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Seeds of collaboration planted early

Lori Bettison-Varga

Lori Bettison-Varga, provost and dean of the faculty, believes Whitman students’ first-year experience could have something to do with the number of collaborative team projects in the humanities and overall. From day one, first-year students are intellectually engaged through the required two-semester Core curriculum. They study from antiquity and the modern world — the entire first-year class reading the same authors and works, said Bettison-Varga.

In the classroom, the new students are guided in close reading of text, where analysis of words, syntax and ideas provides the framework for exploration. Then in casual groups, in the residence halls, the students are all talking about, reading about, the same things at the same time. “There’s a common experience, a sense of intellectual engagement immediately on campus,” Bettison-Varga said.

And faculty members tell her they are “truly energized by the intellectual connections.”

Collaborative endeavors are on the rise, with more and more students and faculty applying for the college’s Abshire and Perry research grants. Students graduating with these experiences — and the sense of accomplishment — are “turned on” to the research experience and that increases interest in graduate school, said Bettison-Varga.

“We’re encouraging the ‘life of the mind’ here,” she said.

Collaboration knows no bounds

At national conferences, Bettison-Varga meets people “who recognize that the collaborative work taking place across our campus is uncommon, deep and meaningful.”

To collaborate with undergraduates in some disciplines, such as the sciences, is less surprising, she said. But Whitman doesn’t stop there.

“It’s really impressive to people that there’s no barrier to collaboration in arts and humanities at Whitman,” she said. Nationally, that hasn’t been the mindset. In fact, the Council on Undergraduate Research only recently included a division for humanities and fine arts, said Bettison-Varga, past president of the organization.

“The faculty here is open to collaborating with students,” a difference she noticed as soon as she arrived in 2007. And many of the college’s faculty-student projects can be described as “true collaborations.” It’s not a case of the teacher giving dictates and the student just following those dictates, which happens often at other undergraduate colleges, she said. At Whitman, students become colleagues: Their ideas and approaches are given serious consideration, used when appropriate — and sometimes set the path of a project.

Although getting involved in these collaborations means just one more thing to juggle for faculty members whose schedules are already booked solid, they often can’t resist the opportunity to engage in creative, significant work with their talented students.

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