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Building on the Block: Distinguished Scholars

The Charge: The Center for Immersive Learning and Engaged Teaching will be a dynamic place, a centerpiece, where students, faculty, staff, and alumni come together and where resources are available to discover and share best practices and support new ideas.

What's Happening: By creating in-residence programs for artists, scholars, social entrepreneurs, journalists, postdocs, filmmakers, and others, CC is building on the block and extending its reach to fully engage alumni and parents, and prominent scholars, who are experts in their fields and interested in sharing their experiences with students.

Since the start of strategic plan implementation, CC has hosted more than 80 distinguished scholars, lecturers, and artists to work directly with our students. Not only do these great thinkers share insight through presentations and panel discussions; but thanks to the flexibility of the Block Plan, these notable experts are teaching courses, commenting on student presentations, and engaging students in master classes and small group discussions.

Acclaimed filmmaker, artist, and writer Miranda July talked with a room full of students during a convergence class in Block 5 about her creative process, showing role-playing exercises that she uses to get her creative juices flowing.

"Miranda July is a feminist, an independent filmmaker, a performance artist, and first and foremost, a writer," says Tom Lindblade, professor of theatre. His was one of five different classes across a variety of disciplines that participated in that morning discussion with July. She was on campus to present as the keynote speaker at CC's 2017 Cornerstone Arts Week.

"She was able to relate to all the students and help them connect each other's disciplines," Lindblade says. "The Block Plan is perfect for such an experience because of its immersion: The guest artist arrives in the second week of the block, when ideas are percolating and being birthed. Miranda was a catalyst for the fruition of these ideas in the last two weeks of the block."

July's visit is one of dozens of examples of distinguished scholars who not only visit campus, but spend time directly engaging with students.

"Having the chance to listen to her talk in person about her works and artistic process made me realize that she was not always all-knowing and definitive about her art," says Alana Aamodt '18 about July. "While sprinkling in anecdotal stories, experiences, and personal opinions, she spoke passionately about her ideas and inspiration for her art, and by the end of the class time with her I found myself trusting her - that she wasn't fake, and that she truly believed in her work."

Providing space for reflection and for discussions like these to evolve, based on students' and visitors' questions or topics of interest, is one of the assets of the block. Focusing on one class at a time enables a depth and breadth that's just not possible in a different teaching format.

Tonja Olive, professor of feminist and gender studies, and her students also participated in the convergence class. "We are very fortunate at CC to be able to bring in scholars, performers, and artists to present and participate in discussions with our students. In just one block, we had the opportunity to meet Donna Haraway, a rockstar of feminist and gender studies; the first Monday talk by Russel Rickford was a powerful call to action for our students; and July's narrative presentation was a history lesson for feminist and gender studies students in the "grrl movement," Olive says.

The dialogue with July allowed students and faculty learn from this distinguished practitioner of her craft, also highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of learning on the Block Plan at CC.

When Nobel Laureate chemist Tom Cech visited campus in May 2015, he spent a full day with biochemistry students.

"We have the class all day. On a semester plan, you have a few hours at a time. Here, there was nothing else the students had to do other than to be part of that time with Dr. Cech," says Neena Grover, professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

"They could interact formally, informally, and do lunches and presentations. Dr. Cech got to see how bright and capable our students are and our students got to see that they can understand the level of science Dr. Cech presented in the evening," Grover says. "It's good for students to learn that level of confidence and build their abilities to make a difference in the world, and to learn to host important conversations in life. This was just the beginning."

Interactions like the ones with Cech and July can be just the start of students uncovering their passions; or fuel a spark that might not happen if the learning experience didn't involve these real-life lessons and insights from visiting scholars. Each visitor is able to have an extraordinarily-sized impact on the Block Plan, connecting students more broadly to the world of work, seeing how practitioners live, and providing real-world application to concepts discussed in the classroom.

"We can align the goals of the class with the visitors on the Block Plan," Grover says. "I made sure Cech was coming when I was teaching a biochemistry class. And he had written papers that won him a Nobel Prize with Brenda Bass '77. Those papers were an important part of readings for the class, for students to see what these discoveries mean. And to meet the people who do the work to win the Nobel Prize that you're learning about is transformative. Students don't get those kinds of experiences very often."

These are experiences that can inspire, and they extend across subject matter, with artists, journalists, musicians, and scholars in residence sharing expert insights with students.

"It was an illuminating experience, how she was willing to explain things that were basic for her; but for us, as we are just getting started, are very complex," says Leandro Montes '17, a political science major, of Cate Stetson's visit to his class. Stetson, an attorney for the U.S. Supreme Court, says that interacting with students helps her think about things differently, and gives students practical insight into how she made decisions throughout her professional journey. She says she's hopeful the political science class she taught before her lecture to the broader community provided some inspiration and a road map of sorts for those looking to follow a similar path.

"In the kind of law that I practice, there aren't a great many women who do it. I can talk with these students and say, 'This is your path forward,' especially for a female student. I didn't have that," says Stetson

Dana Wolfe, assistant professor of political science, says notable scholars can add timely commentary to classroom discussions. "Having students interact with someone like Stetson brings the material alive," says Wolfe. "It allows them to consider the real-world consequences of elections and Supreme Court appointments." Wolfe was able to invite Stetson to lead her classroom discussion soon after the presidential election, helping to connect course material to the current political climate.

"I was excited to have Stetson to campus so that we could consider some of the most important consequences of the election," Wolfe says. "Specifically, it was wonderful to hear her perspective about the future of the Supreme Court."

From political science to jazz performance, students are immersed in a learning environment that helps guide their understanding of academic concepts, while also providing real examples of how to live a scholarly life outside academia.

"It's so cool that we get this experience to hang out with world class musicians," says Jaiel Mitchell '18, a music major who attended a master class with Chris Brubeck, a musician and composer in jazz and classical music. Brubeck and his quartet worked directly with student musicians, providing professional feedback that Mitchell says is valuable.

"It's awesome to see them play. To get the feedback and have somebody just show 'this is what I'm talking about.' He could say that, but that means a whole different thing when he plays it," she says. "I think that having the practical aspect makes it so much more fun and understandable."

Abigail Washburn '99 hosted a master class for CC student musicians just a few weeks before the banjo player and singer won her first Grammy last year. "I'm thankful for this moment I get to stand onstage tonight at Armstrong Hall and speak to Colorado College students and sing for them and share this art I've been creating all these years," she said on her February 2016 visit to talk with, and play with, students at CC. "I'm just thankful. And I think that's a beautiful thing that I'd love to share with all of these young adults here."

The Block Plan opens a big enough window to allow students to see into what a life really looks like in one of these fields, for one of these practitioners of their craft. Peter Breslow, journalist for National Public Radio, has returned for more than one block, teaching as a journalist-in-residence.

Breslow says the Block Plan allows the course to be "super hands-on and intensive," sending students out to report a story, and coming back to class the next day with a piece that can be edited and refined, providing students immediate feedback on their work. "It's very much high volume. I feel that in the beginning, the more you do, we're not trying to make them perfect, but hopefully you learn a little each time," he says. And working so closely with a professional to edit each student's piece is something Breslow says mirrors what happens daily as a reporter at NPR.

"Hearing their advice on how to give interviews and how to make a story is relevant no matter what I'm doing." These have been the most valuable takeaways of working with journalists like Breslow, says Ben Bacher '18.

Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and a Time magazine "Hero of Medicine," visited campus to talk about her best-selling memoir "An Unquiet Mind." She held an informal lunch talk for psychology and neuroscience majors where they could ask her questions directly about her work on mood disorders, as well as her own experience with bipolar disorder.

While Jamison's expertise is notable, Kristi Erdal, professor of psychology, says it is her ability to communicate about complex terms and ideas that she hopes resonates with her students. "Her ability to communicate with an audience outside of psychology is exceptional," Erdal says. "Most community members as well as most students know about her popular books more than her published research, showing her ability to communicate very complex psychiatry and psychology into understandable themes, making knowledge about mental illness accessible."

Carolyn Finney, author of "Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors," visited campus to speak about this important issue and how it relates to CC's campus climate. She also took time to talk with students after the lecture and at an intimate dinner with students, faculty, and staff during her visit to CC.

Finney also met with faculty over lunch to discuss strategies for helping students create their own connections to the outdoors, providing insight and answering questions about how to make their own classrooms more inclusive. Both of these intimate settings allowed students and faculty to gain fresh perspectives and to engage directly with Finney to reach a new depth of understanding about this relevant topic.

"Many students on our campus are drawn to the outdoors, and the natural areas in our region, but not all students feel this draw," says Drew Cavin, director of the Office of Field Study. "Dr. Finney's talk and the discussion with her on this issue allowed new people to understand the history around the social construction of our notion of 'the outdoors' and also illuminate a new way to approach one's connection with nature."

It is the connection students experience, both with a distinguished scholar, and with the topics, ideas, and subjects examined during those interactions, that provides an intense level of engagement, for both the students and the visitors.

Distinguished Scholars Infographic

Coming in the Spring of 2017
Kip Thorne is an American theoretical physicist, known for his contributions in gravitational physics and astrophysics and one of the world's leading experts on the astrophysical implications of Einstein's general theory of relativity. He'll visit campus April 7 to give this year's Roberts Memorial Lecture.

Jenn Vervier, director of strategic development and sustainability for New Belgium Brewing Company, will give the 2017 Linnemann Lecture on the Environment April 27. She will meet with students in a sustainable development course while on campus.

As part of the Visiting Writers Series, Solmaz Sharif will present at CC April 25. Sharif is a poet who has been honored with a Discovery/Boston Review Poetry Prize and NEA and Stegner Fellowships, and whose first collection, "Look," was a finalist for the National Book Award.

Report an issue - Last updated: 01/15/2021