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A View from Kirkland Hall

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Dever-CarolynLike great parents, great professors seek independence and self-reliance for their students. In Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science, we teach the crafts of writing and speaking, of critical thinking, of skepticism and analysis. We are fortunate in our 4,170 undergraduates: They are diverse, curious and their level of academic preparation is first-rate. When we as professors do our jobs well, we gradually make ourselves obsolete to our students. We aspire to equip them with the cognitive tools to do for themselves what we have provided first. As educators, we share this common ideal, whether we teach philosophy, economics, African American and diaspora studies, neuroscience or one of dozens of other academic specialties in Arts and Science.

The core of undergraduate education in Arts and Science is the program nicknamed AXLE: Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education. AXLE opens the entire Arts and Science curriculum to first-year and sophomore students to expose them to a dazzling breadth of knowledge before they specialize by declaring a major. The goal, of course, is for students to import AXLE’s breadth to the depth of a major field of study, and thus, to emerge as lifelong learners at home anywhere in the world of educated men and women.

Within the AXLE program, students take a first-year writing seminar and a sequence of additional writing or oral communication courses. They experience the liberal arts through courses in humanities and the creative arts; international cultures; U.S. history and culture; mathematics and natural sciences; social and behavioral sciences; and one perspectives class, which addresses the impact of diverse ethics and values on contemporary issues.

These are broad parameters, designed deliberately to allow each student to chart his or her own path within our Arts and Science curriculum.

Great advising is essential to the success of such a program, and this fall, Arts and Science unveiled an innovative approach to premajor advising. The College of Arts and Science Premajor Advising Resources Center (CASPAR) has opened for business. The vision of CASPAR is simple: “Through informed and responsive academic advising, we help Vanderbilt students realize their potential as inquisitive citizens of an ever-changing world.” CASPAR Director Patricia Armstrong leads a staff of six talented recent Arts and Science doctoral graduates. Service with CASPAR provides professional development opportunities for these new Ph.D.s.

Professor Armstrong and the CASPAR advisers meet our youngest students where they are, literally: offices are in the Commons Center, in the heart of the first-year living and learning community. With day and evening office hours, tutoring services, individual mentorship, and programs that help address the challenges facing large groups of students, CASPAR is flexible enough to remain sensitive to students’ needs as they develop.

The goal, of course, is self-reliance: to help students toward awareness of their unique interests and aptitudes, to help them to learn how to plan and realize a personalized curriculum, to help them understand how to make the most of their paths through this great university. If we do our jobs well—if we make ourselves obsolete—these tools will equip our students for all challenges that lie ahead.

Carolyn Dever

photo credit: Daniel Dubois

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