Saturday, October 23, 2021

Book in Common at Randolph-Macon

I'm home from Randolph-Macon College, a small liberal arts school in Ashland, Virginia, which chose "A Fire Story" as this year's Honors Program Book in Common and invited me to talk about it, which I did on Thursday (which meant flying to and fro all day Wednesday and Friday). 

One of the entrances to the school, and you'll immediately notice the one feature that delights me every time I travel back east: bricks. We don't have many brick buildings in northern California. Ours all fell down in 1906, and we're not allowed to build them anymore. More than any other indicator, bricks are what tell me I'm in terra incognita.

A "Book in Common" is a book that all the students read--in this case, all the students in the Honors Program, but also many others as I discovered. It often reflects some theme that different classes build the year's curriculum around, in this case "resilience." I feel well-equipped to talk about that. 

My day began with a VIP campus tour (in a solar-powered golf cart!) given by Robert Patterson, the school's director of corporate and foundation relations. I had lunch with three staggeringly smart honors students, spoke to three classes, had a great half-hour chat with Provost Alisa Rosenthal, dinner with a select group of students and faculty, then the Main Event: a community lecture attended in person by about 30 and, due to Covid, another 140 or so watching on Zoom. 

I took this photo of the quad in the center of campus. A professional took the next one that I stole from the Web.

Courtesy of Randolph-Macon College, even though I didn't ask.

During my morning campus tour with Robert Patterson, who's on the right here, I saw this small campus observatory atop a building that looked so much like the small campus observatory I spent countless nights in at UC Davis that I practically begged for a tour. Robert obliged by rousting Physics Dept. Chair Deonna Woolard (left) from her office, and she was kind enough (and had the keys!) to let me in.

The observatory's telescope. This is a real nice set up, much better than the one I had. When Covid abates they'll resume public viewing programs here, which is very near and dear to my heart because I ran the same at Davis. XO

These are honors students Sam, Cara and Trixie, who took me to lunch off campus. They are remarkable young women and fine representatives of their school. Our future's in fine hands.

That's a long whirlwind day, but a really good one.

A word about Randolph-Macon College: I was very impressed. It's a small school, only about 1400 students. As Robert pointed out, many of their students come from high schools bigger than that. It's a beautiful campus established in 1868 (the school was founded elsewhere in Virginia in 1830, and you scholars of U.S. history may infer why it had to relocate in the 1860s). 

One of my big takeaways: an education there would be unusually personal and intimate. Everybody seemed to know everybody else. Classes are small. Faculty wear many hats, and are encouraged to follow their own quirky passions or areas of research and take students along with them.

Another big takeaway: for a small college, they have a very robust offering of majors, including in hard sciences like physics, chemistry, geology, biology. One of the girls who took me to lunch is a neuroscience major. Those sorts of classes require expensive labs and such that other colleges can't afford, but the facilities I saw in my tour looked modern and excellent. Small, but high quality.

One of the classes I spoke with was Dr. Amber Peacock's course on "Discerning Learning and Achievement," which hit the resilience theme hard. Great students and teachers that I didn't get any pictures of. Instead, this was my second class, Drawing, with Prof. Kristen Payton, who's farthest to the right. This was about half the class, the other half was out of frame to the left, with the usual mix of students who are very serious about art and others who just want the general ed credit. A real nice conversation about art, intention, authenticity, finding your own style and voice, etc. 

My third class was Printmaking, also with Prof. Peyton. Just four students, but very sharp and engaged. I said repeatedly, and wasn't joking, that I'd LOVE to take this class. Printmaking is something I'm very interested in and hope to pursue. They're doing it now. 

I went to a big school, the University of California at Davis. I don't know what enrollment was when I went there, but now it's about 30,000 undergrads and probably wasn't much different then. That environment worked for me, I thrived and loved it. But spending a day at Randolph-Macon made me nostalgic for a different education I could have had. I think a student there is very lucky.

A few photos, some of which I nicked from the college website because I didn't have a chance to take many pictures myself. Thanks to Randolph-Macon for choosing my book and inviting me to talk about it, to Dr. April Marchetti for being a great host and guide, and to the students who couldn't have been sharper or more engaged (I joked that they must have told the dolts and duds to stay off campus for the day). Go Yellowjackets!

My host, chemistry professor and head of the Honors Program, April Marchetti. She's great, and I'm not just saying that because she bought me dinner and drove me everywhere. 

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