St. Norbert College
St. Norbert College
(Students, faculty and staff) mySNC -
- -
- About SNC | A to Z Index | Directory -


    Connections Newsletter
    Issue 3                                                                                                                                         Spring Semester 2012


    A Note from the Collaborative Director

    Undergraduate Research: Adjusting to Life at a Liberal Arts College

    2012-2013 McNair Scholars

    Fall-Summer Collaborative Grants

    Convention Spotlight



    • Kaela Gedda
    • Jens Paasen
    • Gretchen Panzer
    • Hannah Schmitt
    • Luanne Spence
    • Sarah Titus

    Collaborative Research Stories

    Important Dates

    May 4, 2012 Student Academic Travel Grant and Attendee Grant applications due

    Undergraduate Research

    Adjusting to Life at a Liberal Arts College

     Dr. Blake Henson

    Assistant Professor of Music Theory, History, & Composition

    Like many of my colleagues, I came to St. Norbert College directly from the state university where I received my doctorate. While choosing to call St. Norbert “home” was easy, deciding to move from a Research I institution to a Liberal Arts College (LAC) took a great deal of consideration.  At my previous university, I was one of two-dozen members of a specialized department, working in a subspecialty shared by at least two or three others.  Teaching at an LAC would mean, indeed, likely being the only professor of my field, certainly being the only person with my specialty.  While others in similar positions might find the notion of working in a smaller department while maintaining wider teaching responsibilities daunting, I was excited by the academic freedom that would come with the absence of direct inter-departmental scholarly competition. 

    What I failed to realize was the extent to which I had become dependent upon conversations (indeed, arguments) with my colleagues who were doing similar research. In hindsight, I remember very few lunches, coffee breaks, or hallway conversations that were not wrought with heated exchanges over potential applications of new theoretical paradigms (or the dead ends others were sure to soon to meet). What I had not understood was the extent to which I had become dependent upon them as mediums for talking-through and testing-out new theories, an incubator for new ideas.  The atmosphere was often unnecessarily competitive, but the conversations were exceedingly helpful. 

    My first year at St. Norbert was a blur, to be sure, but also alarmingly relaxing.  Academic freedom and a friendly, non-competitive environment made it easy to establish my own timetable for research and production. However, I soon realized the extent to which I relied upon the competitive atmosphere I so loathed.  At my University, pitfalls and snags in my scholarship could be circumvented and undone with little more than a cup of coffee in a semi-public place, at my College, I was responsible for solving my own problems, or making the effort to connect with theorists at other campuses to do so (an act that seemed entirely too formal for its intended purpose). 

    During the summer between my first and second year, I took time to evaluate and reflect upon my work and growth.  While the bright spots far out-numbered the dark, my lack of scholarly production apropos ongoing work in music theory was troubling, and the solution failed to present itself until I began considering how I could be a more effective teacher.  While I generally keep the proverbial bar set quite high in my courses, I also understand that the wide-ranging knowledge base with which students typically enter my classes makes it difficult to proceed through the material as quickly as the more advanced students might prefer (if not require). Therein, I determined, was the solution to both problems.

    At the start of my second year, I identified a small set of students—a pilot group, of sorts—to whom I offered the opportunity to begin extracurricular research.  The idea was simple: working in consultation with each student, I would select a subtopic of my own research that relates to the material we are studying in class, and invite students to do their own research on the subject, with me serving as their research advisor.  The results were astonishing on many fronts.  Students who previously seemed bored in class—waiting for their colleagues to catch-up so we could move on through the material—now had a reason to stay engaged: they began attempting to apply what we were doing in class to what they were studying in their own research.  This had the added effect of softening the tone of the class, taking some of the pressure off of the slower learners and allowing me to be more flexible with my pedagogy.   At the end of their research, each student had three new feathers in their caps: a scholarly paper of their own worthy of submission to conferences or publications, the first body of work in their music theory portfolios, and a listing as a contributor to my own scholarship. 

    By the end of my first semester, I had managed to create a collaborative coalition that began to help me bridge the gap between life at a Research I and an LAC.  I had a group of burgeoning theorists off of whom I could bounce ideas, and they loved getting to peak behind the curtain of academic scholarship.  One student commented on how surprised and, even comforted, she was to see that I ran into problems with my research at all, and helping me work through those complications helped her see the value of collaborative work.  Of course, much of my own work was too advanced for my undergraduate students, but the challenge of explaining it to them in a manner they could understand was often precisely the endeavor I needed to undertake in order to reframe my initial problem. Indeed, the resulting collective offered opportunities for the types of advanced discussions I missed from my former university, without involving the competition that seemed a fixture of such institutions. 



    St. Norbert Collaborative

    Phone: (920) 403-3147
    Fax: (920) 403-4086

    St. Norbert College • 100 Grant Street • De Pere, WI 54115-2099 • 920-337-3181