Unnameable: An Exploration of Student & Institutional Identity at Sarah Lawrence College


Faculty Opinions on Students, The College and the Future

One of the comments I hear constantly at SLC is that the only people who love Sarah Lawrence more than the students are the faculty. In many ways I think this must be true; while students typically spend four years here, the faculty remain for the long-haul. The uniqueness of the Sarah Lawrence pedagogy is consistently praised by faculty but also offers its own brand of challenges and time commitments that other colleges and universities do not and for faculty to meet these head on year after year must be a labor of love. With this belief, the last group I spoke to were faculty spanning several disciplines and years with the institution. Scott Calvin, Physics, began working at the college in 2003 and is well known among students and other faculty for his commitment to the college and his involvement in Admissions initiatives. He has traveled with the Office of Admission and spearheaded the initial faculty letter writing campaign. He was also the author of the well-remembered “Why Haven’t Sarah Lawrence Students Taken Over the World” letter two years ago.

When meeting or corresponding with prospective students, Scott says he looks for someone who’s willing to take charge of their education, who wants to explore new ideas and who will really engage with the choices SLC has to offer. However, he says that many faculty will agree that students aren’t “Sarah Lawrence students” until at least March of the first year. Similarly, Sara Rudner, Director of the Dance Program and faculty member since 1999, believes that SLC students are made by their third semester. However, she says that all her students come in running hard. Charlotte Doyle, Psychology faculty since 1966, says it happens at different times for different students. Some time in their first two years the student comes to realize that they are doing their work for themselves, not for the requirements of the school or for the professor. Doyle says that once that happens, the sky’s the limit, and that conference work is what allows this to happen. Calvin says that SLC students, once developed, have a Newtonian quality about them; once they are set in motion they remain in motion. While not everyone is the perfect hard worker, he notes, the amount of work a student does is independent of how hard he pushes them. He also believes that collegiality is a hallmark of the Sarah Lawrence student; our ability to interact reasonably and rationally across dynamics of power and knowledge. He has met several students who have had no problem suggesting to their professors better methods of teaching the material and will willingly engage in a conversation about it. Doyle comments that seniors have seen first-years as more typical and less individualized every year she’s worked at this school; and that this partly because becoming a Sarah Lawrence student is a process rather than a static state of being and partly from the assumption that there is a single “Sarah Lawrence student.”

Bill Shullenberger, a member of the Literature faculty since 1982, agrees that seniors always seem unsure about the incoming class, but that “they seem to have forgotten the changes they have gone through while studying here, and seem to not factor in, as they assess each entering class, what they’ve learned in their coursework…about resilience, creativity, fluidity, and transformative possibilities of the human character.” Doyle believes that there are many different kinds of students who, given the opportunities provided by SLC, find their passions, discover their individuality and their strengths. Shullenberger writes that, “studying, working and living at Sarah Lawrence makes a Sarah Lawrence student” and he describes them as smart, original, creative, and open to change. He further says that “different cultures create different kinds of people” and that SLC students are “formed in rich and complex ways that can’t be duplicated by any other academic culture in this country.” Like Calvin and Doyle he believes that Sarah Lawrence students are made through the process of exploration and discovery that occurs within the possibilities offered by SLC. This identity is not defined by a subject, political or ideological position, but is the characterized by the very process of becoming yourself. One of the things Doyle says characterizes Sarah Lawrence students is their enthusiasm; at no other institution had she heard “I’m excited to write my paper.” She now says she’s heard it every year since she came to SLC. To her, the only trait present in every SLC student is the serious pursuit of what they care about.

When I asked Calvin if he believed the school had an institutional identity, he responded with an anecdote about the re-accreditation process. During the evaluation, several members of the team complimented faculty on how well faculty, staff, and students internalized and lived the “six pillars of the SLC education,” leaving the faculty mystified since they had never heard of those “six pillars” before. The paradox, he says, is that if we can’t articulate such “pillars” they must be very strong indeed. Doyle believes the core of Sarah Lawrence lies in a few specific things: respect for the individual student, value in the depth of interests, learning together, embedding education in a human framework, and face to face relations between faculty and students. The relationship between faculty and students has always been the same; encouraging the students to grow, helping them find what works for them, and allowing the students to push back. Doyle believes that, embedding subjects in a living reality with a teacher whom students can converse with, demystifies learning. Rudner says that the faculty-student relationship is at the core and that this fundamental piece hasn’t undergone significant changes. Looking back to the 1940s and then physics faculty member Maria Goeppert-Mayer, Calvin points out how no one knew of her work on the Manhattan Project, not her husband, not foreign intelligence, not the Nazis. Her SLC students figured it out. This ability is not only characteristic of the nature of SLC students, but of the bond between faculty and students. Rudner looks at the Dance Program and the other disciplines at Sarah Lawrence as a method of combining our roles as members of a species with knowledge acquisition. The education here challenges people, encourages students to broaden their views and offers opportunity for students to push back. Rudner also believes that the “hardest thing to do is question yourself, and if the college can continue to do that of itself, that is a good thing.

Every innovation is worth pushing toward, though it will not always succeed, and Calvin believes that the school may be moving into a new era. He points to other changes to the face of the college as assurance that things aren’t deteriorating. Fifteen or twenty years ago, he says, the choice to build special-purpose buildings like Heimbold and the Science Center was intensely controversial and many on faculty believed all buildings on campus should follow the Westlands model. Doyle explains that when the Sports Center was being built, it was met with much resistance and that faculty wanted to put the money into scholarships; however, she views the building as a positive and important addition to campus. Doyle too notes that Sarah Lawrence has moved through various eras, and with them different issues become focal for the students. In the 60s it was “a search for integrity in a world students perceived to be full of hypocrisy.” In the 70s and 80s, worries about the economy shaped students opinions and concerns. In recent years she’s noticed a stronger focus on community service and social justice, as well as environmental concern, than in the past and believes that students’ value commitments are informed by the larger problems of the country and the world. Despite the changes seen, the educational process has remained the same. Doyle describes SLC as being “radical in a way that still conserves what we believe in.”

Calvin believes that the inclusion of more athletics won’t be an existential change and, that while cultural changes may occur, the college will remain the same. Doyle believes that the move to SAT-Optional is not going back on the values of the college and encourages Admissions to include it as they would an art supplement – only if the student views it as an important representative of who they are. Shullenberger believes that the decision to go Test-Negative adversely affected the college and is not worried that the change to Optional will normalize the school at all. Rudner points out that in all the years before Test-Negative, the spirit was still there. Calvin imagines that the student body will look completely different twenty years from now, and notes that alums from fifteen years ago look at the current classes and marvel at how different campus culture is now.

Calvin and Doyle warn that the only thing that could fundamentally change the school would be an increase in the student to faculty ratio. Calvin has seen a small increase in the past few years and warns that everyone should keep a watch on it, as it will create a cumulative push on the educational system. As faculty need to work with more students, small seminars get placed on hold, especially if certain requirement classes need to be offered and the combination of pressures could lead to the breakdown of the conference and donning system. In recent years we’ve seen a shift in the sciences, with biology and chemistry moving from seminars to lectures, though hopefully this is not the sign of a larger trend. Rudner believes that no serious change could come to the school because, at the very least, faculty and staff will stand up and shout if something isn’t working. She believes the faculty and students to be empowered here like they aren’t at any other institution and looks forward to a day with more integration and more student voices. Personally, while she has faith in the community’s flexibility, she won’t let the structure of the Sarah Lawrence education change because she likes it too much.


This exploration has quite clearly gotten away from me, and the various opinions of all interviewed cannot be done justice in this simple piece of writing. However, despite the diverse opinions and histories offered by those whom I spoke with there do seem to be some constants underlying the idea of a Sarah Lawrence identity. Students identify ourselves by our constant evolution: we are seeking knowledge, change and understanding.  Likewise, faculty and administrators characterize students by our passionate commitment to discovery and our own ever-evolving identities. To faculty and staff, the identity of Sarah Lawrence hinges on the relationships between members of the community. The faculty-student relationship is at the core of SLC and defines the school, and the nature of the pedagogy is what makes Sarah Lawrence what it is.

While these qualities of student and institution have largely remained unchanged for the eighty-plus years that the college has been in operation there has been a great amount of anxiety among the student body that things are shifting at Sarah Lawrence. However, the general consensus is that none of the changes occurring will truly impact that Sarah Lawrence identity. The two main changes that seem to be occurring are an increased focus on building community at the school and an attempt to find more places to recruit students from. In regards to perceived changes in social life, almost every person noted a difference between social changes and institutional changes and that the former can not affect the latter. It doesn’t matter if the clothing is hand sewn and the cigarettes are hand rolled or if the shirt’s from Abercrombie or if there’s a soccer team as well as Wicca spiritual group: what is Sarah Lawrence is below the surface of all these things.

As far as concerns about recruitment and the perceived changing demographics of the Sarah Lawrence body, I’ve grown fond of a metaphor I used in my conversation with Davita Westbrook. Pardon the Mainer in me, but I imagine our pool of potential students as a shrinking ocean and our recruitment efforts as lobster pots. As the ocean gets smaller we have fewer places to set the traps and Division III and SAT-Optional open new seas for us to lay our lobster pots in. These traps aren’t suddenly going to catch sea bass, but hopefully these new seas will have some lobsters we haven’t found before. I apologize for that metaphor.

Everyone I spoke with seems to agree with this on some level – despite the changes to areas of recruitment and a stronger athletics program, Sarah Lawrence will always be Sarah Lawrence.  Happy Graduation, Class of 2012 – and may the rest of you enjoy your time here – keep discovering and evolving!


Featured Image: Myspace

Zac Hewitt was born in Gray, Maine and grew up around New England. His primary interest is in folklore and you should definitely talk to him about mythological women. He has worked in Admissions for three years and been involved in Student Affairs since his first year. After graduation he really wants to head into the wild.

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