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Faculty Spotlight on Sarah Schneewind Spring 2007

Sarah Schneewind

"The university is supposed to help you figure out who you are, what you love, and what you want to do. It's not a technical school. It's not a school where we take someone who knows exactly what he or she wants to do and barfs them out at the other end a perfect cog in the corporate machine. That's not what a university is for. The university is for educating the whole person."

Meet Sarah Schneewind, professor of Chinese history, in a candid interview about getting an undergraduate education at a major research university.

Students often don't take advantage of office hours. What would you say to students who are hesitant to visit their professors?

They have to take the initiative to go and see the professor. They are going to find the same thing throughout their life. They're not going to get a job by sitting in their room and waiting for someone to come to them. We all hold office hours, and most of the time we're sitting here by ourselves. If a student comes at that time, those 2 hours are set aside to work with the student. That student could be getting direct help with his or her writing, getting suggestions on labs or research projects, talking about issues relating to class or that reach into other areas, or things that are directly related to class but that they don't understand, problems that they're having, anything.

Why are they reluctant?

I don't know what it is, but it's very frustrating.

Even if they are completely professionally oriented and they regard university not as expanding their minds but as narrow technical training - which I think many of them do - I think that it's wrong. If that's their orientation, then for the sake of their careers, they still need to come and see their professors. Students need to make sure that the professor gets to know them because they're not going to have anyone who can write them a recommendation for the next stage of their career.

For those students who are intensely focused on being specialized in one area as opposed to really experiencing the wide range of possibilities available at the university, what can we do to lead them to opening their minds to experience more?

I think you have to somehow get across to them that the university is about them as a whole person, and even if you know exactly what you want to do; which you shouldn't, in my opinion, anyway when you come to college; your career is only going to be one little piece of your life as an adult. There's going to come a time when you've been a lawyer for 10 years, and you just want to shoot yourself because you're so bored. I went to my 20th high school reunion recently. I went to a very good public high school. Many of my classmates went into law. At the 20 year mark, so many of them had given it up. In one case, a woman who was summa cum laude at Yale and went to law school gave up her law career and went on food stamps to go back to graduate school in sociology because she was so bored. So, if you are educating yourself only for your career, you are missing what the university can give you in terms of keeping yourself interested. What can you read? What spheres of study are there for you that you can do after work as a grown-up? You can pick up on interests that you had in your humanities classes. You have some basis for further reading in something that will keep you interested in life.

We know that the students who come to our classes are not going to be Chinese historians. We don't even expect them to be history majors, but we do expect that they are going to get a little bit of knowledge. Ten years from now, when they have a busy career and their toddler is crying and they need some sanity, they're going to be able to pick up something that will take them out of themselves a little bit.

So what authors or books take you outside of yourself?

Wilkie Collins. I love Wilkie Collins. He's a great writer. He developed the mystery novel as we know it. I would encourage students who want to improve their writing, that when they are reading things on their own, to make sure they are reading things that are well written regardless of content. Pick people with good English style because that's one of the most important things in learning how to write.

Are there any authors off the top of your head that you would recommend?

Wilkie Collins is great. I'd also recommend Austen and Dickens. There are reasons why great, famous authors are great and famous, and students should read them. More recent would be Amitav Ghosh. So is doesn't all have to be from the distant past.

Professor Schneewind thoughtfully e-mailed additional book suggestions after the interview, including Charles Darwin, George Elliot, Italo Calvino (in translation), George Orwell, Mark Twain, Anthony Grafton, Edith Wharton, James Thurber, J.R.R. Tolkien, Henry Adams, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Peter Hopkirk, Rudyard Kipling. "Reading those books is supposed to be fun, not work," she added.

How do you think the undergraduate experience has changed since you were an undergrad?

Students are really connected to their parents. I talked to my parents on the telephone maybe once a month or so when I was in college, and we occasionally wrote letters. Here, it's constant.

A term I've heard in that context is "helicopter parents."

It's very alarming because what happens is students are not learning to develop their own judgment about how to act, about what to do, and about what their career should be. They need to be separated from their parents in making up their own minds. Their parents are not going to be living out their careers. You have to make your own decisions, you have to poke around in the university, you have to try a lot of different things and see what really appeals to you. And I tell them if your mother doesn't like it, tell her to call me! And I'll tell her the same thing. Because sometimes they need an authority figure to present their view to their parents. Nobody's actually taken me up on that!

How can a faculty member contribute to this process of discovering oneself?

When a student comes to me for example about a paper, I don't say, "Your paper has to be about X," if we are writing about a book. Instead, I will ask, "What interested you in that book?" And that's the starting point. It doesn't mean it's the most important point in the book. It doesn't mean it's the point I would make if I were writing about the book. It has to be about YOU engaging with the material. You have to give yourself the space for your interests to develop and to interact with what the professors are giving you. We as faculty are here to support your intellectual development as a whole human being, so normally that means you engage with us first on an academic level, but if there is something else going on, we may be able to play a helpful role in moving you forward to where you can begin to develop your own intellectual framework and find out what your real intellectual commitments are.

- By Beverly Gallagher