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Southern Virginia University

Posts with the tag: Academics

  1. The Constitution, Madison & Montpelier

    May 25, 2016
    Portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart

    Portrait of James Madison by Gilbert Stuart

    This past semester I took a course called “The Legal and Intellectual History of the Constitution.” This course was engaging and powerful, and I learned not only about the Constitution as a document of history, but also about its absolute relevance in today’s political climate. Conversations in this course about constitutional interpretations and how those interpretations should be implemented in modern America were often fierce, and more than once — as should happen in a great course — my confidence in my own ideas slipped away long enough for me to appreciate, learn from, and even adopt some of the clever points of view of my classmates.

    I also gained a greater respect and admiration for the sacrifice and scholarship of America’s Founding Fathers (especially James Madison), who, in my mind, serve as history’s high points in political thought. Learning about these men and their lives inspired my own opinions and beliefs, and I often found myself, when deciding my position on an in-class conversation about the constitutionality of modern laws surrounding religious freedom, gay marriage, healthcare, or economic regulation, asking the question, “What would James Madison think about this?”

    As fantastic as the course was, however, the class meetings and conversations themselves were only one part — and perhaps even a lesser part — of the influence this course had in my life and education. What really moved the course to the forefront of my academic experience here at Southern Virginia were the extracurricular opportunities I had the privilege of participating in.

    One of those opportunities was to join an optional field trip to James Madison’s home at Montpelier (thanks to Professor Rachel Wilcox for organizing such an amazing event), only a short drive from Southern Virginia. While there, our class toured the very room in which Madison wrote the Virginia Plan, the document that served as the basis for the heated debates around congressional representation, among other things. In the classroom we often discussed the Virginia Plan at length, and even put on an imitative Constitutional Convention. We debated the same issues the Founding Fathers had, and argued over the achievements and shortcomings of Madison’s Virginia Plan. But I feel comfortable in saying that no one in the class truly understood the Virginia Plan’s importance or brilliance until we were able to put ourselves in the atmosphere of Madison’s home.


    Another opportunity, after the semester was over, and this time just with my family, was to see the Constitution in the National Archives in Washington D.C. Because of my course with Professor Wilcox, I had analyzed the Constitution, debated over its place in modern society, written papers about my interpretations of certain sections of it — but I hardly realized its gravity and import until I took advantage of the opportunity to see it, a deceptively simple piece of parchment by looks, but by content one of the world’s most profound documents.

    Charters of Freedom Hall, National Archives, Washington

    Both of these trips, only short distances away from Southern Virginia, allowed me to to turn abstract education into tangible life experience. The classroom knowledge I received from Professor Wilcox, as is usual at our university, was incredible — coupled with the ability to enrich my studies through access to some of the amazing opportunities located near our university, it was life-changing.

    (Post by Braxton Boyer ’16. Photos courtesy of Philippa Hawker ’16 and Library of Congress.)


  2. Dance History, Humanities Professor Exemplifies Scholarship at Symposium

    May 23, 2016

    Debra-Sowell-Symposium-2One of the great things about Southern Virginia University is the opportunity to take interesting topics courses in a close-knit environment with professors who are experts in their fields. This past semester, Dr. Debra Sowell taught her special topics class in dance history again and also served as visiting scholar at the San Francisco Ballet.

    Last fall, representatives of the San Francisco Ballet contacted Dr. Sowell and invited her to come be a guest resident scholar at their two-day symposium.

    “It was fabulous,” Dr. Sowell said of the experience. “It was very exciting because as a visiting scholar, I was taken inside the company; I got to tour their … state-of-the-art facility for ballet — one of the best in America. And the day of the opening night I got to watch a company class. The company takes their daily class on the stage of the San Francisco Opera House. [Being] backstage that [close to] the dancers was so cool.”

    She also said that watching the company rehearse and perform was “nostalgic” for her because “it brought back memories of growing up and taking ballet for many years.” While she was there, she spoke to staff at the San Francisco Ballet and to students of the San Francisco Ballet School, as well as to parents, donors and members of the Christensen society. She discussed the history of the first full-length “Swan Lake” in America and the role of the Christensen brothers, about whom Dr. Sowell wrote the book “Christensen Brothers: An American Dance Epic.”

    “[The Christensen brothers] were interesting because they were descendants of Mormon pioneers who became impressive pioneers themselves in the history of American ballet,” she said. “One of the pioneering projections on which they collaborated was the first full-length ‘Swan Lake’ in America. Before that, only excerpts from the ballet had been performed. When the Christensens took this production on tour from San Francisco to the Northwest, a critic in Seattle referred to it as Tchaikovsky’s ‘practically never-seen four-act toe tragedy.’”

    Lew and Janet Reed in 1940, B, Lude

    After one of her speeches at the San Francisco Ballet School, she had a very meaningful experience with a member of the audience.

    “A couple approached me, and the husband said that his grandmother had been in the San Francisco Ballet under Willam Christensen,” she said. “This man had been in a bookstore years earlier and had found my book on the Christensens. Opening to the index, he found his grandmother’s name and turned to her picture. Reading about that era in the company and the significant role his grandmother had played had brought her memory closer to him. It was a touching moment for both of us.”

    In addition to speaking at the symposium, Dr. Sowell also stays active in her field in many other ways. Recently, she served as an adjudicator of the Founding Editors’ Award of Dance Chronicle, the leading journal in dance history. Dr. Sowell is also a member of the journal’s editorial board and regularly reviews manuscript submissions. Through her work with Dance Chronicle, she stays current on the latest research in her field, which in turn benefits her students by exposing them to a wealth of knowledge.

    She also provides her dance history students with direct learning experiences outside of the classroom. When I took the class several years ago, she led us on a course excursion to see a professional production of “Swan Lake” in Richmond. This past semester, she not only took her students to a dance performance in Lexington, but also had a special guest dance instructor, Marin Leggat Roper, visit campus to conduct a three-day workshop on dance, movement, and theatre choreography.

    Dr. Sowell truly exemplifies the university’s core value of scholarship. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from such a knowledgeable, passionate scholar during my time at Southern Virginia. I encourage all current and incoming students to find elective courses that interest you and expose you to new disciplines and new professors.

    (Post by Hannah King ’13. Photos courtesy of Dr. Debra Sowell.)

  3. Students Present Papers & Earn Awards at VMI Symposium

    April 26, 2016

    Four Southern Virginia University students presented Spanish papers at the Annual Spring Symposium of the Virginia Military Institute Center for Undergraduate Research last week. Three of Southern Virginia’s students received awards within the liberal arts category at the symposium. Victoria Krites won first place in liberal arts for her paper, titled “Sancho Panza un Símbolo Literario”; Desiree Gentry received second place for her paper, titled “La Importancia de la Música y la Poesía en Don Quijote”; and Sarah Edwards earned third place for her paper, “Don Quijote y la Violencia.” The title of Chelsea Snyder’s paper was “Un Aspirante Caballero: Don Quijote.”

    All four of the students’ papers focused on the classic work “Don Quijote” by the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes. The students wrote their papers in a class taught by Dr. Iana Konstantinova, associate professor of Spanish.

    It’s always inspiring to see students presenting at academic conferences and representing our university so well. Congratulations to all of the students who participated and to their wonderful mentor!

    (Post by Hannah King ’13. Photos courtesy of Iana Konstantinova.)

  4. 2016 Elton Lecture: Art and the Core Values

    April 19, 2016


    Every year, a Southern Virginia professor receives the Michael and Kay Elton Lectureship for Outstanding Teaching and Scholarship, and every year the university has the privilege of hearing from the Elton Scholar. This semester, we heard from Barbara Crawford, professor of art.

    Professor Crawford came to Southern Virginia over 35 years ago. Throughout her time teaching here, she has become very well-acquainted with the university’s mission and core values. In her speech, she showed us how much we can learn of the core values through classic pieces of art.

    Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cropncleaned_editI found most touching her remarks on Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” She explained that “[the] artist has not focused on suffering and death, but the focus is on the serene expression on the face of Christ and a youthful Mary at peace” and examined the way the statue looks from an aerial view, pointing out the way the circling design unifies the mother and son from a Heavenly Father’s perspective.

    And though much more of consequence was said throughout her speech, as she considered each of the five core values (scholarship, discipleship, accountability, enthusiasm and refinement), it’s her comments on perspective and refinement that struck me most.

    “Don’t always look at things the same way,” she said. “Change your perspective. Look at things from a different point of view. Try someone else’s point of view, or refine your understanding of something by changing — refining  your point of view. Most often, students think refinement is going to a concert or a museum. It’s not the going to the concert or the museum that is refinement, but the results, the change that takes place in us because of that experience that is at the heart of understanding refinement. We can come away with a deeper understanding of ourselves and of our world.”

    (Post by Madeleine Gail Rex ’16. Photos by Sarah Foster ’19 and Stanislav Traykov. Video by Rex Winslow ’16.)

  5. Learning to Learn

    April 18, 2016

    Last semester I took Contemporary Issues, a course required of all Southern Virginia students in order to graduate. This course requires application of the reading and critical thinking skills acquired through liberal arts education to the events and controversies of today. Several professors teach it, each in their own way. For Professor Jeff Benedict’s section, we were required to keep up to date with the top stories in the New York Times, which we discussed in class. We learned about eminent domain and our legal system by reading Benedict’s “Little Pink House,” and “The System: The Glory and Scandal of Big-Time College Football” turned out to be full of both glory and scandal. It sparked discussions about the culture of celebrity student-athletes, dropped into fame, and the personal costs and privileges that they and their entourage experience. I’ve never been one to join my family around the TV, riveted to the start and stop of football plays, but I was riveted to this book. We also compared and contrasted the lives and values of Steve Jobs and Benjamin Franklin, drawing from their biographies written by Walter Isaacson and searching for what spurred them to greatness. Then, at the end of the semester, we read a fictional work. To top this all off with a work of fiction seems rather anachronistic, but it turned out to be perhaps the most relevant reading of the semester. We read “Go Set a Watchman,” the last published work of Harper Lee, who passed away last February.


    Students across the country read “To Kill a Mockingbird” as part of our primary education. We fall in love with the exemplary (albeit fictional) human being, Atticus Finch. We, like his daughter Scout, put him on a pedestal in our minds. This is why the publication of Lee’s sequel stirred such controversy. The readers learn, along with Scout, now a young adult who goes by Jean Louise, that Atticus is racist. Amidst the grief and anger of this discovery, Jean Louise berates her father and resolves to leave her hometown, a place where she feels she no longer fits in, behind. Her eclectic Uncle Jack intervenes. He convinces Jean Louise to slow down, to talk, and to think about herself. He tells her that she is “A bigot. Not a big one, just an ordinary turnip-sized bigot.” Lee then defines a bigot as “One obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion.” Uncle Jack forced our entire Contemporary Issues class to do a self-evaluation.

    How do we react when faced with belief systems that contradict our own? Do offensive ideas disappear with deleted friendships from our Facebook feeds? Do we give others “elbow room in [our] mind[s] for their ideas, no matter how silly [we] think they are”? According to Uncle Jack, those are the fruits of bigotry. Interestingly, this measure of bigotry is not determined by how tolerant we deem ourselves to be, but rather by how others perceive us. Only those expressing opinions which depart from our own can tell us whether we come off as obstinate or intolerable. The only way to know how you’re doing would be to seek out and listen to feedback.

    Of course, Lee’s interpretation of bigotry is just one of many, and obviously one that made me think. Harper Lee tells us that differences are to be celebrated, explored or tolerated; not shut out. One may certainly disagree with her. Perhaps ideas or beliefs exist which ought not be tolerated. The passivity of a population in the wake of a wrong may only perpetuate it. On the other hand, tolerance does not denote silence, but civility. President Obama expressed a similar view when he spoke at a town hall meeting last September:

    “I’ve got to tell you, I don’t agree with that either — that you when you become students at colleges, you have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say.”

    And that brings us back to the course, Contemporary Issues, where we study current controversies and important events, develop informed opinions, and leave the classroom equipped to continually shape and refine those opinions. We learn to ensure that our learning never stops.

    (Post by Lauren Hafen ’16.)