I sometimes think of my role at St. Andrew’s as an “academic anthropologist.” In my visits to classrooms, I observe and document our academic program in action. In doing so, I am attempting to pin down exactly what it looks like when the values of St. Andrew’s academic program—careful listening; open-minded, critical thinking; and creative exploration—are put into action. I also want to understand how our students respond to these values, and how our academic habits and practices connect to our ever-changing world. Here are just a few highlights of these student experience “field notes” from the first semester:
In a recent Foundations in Visual Art class, instructor Bertie Miller encouraged students to experiment with approaches while working on a challenging self-portrait assignment. Here are some of the things I heard Miller say to their students: “Try it out … this is a ‘trust the process’ thing … I can come work with you on that …” Through this language, Miller not only supported but encouraged student risk-taking and emphasized the importance of process rather than results. The Foundations of Visual Arts course also teaches students the language of constructive critique; students learn to frame specific, detailed observations in judgment-free conversations about their peers’ work. Whether this would be their first of many visual art classes or a one-time experience in the art studio, all of the students were immersed in the process of creating, reflecting, adjusting, and just trying something out.
Our electives give students opportunities to explore different subjects and stretch their creative thinking in a variety of ways. In a recent Computer Science class, Dave Myers’ students created apps in teams, then presented their work to their peers, demonstrating the apps and explaining the logic steps they followed (this was the part of their presentations I vaguely understood) as well as the technical work they undertook (this was the part of their presentations I understood nothing about). What was clear to the classroom audience that day was the imaginative leaps these students had made—they put themselves in the shoes of potential users, anticipated a user’s choices, and then coded solutions.
At St. Andrew’s, our students live with and learn from one another—not only from their classmates, but from older students as well. A wonderful example of this was on a day last semester when Will Porter’s ninth-grade English class visited Martha Pitts’ senior English class. Dr. Pitts’ students demonstrated for the ninth-grade audience a “mini-class” seminar discussion: they modeled risk-taking, testing new ideas, listening closely, and building from one another’s comments. The younger students then had a chance to ask questions and reflect with the seniors on what makes a good discussion and what one does in discussion to help create a productive, dynamic class. The ninth-grade students gained a clear picture of the skills and habits they are striving to develop, and the seniors reflected actively, too, on how their work together around the table generates new thinking and stretches their understanding. The seniors laughed over the occasional awkward moments, too—such as when a student was unsure of where their comment was going, until a classmate picked up the point and connected it to the next idea—so the ninth graders saw, too, the camaraderie that gets built through collaborative work.
Many of the most important learning experiences at St. Andrew’s connect students with leaders, artists, thinkers, and experts from beyond campus. In October, students spoke with writer and scholar Mark Oppenheimer in Chaplain Jay Hutchinson’s History of Religious Thought course. As Oppenheimer spoke about the choices he made in deciding who to talk to and what to focus on while writing his book about the Tree of Life temple massacre in Pittsburgh, Oppenheimer challenged students to understand why he decided to interview a neo-Nazi Holocaust denier. “I want to understand all of humanity,” Oppenheimer said. “It’s up to us to be open … to not give up on anyone.” Students were challenged to see that “we can all get better … it’s on us” and to see the humanity in those who have dehumanized others. Essentially, students wrestled with the challenge of seeing things from multiple sides, and they heard how Oppenheimer, as a writer and as a human, prized careful listening above all else.
At the Payson Art History lecture in January, curator and magazine editor Sarah Meister encouraged students to think about photography in the broadest way possible, and to be open to the ways images can reflect the messiness of life. Her talk encouraged us to “look longer” at images to discern the complex, nuanced messages they convey about our world and ourselves. Students talked with Meister about what it means for a photograph to be a work of art, and how her own work as a scholar and curator has become an artistic practice of sorts, too. Throughout the conversation, students were invited to think carefully about what images are telling us, and to think critically about what constitutes “fine art.” I am guessing that Meister's lecture also encouraged some students to think creatively about their eventual possible career choices and paths.
These moments from our academic program are presented here at random, but I hope they convey to you what it looks when our students embrace the opportunities they have at St. Andrew’s to think flexibly and openly, try new ideas, and explore deeply. In practicing these intellectual habits, we hope they are building the foundation for a lifetime of engaging the complex world around them.