Skidmore College Geosciences
by Sarah Black, Amy Frappier and Kyle Nichols
Change has been constant in the Department of Geosciences at Skidmore College over the past seven years. Change, while providing opportunity, can be unsettling and difficult if there is little possibility for renewed stability, especially in terms of resources. However, through a little luck (when preparation meets opportunity), we are now entering a period of renewed resource stability, have a more rigorous major, and have increased our presence on campus. Below is a brief description of our strengths, weaknesses, planning process, and a summary of our 2007 external report.
The strengths of our department depend on one's frame of reference. Since we serve many different constituents of the college, we will try to highlight some of our perceived strengths from several different reference points.
We can identify several strengths from the department perspective. In 2006 we overhauled our major to reflect the changing nature of our discipline, realignment with faculty expertise, and a more rigorous curriculum. We now deliver a flexible, field-based curriculum that allows us to keep pace with the advancement of the discipline. Our graduates are still accepted to good graduate schools and find employment in the geosciences, when they want to. Although we have limped along for over half a decade with only two-tenure track lines and several different contingent faculty members, we have managed to climb out of survival mode and we now have three tenure-track lines which increases faculty expertise and student research opportunities. We have always been able to provide research opportunities, early and often, to our students. Lastly, it cannot be understated how significantly our recently hired Teaching Associate has improved student recruiting in one year.
The institution values different strengths of our department. The department is committed to the general education of our student body. Approximately 25% of graduating students fulfill their natural science requirement through Geosciences courses, impressive for a department of three. Each year the department offers an interdisciplinary Scribner Seminar as part of the First Year Experience. We always have representation on the different science initiatives and committees that are working to enhance the sciences at Skidmore (part of institution's strategic plan). Our faculty members also participate in the faculty governance system and engage in important institutional conversations. Recently, our new hire in climate sciences was awarded the endowed Charles Lubin Family Chair for Women in Science which will bring additional notoriety across the campus and to the Board of Trustees. Lastly, all department faculty are integrated into, and are a vital to, the success of the strong and growing Environmental Studies program.
While we can list our strengths, and the institution can identify our value, our continued success and survival ultimately depends on students identifying our strengths. Our students have mentioned that: we are dedicated and enthusiastic about our discipline, we offer ample one-on-one instruction both in terms of help with classes and also research, we provide engaging research experience, our classes make connections to relevant real world applications and they are 'hands-on, engaging, and fun'. The students also like that the major is flexible enough to let them study abroad. And lastly, the most common comment from students is that we are a close knit community and they feel comfortable and welcome.
Simply put, our major weaknesses are two fold. We still only have three tenure-track lines and we are constantly trying to recruit more majors. While we are relieved to achieve the three-tenure track line threshold again, four lines would allow us another degree of freedom in our curriculum. As of now, we still have holes in our curriculum that are going to be difficult to fill in the current economic climate. Most importantly, though, we are always trying to recruit more majors. Out of the approximately 650 students that enroll in Skidmore each fall, less than a handful (five) list Geosciences as a potential major and in several recent years, there were no students that listed Geosciences as a potential major. Compounding the frustration we hear all too often, "I would have been a Geosciences major if I knew about it sooner" from juniors and seniors. Sometimes we are able to find a way for some juniors to declare the major, but most of the time there is not enough time to complete the major.
In addition to these two major problems, we are finding that reputations and rumors die hard. Our department was almost closed six years ago. While we are much stronger and more stable now, that reputation has lingered in the recesses of our less in tune colleagues. Just last week one colleague asked if there was still a Geosciences Department. While this is rare, it is discouraging. Potentially related to this, it seems like every other year or so, around advising time, someone starts a nasty rumor that we are no longer accepting new majors. It is difficult to know how much traction these rumors have and just as difficult to find the source.
We are entering a new stage for planning now that we have all permanent faculty positions starting in the fall. This summer and early next semester we will revisit our planning documents to assess the progress that we have made since our 2005-2010 Vision for the Geosciences. Many of our major goals have been achieved, such as establishing a new major and a securing a third tenure track line, but we need to assess our progress on the other goals. Unfortunately, regular assessment has been lacking and thus developing a sustainable assessment plan, that will allow us to identify and take action on our deficiencies, is a high priority for this summer and next year. Additionally, we need to start to plan for the retirement of our senior colleague that will likely occur in less than a decade.
Summary of latest external review
Our department went through an external review in the spring 2007. The major findings of the external review showed that there was a significant commitment from Skidmore College to support Geosciences. The report stated that the department provides "a good model for a practical liberal arts education". They recommended that the college invest in a larger faculty (two additional tenure-track lines within the next five years and a full-time teaching associate) and additional research laboratory space. Other recommendations included that the department should deepen its offerings at the 200- and 300-level, but additional faculty would address this problem. Also, the review committee suggested that we be more proactive in advertising the department to the campus community.