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Conversations with Laura Walker: A is for Academics

This week’s edition focuses on academic issues as we are currently halfway between the first seven-weeks ending and registration for next term. People are curious to hear President Walker’s thoughts on the academic issues the college is facing. 

Luke: Thanks to the chaos of seven week terms, you just experienced your first finals week as President of the college a little bit earlier than expected. If you could just share some of your experiences, or let us know if it changed your day to day at all?

Walker: Yeah, To be honest, I was quarantining in the Brick House for most of finals week. So I heard stories, during finals, about how hard people were working. I could feel a little anxiety even off campus, even from the Brick House. And then I came out of quarantine time to finish with fall weekend and I went to the farm and I could feel the joy and the energy and the letting go and the relief like we don’t have any work right now. So I felt a little bit anxiety from afar, and then the joy of letting go. And I really look forward to being on campus at the end of this seven week period. But it will be also odd, because many people are going home for Thanksgiving, and not coming back. So I actually wonder what finals week will be like here and also for people who are in their parents houses or at friend’s houses or whatever, and whether there is a collective experience of finals week when you’re remote. But I look forward to experiencing this December and for sure in the spring.

Luke: So on a more serious note, just turning to issues of the curriculum and registration. The registration can be a challenging time every term for many students across different disciplines, partly due to lack of advanced classes and niche classes and in different disciplines. So, I wonder if you have any ideas on how to address this going forward?

Walker: Yeah, well, this is something I’ve heard about from students and from parents actually. And I want to understand it better. And want to look at some data. So I’ve asked for data about, you know, what are the classes that students can’t get into? What are classes that are under-enrolled? What is the experience of various different students? I understand that because of our small class sizes, and the pedagogical commitment, close work with faculty, it sometimes can be hard to get into classes, preferred classes. And I’ve heard that there are as many as 50 students trying to get into a class that can only take 10 or 20. And we need to take a look at that. I see this as having as much to do with the structure of the curriculum, as it does the way we register for classes. I need to dig into both of those things. How is the registration process structured? How do we make sure that people, students who need classes for their plans really can get those things that they really, really need? I think I am going to spend some time, this term or this half term, to dig into both the process and the substance of it, the structure of the curriculum before giving a more specific answer. And I do hope that we can come back early in 2021 to address it again, because I really want to be responsive. It is hard to offer as many classes as we’d like. But students have a voice informing how and what we teach and I know that the dean’s office works with SEPC on periodic surveys to get feedback on classes and access to the curriculum. Zeke Bernstein, of course, knows a lot about what the data that’s been collected. And I know this is on his mind and on Laurie Kobik’s mind as we enter the coming weeks. The other thing I would say is not tied specifically to not getting into a class, but I think what one of the things that we try to do here at Bennington is to ask students even though there’s no requirements, and everyone has their plan process. We want students to be a little comfortable, uncomfortable and go outside their, their areas of interest. And not to say that they’re linked. But if I, we often hear from students apparently that sometimes when they can’t get into a class and they take another class that they didn’t really think was in their interest, it can be some of the best experience that they’ve had at Bennington. So I think that there’s often some silver linings in this. But I think going forward, we need to look at both the structure of the registration process, we need to look at which classes are consistently oversubscribed? And how can we address that where there might be partnerships or other ways for students to get those niche classes that they really need, whether it’s tutorials, or whether there’s some other creative ways of doing it, or even doing things with other institutions. And, you know, those are all the questions that I’ll be addressing and thinking about with Zeke and Laurie and the rest of the team.

Luke: Yeah, absolutely. So you mentioned tutorials. I’ve personally benefited from a great tutorial experience, but they can be hard on different faculty in different disciplines, mainly just due to faculty not getting compensated for them. And yeah, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts to address that specifically?

Walker: I think we need to look at it because I mean, I can’t promise it going forward. But I think it is something to really take a look at. I’m really struck by how unbelievably dedicated this faculty is and how they’re putting a lot of extra time outside of their classes, whether it’s tutorials, whether it’s really doing academic work with students, and sometimes, you know, really helping students personally. Or sitting on committees, the faculty are amazing, and we want to make sure that they’re, given the financial constraints that we’re under, fairly compensated.

I personally believe that reallocating funding towards tutorials would make this registration hardship easier on many students. Entering my sixth term here, my options for classes within my plan that are advanced enough are extremely limited. I hope the administration can take action to address this soon.

As always, please reach out to me if you have any questions you’d like asked in a future interview ( or 

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