The Way Things Work (at Swarthmore)

I’m thinking of doing a series this fall of really basic, short and frank explanatory essays aimed at current Swarthmore students (and any other interested readers) about some of the college’s central structures and practices. My aspiration is to demystify some of the cultural and economic underpinnings of selective higher education with an eye to helping students engage more satisfyingly with the institution during their time here.

Here’s my starter list of topics that I’m sure I would want to discuss. I’d love to hear from Swarthmore students, alumni or other readers about other topics that they think I should include: things every student should know, things you wish you’d known about college when you were in college.

Tenure, Recruitment, Retention of Faculty
Revenue and Expenditure: The Swarthmore Budget
Curriculum Design and Structure
Intellectual and Programmatic Relationships Between Disciplines
Return on Investment: How Students Use a Swarthmore Education
Financial Aid

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16 Responses to The Way Things Work (at Swarthmore)

  1. Mike Tuciarone says:

    These are the sorts of things that were never discussed when I was an undergraduate at Rochester 30 years ago, and some of them were considered rather vulgar topics at that. How are folks reacting to your plan to demystify the academy? I imagine you’re getting a range of reactions, but I think this is a fine idea unless they start winding the crossbows.

  2. Daniel says:

    I think something about “how faculty think about students, what faculty expect from students” could be very helpful. I didn’t realize until very late in my Swarthmore career that you all had your own research programs outside of your work teaching us, or that that was even the standard thing for a college professor. I don’t know what I thought – maybe that it was like being an extra-smart high school teacher? Along with that you might include some general themes about what kinds of student behaviors generally give faculty happy, sad, or angry feelings, although that might be going too far out of the scope of your plan, into “tips for students” rather than “insights into the system.” Still, something about how faculty see themselves (generally) neither as high-school-teacher-style taskmasters nor as your buddies… well, a lot of students at Berkeley could certainly use that tip.

  3. Will Hopkins says:

    I’d really like to hear more about how the needs of different departments are balanced. I know that with budget cuts and discussions about the future of the College, many students (including me, although I’m now an alum) are confused and concerned about how decisions are made. We know that committees are involved, and that professors serve on those committees, but other than that we really only get insight when a professor or staff member is upset enough to say something (and thus we mostly hear negative things, mostly from people we like a lot and so we don’t often hear two sides of a story). I think you’ve made space for this topic in the list above, but I wanted to express my specific interest.

    I think that, as a student, I would also have benefited from a greater understanding of the relationship between administrators and faculty, and how the two intersect. Again, this falls generally under the topics you’ve outlined above, but I thought I’d zoom in a little.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    As a former Swarthmore student, I think this would be incredibly valuable.

    Other things I really wish I’d known as a student:
    (1) Ways to earn money as a student (my family didn’t qualify for financial aid then, although Swarthmore was a huge burden for my family–we would probably qualify for financial aid now). I never realized that RAs were the best paid jobs on campus. I never realized how much WAs were paid.

    (2) How to take advantage of the Swarthmore environment. I felt so guilty about how much my family was sacrificing to pay for Swarthmore that I never wanted to luxuriate, but there were so many things available at Swarthmore that aren’t available at big state universities. I wish I’d known about these things earlier–really good Career Planning and Placement, the Fellowships office, Academic Support Services, etc. Plus I don’t think I realized how much better the lab sciences were at Swarthmore than they AP class labs in my public high school. I wish I’d taken advantage of them, too!

  5. Caitlin says:

    Could you do a piece on fellowships and other opportunities for during and after college? I had no idea how many fellowships, scholarships, and so on were available to Swarthmore students. By the time I realized that I should be researching them, I was a junior, and many application deadlines had already passed.

  6. Brendan Karch says:

    That looks like a great list to me. I think it might be nice to weave into your posts an explanation how an elite liberal arts college is distinguished from Big State U, Shoestring U, etc. in each of these domains. I think most students (and many faculty) have a fairly superficial understanding of the difference between Harvard and Swarthmore, or Michigan and Villanova, and would benefit from deeper structural comparison.

  7. tcmJOE says:

    I think a talk on how the budget works would be very good. I’ve heard plenty of variations on “our endowment is just sitting there, our university isn’t using it for anything” by fellow students at my undergrad. I also think a lecture on how various funding agencies (NSF, NIH, those for social sciences and humanities) work would be interesting, as would a talk on college athletics and its evolution.

    I’m a little unsure what you would actually teach in “Intellectual and Programmatic Relationships.” Care to describe a bit more?

  8. DannyScL says:

    It’s not something that makes itself amenable to ‘basic, short and frank,’ but a historical overview of Swarthmore, and liberal arts colleges more generally, could help students understand how Swat fits in the larger ecosystem of higher education (this builds on Brendan Karch’s suggestion). It wasn’t until after college that I realized how SLACs are really a peculiarly American phenomenon; recognizing that sooner may have allowed me to take advantage of the unique things that Swarthmore offers.

  9. I like the idea of the historical overview, but I might save it for last. Takes more thinking and reading than some of the others.

    tcmJoe: I’m thinking of trying to explain a bit about how different disciplines relate to one another historically, but also how they relate to one another administratively here. (e.g., divisions, etc.) Overlaps a lot with explaining the structure of the curriculum, though.

  10. Lecturer (It's the new Assistant Professor!) says:

    Okay, I’ve only got a little class envy going on here, but isn’t the return on a Swarthmore investment mainly that your students had the good sense to choose to be born to rich and well-to-do parents?

  11. Chris Geissler says:

    It seems like many Swarthmore students–myself included–pigeonhole ourselves into thinking that X major –> X Ph.D. –> career as an X-ologist. While there’s nothing wrong with going through this and it may well be the right thing to do for someone who wants to become an X-ologist, there’s really a lot of other options for students with a liberal arts degree beyond graduate or professional school. An article or two about expanding career thinking horizons and perhaps even the basic philosophy behind the liberal arts education might be very helpful.

  12. Dorothea says:

    May I suggest an overview of what the library is and does, and how librarians help students?

  13. Scott says:

    I think a post on study-abroad opportunities would be neat. At Arizona State I was in a program that required either a class or an internship abroad, but a lot of my friends had no idea just how many study-abroad opportunities there were. I’d imagine there are quite a few at Swarthmore worth looking at.

  14. Ben says:

    Linking with your more recent post about advising, looking back on my days at Swarthmore I think I would have benefited from knowing more about how to build a mentor/mentee relationship with a professor.

  15. Sophia Acord says:

    As a Swat alum (remember your interpretation theory capstone with Bruce Grant in spring 2003?), who now studies the place of the humanities in large research universities (and the negative effects that so-called ‘corporatization’ is having on the the humanities), I would be very interested in how a structural study of Swarthmore (dare I say ‘cultural’?) sheds light on how the elite liberal arts experience values the role of the humanities and liberal arts more generally in creating critical thinkers. I would invite you to think about this study not simply as a window onto Swarthmore, but as offering some helpful talking points and examples of good practice that might help those of us in other, larger institutions facing different constraints in terms of budgets and resource allocation. Simply put: great idea, I look forward to seeing the results!

  16. a parent says:

    The study abroad options at Swarthmore (and its peer liberal arts colleges) are breathtaking in their breadth and quality. The list of approved programs at Swarthmore (and Williams, etc.) read like a comprehensive Who’s Who of top study abroad programs. Counterintuitively, not offering a lot of in-house programs is an advantage, opening up a much wider array of options.

    Another topic that probably warrants some discussion is the Writing Associates program. While the writing course requirement sometimes comes under fire, the resources Swarthmore invests in this program (a full-time tenured faculty position, a full-semester credit seminar teaching peer mentoring, the large number of courses with assigned peer review) is quite unique and probably under-appreciated. This an area where Swarthmore is far beyond most of its peers.

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