Honing the Cutting Edge

By Chuck Benda | Photos by Sara Rubinstein ’98

David TompkinsResearch and scholarship keep Carleton’s faculty members at the forefront of their fields, attract bright students, and, in turn, drive the classroom experience we expect of Carleton.

David Tompkins, formerly on the faculty at the University of Tennessee, wanted to find somewhere he could spend more time teaching and interacting with students—without having to give up his research on the relationship between music and politics. Carleton proved to be the perfect fit.

“Carleton has been incredibly supportive,” says Tompkins, an assistant professor of history who arrived on campus in 2008 and spent fall term 2009 on sabbatical, teaching and conducting research in Berlin on a Fulbright award. One area of his research has focused on the way the communist regimes of Central Europe used music to further their cause.

“Carleton allowed me to take a sabbatical shortly after I came here—which is quite unusual,” he says. “I was able to finish up the research project I was working on and get the manuscript off to the publisher.”

That kind of support enables the College to attract top-notch professors to a small liberal arts college in Northfield.

“There is enormous competition for top faculty members,” says Christopher Tassava, associate director for corporate and foundation relations. “Some other colleges can offer better pay, more glamorous settings, or other inducements that appeal to new faculty members. But Carleton’s commitment to research and scholarship makes us attractive to some of the best new talent.”

David Liben-Nowell, assistant professor of computer science, shares Tompkins’s enthusiasm for Carleton’s commitment to research. “Both sides—teaching and research—are crucial aspects of the academic life,” says Liben-Nowell. “Each is rewarding, but it’s not easy to find a place—like Carleton—where both are genuinely valued.”

Great Expectations

“Teaching and scholarship belong together,” says Carleton President Robert A. Oden Jr. “They are joint partners that create and sustain the kind of teaching that we honor at Carleton.”

President Oden believes that research and scholarship in all its permutations, including activities such as painting, composing music, and sculpting, are vitally important to almost everything for which Carleton stands. 

“First of all, what we expect of our students, we should expect of ourselves,” says President Oden. “We expect our students to master a body of knowledge, to read critically and comprehensively, and to be able to reproduce experiments and formulae first achieved by others. But we rightly expect more. We expect our students to be part of creating the present and future shape of each of our disciplines.”

And so, too, Carleton expects its faculty members to be fully engaged across the spectrum of academic pursuits, and they don’t disappoint.

For the 2008–09 academic year, Carleton faculty members secured grants totaling more than half a million dollars from outside funding sources. Projects ranged from highly funded, multiyear, hard-science research projects like physics professor Joel Weisberg’s recent $300,000-plus grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue his investigations of pulsars, to music lecturer Gao Hong Dice’s $2,000 award to perform her musical compositions at venues around the world, to a $150,000 NSF curriculum improvement grant to Susan Singer, the Laurence McKinley Gould Professor of the Natural Sciences.

Carleton also has secured a number of large, interdisciplinary grants that provide funds both for faculty research and scholarship and for student research assistants. This includes projects such as the Quantitative Inquiry, Reasoning, and Knowledge (QuIRK) initiative, designed to explore and expand the use of quantitative reasoning in the development, evaluation, and presentation of principled argument, and the Carleton Interdisciplinary Science and Math Initiative (CISMI), which was launched in 2004 to support a broad range of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and collaborative activities between the science and math departments through a $1.5 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

All of these research projects trickle or, in some cases, pour down to benefit Carleton’s students in one way or another.  

“It’s unusual for undergraduate students anywhere to have so many opportunities to work with real data and generate new knowledge,” says Tassava. “It’s even more unusual at a liberal arts college. We’re very lucky. The administration is openly, publicly, and financially supportive.” 

Lucky, to be sure, but student involvement in faculty research and scholarship is not something that’s left to chance at Carleton.

Fueling the Home Fires

Research and scholarship flourish at Carleton in large part because the College has made them an institutional priority—and provided the funds to ensure that they come to fruition.  

“We want engaged faculty members who keep abreast of recent advances in their fields and remain deeply involved in those professional conversations that shape the development of new knowledge and understanding,” says Beverly Nagel ’75, dean of the College and the Winifred and Atherton Bean Professor of Sociology, Science, Technology, and Society. “We want them to bring the very latest into their classrooms and provide the best possible education for our students.”

Each tenured and tenure-track faculty member at Carleton receives a small faculty development account (currently $1,500 each per year). These funds, which often function as seed money that can help secure additional outside funding, can be used to support travel to research sites or conferences, hire research assistants, pay for translating, and more. This academic year, Carleton provided its faculty members with approximately $375,000 total in financial support through these personal development accounts.

“We also provide our faculty with larger development grants that provide for up to a term of leave with full pay and benefits,” says Nagel.

Ken AbramsThese larger grants, which totaled $597,000 this year, are funded through a variety of endowments, according to Nagel. Some of the smaller faculty development grants, which totaled about $100,000 this year, are supported by endowments, too. For example, the Headley Faculty Travel Fund (established in 1961 by Leal Headley ’07, Carleton professor of philosophy, psychology, and education from 1911 to 1952) provided about $40,000 last year to cover faculty travel expenses for meetings and conferences. In addition, the Class of ’55 Endowed Fund provided about $10,000 to support the salaries of student research assistants.

“As part of their 50th reunion celebration, the Class of 1955 gave $160,000 as a legacy gift earmarked for support of research assistants in the humanities,” says Sarah Forster ’93, Carleton’s director of stewardship. 

The Laurence and Lucille Wu Family Endowed Fund for Faculty/Student Collaborative Study at Carleton, which Laurence and Lucille established in 2005 in honor of the educational experience of their three children at Carleton, also supports scholarly interactions between students and faculty members.

Breaking Barriers, Creating Connections: The Campaign for Carleton clearly has established priorities focused on financial aid and providing facilities for students and faculty, but finding ways to promote student/faculty partnerships is also part of what we hope to accomplish,” says Forster.

Some of Carleton’s academic initiatives—such as QuIRK and CISMI—provide additional monies for research assistants and other needs. All are examples of the College’s exceptional commitment to research and scholarship, and Carleton students realize a huge benefit from this approach to a liberal arts education.

Cutting-Edge Curricula

“Ongoing scholarship, tested and criticized by our ablest colleagues, is the surest foundation for our current and future curricula,” says President Oden, who notes that Carleton’s track record in this arena also validates just how immensely talented and committed the Carleton faculty is. “It helps us decide what to teach and how to teach it.”

And, in almost every classroom, you’ll find evidence of what President Oden says. Because of his research activities, Tompkins is able to teach high-level classes using original music, letters, and materials uncovered through his research. “Students get a chance to see what a practicing historian does,” says Tompkins.

And they get access to first-rate teaching. Tompkins arranged one of his courses to mimic some of the music they would be studying. The syllabus, which won an award from a German historical association, was divided into four movements, like a symphony.

Like Tompkins, Liben-Nowell is able to bring the output of his research directly into the classroom. Much of his recent research—in large part funded by the National Science Foundation—has focused on how social networks form and evolve. During the past five years, he has partnered with roughly a dozen students. These research assistants earned independent research credits for their participation, and those who worked with him on research projects during the summer were paid. Every student who has worked with Liben-Nowell on research that was eventually published is a coauthor of the resulting publications.

“Our students get access to cutting-edge expertise,” says Liben-Nowell. “The fact that I can talk about a paper we published last year—and a real-world research project—makes classroom lectures more meaningful and relevant to them.”

Such opportunities aren’t limited to the hard sciences. Devashree Gupta, assistant professor of political science, also uses research assistants and brings the fruits of her research into the classroom. Gupta is investigating the political and social engagement of minority communities in Northern Ireland. She is already bringing the results of her research—both in terms of data and in terms of her personal experiences in Northern Ireland—to the classes she teaches. 

“We ask our students to do this kind of work for their research papers in the classroom,” says Gupta. “When I’m able to bring my work to the classroom, they get to see that we’re not asking them to perform a bunch of gratuitous exercises.”

Both Tompkins and Gupta have concluded that, because of their research, students get a much better idea of what real-world research is like, which helps prepare them for both graduate school and career choices. 

Beyond the Classroom

When students and faculty members work as partners on research and scholarship, their education rises to a new level. Consider Ken Abrams, assistant professor of psychology, whose research examines the high rate of concurrence between smoking and panic disorder. Abrams is working currently with seven undergraduate research assistants.

“These students are doing high-level work,” says Abrams. “They screen potential participants for medical and psychiatric disorders, they explain our lab protocol, and they run a procedure in which participants breathe in high levels of carbon dioxide while their anxiety and panic responses are measured. This kind of work is more typically reserved for graduate students.” 

Abrams’s research assistants—who earn independent research credits rather than money—typically sign on for at least three terms. Those with more experience help train the new assistants.  

Prior to traveling to Northern Ireland herself, Gupta worked with two paid research assistants who helped her to conduct thorough literature searches and to identify government and social agencies that might work with the population she wanted to study. 

William Morrison ’09, a political science/international relations major, was one of the students. He is currently preparing to take law school entrance exams, and also considering a career in academia. Whichever way he goes, Morrison believes he’s going to realize some substantial benefits from working with Gupta on her research. 

“It helped me tremendously in an academic as well as a professional sense,” says Morrison. “Being a part of an authentic research project allowed me to see what my classroom work was moving me toward. I can include my work with her on my résumé. I’m tremendously grateful to her for providing me with that opportunity.”

The benefits of partnering aren’t limited to the students. For Liben-Nowell, working with students on research projects “gives me a chance to engage with a community of smart individuals who are thinking about the problems that I love to spend my time thinking about.”

Kelly ConnoleKelly Connole, assistant professor of art, hired a student assistant last summer as she prepared for a large, complex exhibition of her work as a ceramicist and metalsmith. When she describes her interactions with student Emma Bentley ’10 (Springfield, Mo.), it is clear that a true partnership was at work.

“When I’m working in my studio, there’s typically not much avenue for feedback,” says Connole. “I was able to bounce ideas off Emma and get the perspective of a young person who has a different set of cultural references.”

For Bentley, an art major and printmaker, “just hanging out with [Connole] was probably the best part,” she says. “To see how she worked in her studio, what it was like to prepare for and then set up an exhibition—these things gave me a glimpse of what it might be like if I were to become a working artist.”

Bentley did much more than “hang out” with Connole. She worked 20 hours a week for a whole summer, crafting a number of simple ceramic objects for the exhibit. 

“Emma’s help enabled me to accomplish twice as much each week,” says Connole. Bentley also helped with other tasks, such as preparing an artist’s statement and grant applications. But the informal conversations and the relationship that evolved between professor and student were the most valuable aspects of the partnership.

Bentley was preparing for her own exhibition—a series of what she calls “assemblages” of found objects and pieces of writing—and she discovered that her interaction with Connole created a lot of cross-fertilization.

“My stuff is so different from hers, but we were able to talk about it and she was very encouraging,” says Bentley. 

Years earlier, Connole experienced the benefits of developing a relationship with a faculty member when she was an undergraduate at the University of Montana, and now she is eager to pay it forward. She recently brought Beth Lo, one of her former professors at Montana, to campus to lecture and work with her students in the studio. 

“I’d like them to see what it might be like 20 years from now, if they were in contact with one of their professors,” says Connole. “It’s really beautiful when you can see how information is passed from one generation to the next.”

Connole’s thoughts capture some of the essence of what Carleton’s commitment to research and scholarship—one of the primary means by which Carleton distinguishes itself as a premier liberal arts college—is all about.

“Teaching and learning opportunities that bring faculty and students together, working on scholarly pursuits, are what is truly unique about Carleton,” says Sarah Forster. “Providing these opportunities builds relationships that last a lifetime and have a long-lasting impact on us all.”   

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