AS A HISTORIAN, I’M ALWAYS A BIT ANXIOUS ABOUT DIVINING the future. Historians take comfort in interpreting from evidence. And “the future” gives us such scant evidence to go by. But maybe it is because we can know something about the past that we can have some confidence in sharing ideas about what lies ahead.
At least I know that is the case when we think about the future of Denison. Looking back, we have a pretty good idea of the college’s excellences. Going forward, we see the steps to take in order to sustain and enhance those excellences for future generations of students.
The two things that Denison graduates always share about their experience at the college are, first, the important relationships that they formed with particular professors (relationships that are often credited as being transformative) and, second, the bonds that students forged with one another that made undergraduate years together memorable and that often endure well beyond college.
Ensuring that today’s – and tomorrow’s – Denisonians develop close and potentially transformational relationships with faculty requires not just replicating the past, but finding new and better ways to bring students and professors together. Small, seminar-style classes, once thought most appropriate for advanced courses, have become the norm for all Denison classes, from introductory courses on. Independent student research opportunities, historically the preserve of a selected few, are now becoming a characteristic part of the Denison experience for most students with the ambition to pursue them.
As we look to the future, we see more technology coming to the teaching and learning enterprise, too. In its application at Denison, instructional technology is not replacing the personal interaction between student and professor but enriching it. Faculty members and their students now have the information resources of the world at their fingertips – to explore together, to discuss, and even to manipulate. Imagine what it means to an economics class to have real-time data to not only examine but to model and to disassemble. Imagine what it means in the arts to bring entire galleries and performances into the classroom, or in history to have immediate access to primary source materials from around the world. These resources encourage an active learning environment in which teachers and students share exploration.
Creating an environment in which community and friendships flourish also requires doing things a little differently today and in the future. Today, there’s nearly a cell phone in every backpack, a television in every dorm room, an MP3 player in every pocket, and “Instant Messaging” for all. Imagine how that affects interpersonal interaction! Now add a more diverse array of backgrounds than ever before, representing a richer representation of states, nations, races, religions, and socioeconomic experiences.
Today’s students – both enriched and assaulted by so many stimuli – are not likely to find their friends in just one or two activities and organizations. They are more likely to spread themselves among a larger number of experiences – varsity and intercollegiate club athletic teams, off-campus service organizations, musical ensembles, sororities and fraternities, or clubs devoted to shared interests ranging from the political to the intellectual to the recreational. Bringing students together in “the future” means keeping up with the kinds of experiences that young people enjoy and that can add value to the overall learning experience. Sometimes there are surprises. Whereas earlier student organizations sometimes featured “philanthropy” as a goal, today’s students seem much more interested in hands-on service activities than in fundraising alone; they would rather build a Habitat for Humanity house than raise money for the homeless. Likewise, the historic distinction between “varsity” and “intramural” athletics has been blurred by the growing popularity of intercollegiate “club” sports, which operate without the formal coaching and trappings of varsity teams.
Building student community and the interpersonal relationships that go with it even affects how we approach residence life. The 24/7 character of a college campus has never been more pronounced. Teaching and learning and student life alike cover more of the day – and the night – than ever before. E-mail and the Internet know no office hours. A residential campus uniquely provides opportunities for students to have the most complete college experience. Yet student patience with traditional residence hall ambience has diminished. To give our students the fullest access to campus opportunities while meeting their demands for living arrangements that go beyond the double room on the double-loaded corridor, we’ve enriched the residence life system with more suite-style and single accommodations and, for seniors, on-campus apartments.
For Denison, the future is where tradition and innovation combine. A clear sense of our special, enduring place in the higher education universe gives us an anchor. An ambition to always do a little better inspires us to innovate. Tomorrow’s Denison is likely to be like today’s – only better!