it will enable you (coining a phrase here) to stand with the facts.


Before I leave this theme of the importance of both the numbers and the narrative, I’d like to thank the many who came out to hear a wonderful first CLAS Faculty Research Colloquium of the year on the theme of the narratives that support the science of climate change.  It was an uplifting cross-disciplinary discussion that seems to have already sparked collaborations. 


October has similar potential.  Our CLAS Happenings poster is bursting its seams.  Please also see our web calendar for the many upcoming events.  Remember, keep your light shining brightly, and keep it out from under that bushel!


Our actions are our claims

Philosophy’s Professor Phyllis “Peggy” Vandenberg is enjoying phased retirement in much the way she has approached her career.  She is working to keep her intellectual community vibrant.

All faculty have a sort of disciplinary home in their school or department, but in the specialty area of their expertise, each professor must find that more particular room of one’s own, and that is often through identifying the particular professional society that nurtures that specialty.

“I encourage new PhDs to find a society where they feel really comfortable.  I recommend that they try different ones to find a home for their writing and research,” Professor Vandenberg explains.

This has certainly been her experience.  In fact, Peggy now serves on the executive committee of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum (SEAC) where she found her intellectual community.  One of the important manifestations of its benefit to her has been a wonderful collaboration with current society president Deborah Mower (Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of Mississippi).  Though at different points in their careers and being opposites in some ways, they find they can room together at conferences.  Mower is a night owl and Vandenberg a morning person, so it is not unusual when they are working on a project for Vandenberg to wake up to 6 emails from her collaborator.

“The partnership really works,” Vandenberg smiles.

Together they have edited a book and found the motivation to host conferences.


“Writing is lonely,” Vandenberg observes with obvious gratitude that she found such a productive collaboration.  “A community outside your department is affirming--to have those who really appreciate your particular area of research and talk about the pedagogy on teaching your specialty.”

The society holds a conference each year.  In both 2012 and 2017, Vandenberg has served as a conference co-director and hosted the SEAC conference at GVSU.  Since the nature of the society is cross disciplinary, the conference is an opportunity to bring together those involved in the ethics of fields such as medicine, business, law, social work, journalism and more as well as academics in the field of the philosophy of ethics.

Between these two conferences Vandenberg and Mower received $150,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to run a four-week long Summer Institute for College and University Teachers on “Moral Psychology and Education” which took place at GVSU May 30-June 24, 2016.

Professor Vandenberg also reviews for the society’s journal, Teaching Ethics.

“This is the core of my scholarly work, really close to my heart.  I appreciate the involvement of philosophers, engineers, business people,” Vandenberg acknowledges. 


“I teach Ethics and the Professions so I also am affiliated with the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics which is larger organization that also brings in doctors, lawyers, academics.  Both of these organizations have provided enough for me to be able to ‘do my thing’.”


Vandenberg also serves on the Metro Health Hospitals Ethics Board.  “It’s humbling.  They have to make ethical decisions quickly,” Vandenberg explains.  The hospital personnel like having the theoretical background she can provide, but Vandenberg is quick to note how much the experience has taught her.  “Day-to-day they make tough decisions. You can’t just play the ‘it’s complicated’ card—there has to be a resolution from the options before them.  You do your best and come up with the rationale.  This helps me to understand what these real life decisions are like. I help them articulate it, but they have to do it.  I help them to see what the action implies, that their action makes a claim, an ethical claim.  Our actions are our claims.”


After a career of such considerations, the field has laid its claim on Professor Vandenberg.  This is Professor Vandenberg’s second of three years of phased retirement, but she imagines that along with more travel, she will probably keep writing and presenting and attending the fall SEAC conferences.