‘Perspectives’ on Leadership: Elena Diller ’17 & Caroline Todd ’17 Elena Diller ’17 and Caroline Todd ’17 saw a need for more perspective in academics — so they got to work.
“We’ve come to appreciate the value of learning that the world is a wider place than you might initially think. We firmly believe that’s something you should take with you after you graduate from W&L.”
— Caroline Todd ’17
Q. Can you describe the “special project” you’ve been working on right now?
Elena: Caroline and I co-authored a petition for a new FDR (technically an academic designation right now) that requires students to take a class about a unique, usually marginalized perspective. Think race, religion, gender, culture, political viewpoints, ethnicity, etc. We collected over 500 student signatures and 100 faculty/ staff signatures. I authored the Student Learning Objectives that are used to qualify which courses count towards the designation.
Caroline: Elena and I spent the past two years developing a potential Foundation and Distribution Requirement, or FDR, focusing on intersectional studies. First, after drafting the FDR, we created student and faculty petitions to illustrate the W&L community’s support for our proposal. We then attended several Courses and Degrees Committee meetings in order to present our ideas. We also held a couple of discussions about our proposal in order to clear up misconceptions and brainstorm improvements.
Q. What made you pursue this project?
Elena: We’ve both personally heard people make racist or sexist jokes, throw parties with themes offensive to those of different backgrounds or devalue policies that benefit marginalized groups. Though we both respect our peers, and are in no way perfect ourselves, we understand that a lot of our peers aren’t exposed to backgrounds different from their own. We believe that students will benefit from taking a class wherein they are challenged to study a group of people (and their race, gender, culture, religion) who are different from themselves and work to understand the systemic inequalities that this group faces.
Caroline: We were having lunch together one day junior year when the topic came up. After our conversation, I met with Dean Keen, the chair of the Courses and Degrees Committee, to ask if something like what we had in mind would be possible. She said it might be feasible if the request came from students, so that’s what we’ve focused on ever since. Our process aside, though, we went through with this proposal because we’ve come to appreciate the value of learning that the world is a wider place than you might initially think. We firmly believe that’s something you should take with you after you graduate from W&L.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced?
Elena: The current curriculum states that one course cannot count for more than one FDR. However, we proposed that a course could count towards both a current FDR and the ‘Perspectives’ FDR, as we didn’t want to add a completely separate course requirement. Unfortunately, this rule cannot be changed as of now, so the ‘Perspectives’ FDR is actually a designation, meaning the courses can be found in the course catalog under this title.
Caroline: One of our biggest challenges was wording and rewording our Student Learning Objectives (SLOs), which seek to express what we’re looking for these Perspectives courses to do in measurable ways. We had to figure out exactly what we wanted students to get out of these classes and delineate those abstract ideas within the confines of a few bullet points. Eventually, we drafted a workable set of SLOs, but we had a lot of help throughout that process, so I’m grateful to all the professors who looked over our drafts and offered suggestions.
Q. What has been the greatest reward from this experience?
Elena: Seeing something that didn’t exist before come into existence! It’s not childbirth or anything, but I’m pretty proud.
Caroline: Getting it passed as a designation was pretty exciting, but seeing the university from the administrative side was also a noteworthy experience. This process has helped me become a part of W&L life in ways that I couldn’t have otherwise, and for that I’m incredibly thankful.
Q. What insight — or insights — have you gained?
Elena: Criticism can be key! The Spectator came out with an article which strongly opposed our petition. The article demonstrated perfectly what our proposal wanted to fix: a lack of respect for and concern for different perspectives. It was honestly the best advertisement we could have asked for— we gained 300 more signatures after the article came out.
Caroline: In getting to know faculty and administrators along the way, I’ve learned a lot about how thoughtful W&L as an institution is. Every conversation I’ve had with professors, deans or student affairs staff has been deliberate, considering nearly every ramification of a given topic. No one here makes a decision lightly. I’ve emerged from this process proud that W&L isn’t afraid to embrace complications.
Q. What lies in the future for “Perspectives”?
Elena: Hopefully, when the general curriculum is up for review, a student or faculty member will advocate to overturn the one course/one FDR rule so that the Perspectives designation will become an FDR.
Caroline: It’s actually out of our hands now. Professors will begin applying for their courses to fit the Perspectives designation, and then hopefully when W&L performs its upcoming re-evaluation of the FDR, the designation might be worked into whatever results.
Q. What does leadership mean to you?
Elena: Leadership means filling a need, small or big, when you see one.
Caroline: I’ve gotten a decent amount of leadership advice from Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” actually. Over the course of her career, Fey learned that true leadership entails figuring out how to cater to others’ strengths and work styles — you’ll receive the best results if the people you’re leading feel listened to and cared for. In the end, leadership isn’t about broadcasting how right you may think you are, or telling other people what to do. Even though it certainly requires a leader, it’s multilateral. More often than not, you have to “leave your ego at the door,” as Dr. Lynch tells us so often in choir rehearsals, in order to get the job done. As a leader, you’re setting an example, but one that others want to follow.
Q. Why is student leadership important on W&L’s campus?
Elena: Because we determine what our campus is, what our academic standards are, what our social practices are! Students have a lot of power because of how small our campus is, meaning that we can foster whatever environment we want for ourselves. And hopefully, we keep fostering something that is beneficial for ALL of our community members.
Caroline: For me, the question of leadership always comes back to our Honor System, which forms such an integral part of life at W&L because everyone takes their duty as a community member seriously. Though the Executive Committee has a strong presence on campus, and its job is an important one, honor permeates more than our governing body. Our Honor System allows the same sense of personal responsibility that good leaders have to translate to the duties we take on as students at W&L – we feel it’s our job to leave our community better than we found it. We take ownership of our conduct because we care enough about the future of our university to pass this legacy of community on to incoming students. W&L only works if we do.