3/09/2016 Daniel R. Porterfield

The Intellectual Life

This magazine article is part of Winter 2016 / Issue 84

It was Robert Frost who said, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener”—now one of my definitions of a great F&M professor.

Why do I say this?

Because the great F&M professors of yesterday and today didn’t simply ask students to answer questions; they inspired them to ask them, constantly, throughout their lives.

Today, we see this process at work in every discipline, with classes that kindle fire in students’ minds for research, creativity, innovation, and social change. One class that stands out is Europe in the Twentieth Century with history professor Maria Mitchell, currently featured in Habits of Mind on page xx. And to cite three more inspiring examples from last semester:

In Living Sustainably, earth and environment professor Suzanna Richter challenged her students to discover a cause that is important to them.

Dr. Richter’s class required students to develop practical proposals for campus sustainability—prodding them to identify problems and solutions. Some designed a pre-orientation program for incoming students to learn about environmental protection. Others sought to decrease water usage, or to replace plastic bags with reusable ones. Throughout the seminar, Dr. Richter emphasized that effective reading, writing, and data collection are essential to being an informed advocate for social change. That’s mission-driven work that activates young minds to make a difference.

In Democracy and Disagreement, government professor Stephen Medvic pushed students to grasp the value of conflicting ideas in a democratic society.

The class challenged students to study political arguments. Through readings and in-class debates, Dr. Medvic taught that there are two typical responses to conflict—avoidance and demonizing opponents—neither of which are productive for democracy to flourish. Rather, advocates of democracy must foster candid discourse across the lines of supposed political difference—exactly what the students did in class and should do on campus.

In Collaborative Research in Psychopathology, psychology professor Michael Penn mentored students as they designed and carried out ambitious mental health research.

Students developed their own studies in psychopathology, a field that examines features of society that impact mental health. They researched and selected topics, designed a study to measure outcomes, collected and analyzed data, and presented their findings. Over the years, many students conducting research under Dr. Penn have presented at national conferences and published in peer review journals.

Courses like these remind us of the distinct and enduring value of an F&M education. There is no better way to prepare tomorrow’s thinkers and leaders than to give them direct and personalized access to working scholars such as Professors Penn, Medvic, and Richter. When great faculty awaken the intellectual talent of the young, the College gives them the gift of their own lives and improves society in the process.

I think that’s what another great awakener—Benjamin Franklin—wanted when he made the first of many donations to this institution’s remarkable mission.  

"When great faculty awaken the intellectual talent of the young, the College gives them the gift of their own lives and improves society in the process."
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