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From the principal: A catalyst for discovery

From the principal: A catalyst for discovery

I recently attended the annual Alumni Volunteer Summit where I joined new alumni association president Sue Bates, Artsci’91, in presenting awards to several alumni, some young, some with full careers behind them. I was struck by, among other things, both the extraordinary range of achievement and the many different disciplines and student experiences that had produced them.

Our honorees included entrepreneur Michele Romanow, Sc’07, whose spirit of initiative emerged a decade ago when she started the Tea Room at Queen’s; she’s now on TV’s Dragon’s Den mentoring the next generation of innovators.

We honoured Dr. Shirley Tilghman, Arts’68 a distinguished scientist who also served for 12 years as president of Princeton University. An especially memorable speech came from Fiona Sampson, Artsci’85, Law’93, a humanitarian noted for her work in Africa with sexual assault victims.

And there was Dr. Jacqueline Davies, who received the Alumni Award for Excellence in Teaching. Dr. Davies is a philosopher, cross-appointed in Gender Studies and also involved in the Jewish Studies program. Her work also involves religious studies (especially Judaism and Buddhism) and in her remarks she described her approach to pedagogy, which is highly interdisciplinary. It got me thinking about ways in which we can get students to think outside the boundaries of their disciplinary major.

Shirley Tighman did so – her undergraduate degree was in chemistry, but she was a TA in first-year Engineering Chemistry, and evolved into a molecular biologist. It is not always easy for students, or even faculty, to cross the disciplinary borders.

I recall, as a first-year undergraduate, the very first time that the Plato in my first-year philosophy course with Professor Albert Fell became the same Plato as in my first-year intellectual history course with the late Professor Stewart Webster, and the following year when I was able to connect a Shakespeare play read for an English course with what was going on in my history course on Tudor England. The latter led to an essay that was as much literary as historical and that eventually turned into my doctoral thesis and an entire career specialization.

The key word here, I think, is “discovery”; students need to be able to think about and digest what we teach them in order to make those leaps and cross those borders. We can’t do it for them, no matter how brilliant the lecture or seminar experience.

Professor Maggie Berg of our English department has recently made a plea for the “slow professor” – who ponders her or his subject rather han necessarily rushing into print. It’s a good point and one we need to keep in mind in our teaching – to encourage the “slow,” or at the very least the reflective, student.

Words and texts play a part in the process of discovery. So does experimentation in the sciences.

As Dr. Tilghman noted, translating her classroom learning into practice in the lab, even as an undergraduate, is transformative. It turns the theory into tactile, sensory reality.

This is no less true on the Arts side of the house (the beneficiary most recently of a generous gift by Aubrey and Marla Dan of Toronto to the newly merged Dan School of Drama and Music!).

I use rare books in teaching, as do many colleagues.

And the Agnes Etherington Art Centre – newly enriched by Drs. Alfred and Isabel Bader’s gift of Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man with Arms Akimbo – is a fabulous resource for many disciplines, not merely art history. Direct, unmediated contact with real objects from the past, just like real objects from nature, is an almost unmatchable catalyst to discovery – and a ticket across those disciplinary borders.

We are very fortunate to have so many resources, many the gift of generous donors such as the Baders, to produce the next generation of Jacqueline Davies, Fiona Sampsons and Shirley Tilghmans.

[Daniel Woolf]


thumbnail: Alumni Review coverOther feature stories of the Alumni Review's Rembrandt issue:

[cover graphic of Queen's Alumni Review, issue 2-2016]