Monday, March 28, 2016

Wandering through campus (as a @PhiBetaKappa Visiting Scholar)

I recently finished the last of my 9 campus visits courtesy of the Phi Beta Kappa Society during the 59th year of the Visiting Scholars Program. Wow! These visits included 6 primarily undergraduate colleges, in order: the College of Wooster, University of the South (Sewanee), College of St. Benedict & St. John's University, Willamette University, Bucknell University, and Hamilton College. The last three were research intensive institutions, in order: Johns Hopkins University, Kansas State University, and the University of Oklahoma. From the Society's marketing materials, the Visiting Scholars Program "sends distinguished scholars in a variety of disciplines to participate for two days in the life of colleges and universities with Phi Beta Kappa chapters. During each two-day visit, a scholar takes part in class discussions, meets informally with students and faculty, and gives a free lecture open to the public." The chapters were sent information about me, my available dates, and possible lectures on topics accessible to undergraduates or the public. After a matching process, I filled my schedule with the nine sites listed above. The only way to make seven two-day visits possible in the Spring was to obtain release from teaching. However the number of contact hours (with over 20 hours per visit) was much greater than the sixty-ish hours I would normally have spent on a single course. Though these numbers didn't make sense form a work load perspective, the experience was transformative and in a word, priceless!

I was routinely asked by the chapters if theirs was the best visit and/or what the other schools did to make the visit special. My answer to them and to you is that all of them were equally outstanding. No jokes about Lake Wobegone, please. Each of my visits included unique and different elements that were special about the individual institutions. My visits to primarily undergraduate institutions allowed me to walk in the shoes of their faculty. The level of interaction and attention to their undergraduate students is amazing and enriching for students and professors alike. My visits to the research intensive institutions differed remarkably from my usual visits. In those, I typically meet almost exclusively with faculty and a few graduate students. As a consequence of the PBK lens, my hosts made sure that I interacted almost exclusively with undergraduate students in classrooms, in small-group discussions, and in one-on-one mentoring events. It was remarkable to see the depth and breadth of the students and the potential we have as educators to reach them if only we stop to say hello.

All of that would be enough to have made it worthwhile. But just as in those cheesy late-night commercials we sometimes stay up too late not to miss, there is more… I had an opportunity to extend my network of friends and colleagues with remarkable faculty across the country. I knew some of my chemistry hosts and their colleagues from previous activities, but most I did not. My bonds with new and old colleagues were much more strongly cemented through the intensity of the programs that they prepared for me. Meanwhile, many members of the PBK chapter hosting teams were from departments outside of chemistry, giving me the opportunity to learn and discuss a broader set of ideas with experts who I would not have seen otherwise. With them and the broad set of students, staff and faculty that attended my talks and sessions, I was able to share my work in theoretical and computational chemistry, and my work to advance diversity in academia. The latter also appear to have sparked many conversations that I believe will have an impact in their efforts to improve campus climate and diversity equity.

All to say that my term as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar was as enriching, if not more so, then a sabbatical concentrated at a single site. If ever you have a chance to do the same, I hope that you will not hesitate in saying yes!

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