Connecticut College Magazine · Spring 2007

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Q & A with Dean of the Faculty Frances Hoffmann

Q & A with Dean of the Faculty Frances Hoffmann

As she leaves the office of dean of the faculty to return to teaching in the departments of gender and women´s studies and sociology, Frances Hoffmann reflects on her roles in “the best of the world of higher education.” Michael Reder ´86, director of the College´s Center for Teaching and Learning, shared a conversation with Hoffmann on a spring morning.

Listen to or download an audio recording of the interview

Interview by Michael Reder ´86


Michael Reder: Fran, you´ve played two major roles here at the College; you first came here in 2000 as the dean of the college and then became dean of the faculty. Can you talk about that trajectory?

Frances Hoffman: The dean of the college role is essentially the student side of the educational program, overseeing residential life, health services, the counseling center and academic advising — all of the efforts we make to create an educational environment that is as rich outside of the classroom as it is inside. That role put me in direct contact with students, and I came to have a better understanding of who they were, what talents they were bringing to the College, what aspirations they had. I worked very closely with the Student Government Association. I also taught two seminars on gender issues and higher education.
The dean of the faculty is responsible for the faculty and academic side: hiring, tenure, promotion, working with faculty governance processes around academic program and policy and overseeing the academic departments and interdisciplinary programs. So, for me the two positions combine the best features of residential colleges.

MR: How do you see those two different offices working together?

FH: Our effort always is to forge very close connections inside and outside the classroom. I think we do that as well as anybody does. This often is a divide on other campuses, with student life personnel feeling isolated and disconnected from the academic side. At Connecticut College, we´re really trying to take full advantage of the fact that we have students here 24 hours a day and to find ways to ensure that their educational opportunities don´t just stop at the classroom door but extend into the campus, the field, the community and beyond internationally.

MR: As someone who has taught here, I appreciate that strong connection. What else do you see as being distinctive about Connecticut College?

FH: I always start with the beauty of the College. We´re in a landscape that has led to a very strong environmental appreciation. Also, we have a very civically engaged student body. It´s the most serious student government association I´ve ever worked with in my experience, and that´s reinforced by the honor code.
On the faculty side, this is a campus with an extraordinarily strong faculty governance system, so that the dean of the faculty really is in a role of supporting and feeding ideas, but the work is done by the faculty.
One feature of this campus I´d cite is the shared sense of ownership. It´s hard to characterize. It´s a combination of pride and enthusiasm for the enterprise, and it´s felt by both faculty and students. This is a campus that debates and debates and debates, and so you do feel like you´re in a rich and yeasty intellectual environment. My days are just fascinating to me. I go from meetings with students interested in Darfur to meeting with a group of faculty interested in creating new ways of teaching the life sciences to evolving new strategies for parking enforcement.

MR: What has changed here during your seven years?

FH: The past seven years have been periods of real transition at the College. Leadership changes always create both uncertainty and opportunity. We´ve been coming to terms with who we are as an institution and how we want to forge our future.

As for the day-to-day educational program, there has been great forward motion. Interdisciplinarity is one of them. The programs that have inspired the most enthusiasm have been those that are bringing together cross-disciplinary collaborations; in the arts and performing arts; in life sciences and computer sciences and mathematics; and the social sciences. Certainly, our centers, which have all come into their own over the past seven years, are examples of that as well.

There have been pedagogical transformations also. We´re developing a model of education beyond walls, without walls. We´ve always had, for example, a strong field biology program that has taken students out of the labs and into salt marshes and the arboretum and rain forests of Belize. That model has now moved into the curriculum more broadly with the emphasis, for example, on service learning and engaging students in community activities that then come back into the classroom as part of their course work.
Finally, I think we are evolving different ways that faculty and students are connected. There are still idyllic images, from decades past, of faculty hosting students in their homes for dinner and bringing them into family life. The reality of faculty lives in this day and age is working against that kind of engagement. Instead, the close faculty-student relationships for which Connecticut College has always been known are being forged in the laboratories, studios, in shared research and independent study.

MR: Can you talk a little bit about the teaching and learning interaction inside the classroom?

FH: We have come to appreciate the integral connections between faculty scholarship and their teaching. A revolution in teaching has taken place, and the Center for Teaching and Learning on campus is one of our jewels in terms of putting us on the national landscape.

If you walk into a classroom today, you will not observe what you would have 30 or 40 years ago. We have innovated and experimented with teaching techniques that maximize student learning and develop curious, intellectually alive, disciplined students who acquire knowledge, but also participate in the creation of that knowledge. The idea of a shared body of knowledge is now out the window. There is simply too much knowledge out there, and it´s growing at a pace that boggles the mind.

MR: What other changes have taken place during your tenure?

FH: The big conversation throughout my history here has been around diversity issues; around how to ensure that students are receiving in the courses that we offer information about and opportunities to engage with the rapidly growing literature on issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, both nationally and cross nationally. We´ve made real efforts to ensure that we attract the broadest possible student body and faculty and that our curriculum reflects state-of-the-art scholarship.
In that context, I think another major accomplishment of this college in the past few years has been the establishment of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity.

MR: What remains to be done?

FH: There are a couple of projects in the works that are part of our strategic priorities that I really care about, and I´m sorry to be leaving. One of them is the whole question of the second phase of internationalization for us. The international cultural commons is the shorthand term we are using to talk about this conceptual framework, and we are just in the beginning stages of planning. The second is the life sciences/computer sciences/mathematics center — a central aspiration for us.

MR: Of the three things you mentioned, it seems the international cultural commons has been under wide discussion for the shortest time in the community. Can you tell me a little bit more about the idea behind that?

FH: The international cultural commons is conceived as a grand synthesis of the student life side and academic side of the College, in that it would bring into one place residential opportunities for students who have deep international interests. Think about our foreign language tables and meals as we traditionally do in Knowlton House, but add to it technology that would bring in cultures of the world; news broadcasts from all over the world; programs in many different languages. The foreign language laboratory would be located there and our international program offices as well.

MR: I know you like to travel. Tell me a little bit about that and what you do every year.

FH: I´m an example of the way in which the Connecticut College ethos changes lives. I came to Connecticut College enjoying travel and, in fact, in 1997 had an opportunity to go to Belize with my two sons over New Year´s. We did a 10-day Amazon boat trip that was so wonderful that I decided that I would be in a different country every New Year´s for the rest of my life. And so, I´ve done that. And, I have had wonderful opportunities to travel to Africa, Asia and Europe on behalf of the College — I´ve developed a serious case of wanderlust.

MR: Do you have other plans for this summer?

FH: I´ve tried to inspire in my own sons, now young adults, the same commitment we have here to understanding the world. So, I´m proud of the fact that my older son Jake is completing his Ph.D. in sociology this summer. And I told him that his graduation present would be a trip anywhere in the world he wanted to go as long as I came along! So, my two sons and a girlfriend and I will be in Mozambique this summer. I´ll be on sabbatical in the fall and will deeply engage in research. In the spring of 2008 I´ll be leading a group of students with Rolf Jenson from the department of economics on a Study Away/Teach Away semester in Vietnam.

MR: Finally, as Connecticut College prepares to enter its second century, how do you see the role of the small residential liberal arts college and higher education in general?

FH: The smaller colleges educate fewer than five percent of the college-going population. The educational opportunities in the United States for students are vast, ranging from huge state university systems to for-profit educational opportunities. These small, precious, residential, four-year undergraduate communities are just a tiny sliver of the higher education landscape. I have a deep belief that the reason we´re going to stay an important part of the higher education landscape is that we are the models of the very best undergraduate education there is.


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