Life Lessons - Barry C. Keenan

issue 02 | summer 2014
UnCommon Ground - Life Lessons - Barry C. Keenan

In May, three longtime and beloved Denison faculty members retired after a combined 90-plus years of teaching at the college. They have spent that time working with students and encouraging them to think critically about the world around them in each of their disciplines—anthropology, religion, and history—but they’ve also encouraged those students to leave the Hill and become lifelong learners. As they themselves leave campus (at least in a professional sense; we kind of hope they hang around or visit often), we asked them what lessons they will take with them into retirement.

I’ve learned that Denison students are deciduous. Each fall for 38 years, I watched as richly verdant new students began to experience the pressures of their first college semester. Gradually they internalized critical thinking and improved writing, and in the process, they started revealing their own colors just like the autumn foliage of Granville. By midterm exams, brilliant hues started radiating in the classroom, each delightfully different. Old knowledge dropped away, and by spring I could observe my advisees budding fresh new growth on their own. This seasonal change repeated itself with more advanced courses the following fall.

I’ve learned that close student-faculty contact provides the opportunity for Denison faculty to validate students as independent learners by taking their ideas seriously. And during this interaction, faculty enrich themselves by reaching out empathetically, always listening for the interests and growth of each student. We repeatedly extend that empathy over years, as if teaching were designed as an exercise in our own personal development.

Also, inspired by the freedom to initiate our own courses, teachers at small liberal arts colleges continue to learn through creating new ways to teach new material to new students. The process of learning by the faculty might be paralleled to the habit of lifelong learning that we hope undergraduates will acquire in four years; we just get a whole career to perfect it. (Don’t forget to write!

Barry C. Keenan

Professor Emeritus of History

Published July 2014