Photo of Nancy Vickers at her desk Leaf iconJump to Nancy's views on:

Her research.
Public education.
Technology in the classroom.
What's in her mental briefcase.
What bugs her.
Life in general.


A MAGICAL SPACE

A conversation with Nancy Vickers, who comes to Bryn Mawr as its seventh president from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, doesn't transport you to Tinseltown. Talking with the scholar of Petrarch and Madonna, among other poets and performers, is to take a walk with her through a garden of geometric patterns and landscaped vistas that reflect centuries of thought and aspiration.

One of Vickers' favorite spots on campus is in fact the Taft Garden behind Canaday Library. "It's a magical space," she said. "I have already on many occasions gone there and sat and thought about what I was going to do." Originally designed by John Charles Olmsted for M. Carey Thomas' Deanery, the natural space casts a spell that stayed even Thomas' overdecorating hand. Vickers said she was "thrilled to hear that the class of 1997 took on redoing the Taft Garden as its graduation present to the College." She also loves "looking through the arches of the campus and the row of trees down Merion Green. It's a beautiful, beautiful place."

The interviewer dreamt the night before speaking with Vickers for the Bulletin that her office was crammed with videotape machines, the floor strewn with pastel-colored and spangled mules by fantasy shoe designer Manolo Blahnik. This dream was not prophetic. The President's Office still has its elegant furnishings, and Vickers, although she wore sandals and cotton like most sane people during the blistering August days of her first week on the job, is in her natural sphere.

Photo of Nancy Vickers with students
Nancy Vickers, Tahira Ahmed '01, Agata Jose-Ivanina '01.

Under her leadership, Bryn Mawr's next phase promises to be neither a retreat to antiquity nor a rush to the future, but a process of transition, fusion and preparation based on rediscovery and exploration. Vickers will stay close to the campus this fall and immerse herself in the culture of the College, learning all she can from faculty, students and staff.

She wants all of the College's constituencies to spend the next 18 months on a self-study and define for itself just four or five main priorities. "I think the process is a critical one and I hope we can remove from it a lot of the clichéd terms that are floating around higher education at the moment, and rather articulate, refine and reaffirm what is distinctive about our institution - women's education and the historical combination of a demanding instructional agenda and a very high research profile.

Below: Amanda Spivak '01, Alex Smith '01, Sabrina Daily '01, Gretchen Weiss '01, Nancy Vickers, Ramatoulaye Diallo '98.

Photo of Nancy Vickers with students"This is an institution with an acute sense of itself, and I think it would be useful to mirror that back to me as new president to make sure that I understand it in depth. I think I do, but I need to do a lot of talking to people before I jump to any conclusions."

Vickers spent a week in July attending the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "When I would tell people I was going to 'presidents' college,' they would invariably find it hilariously funny, for reasons that I don't entirely understand, and then start comparing it to dog obedience school, clown college, Hamburger U.," she said.

"In fact it was quite a valuable experience, with a wonderful group of 45 new presidents from such a range of institutions, although predominantly small liberal arts colleges, that you might not necessarily have met them otherwise. It was reassuring to hear that they have the same curiosities and wonders about themselves and their new jobs.

"The seminar was an extremely well organized set of workshops covering different aspects of a college presidency. For the parts that you did know something about, they gave you a broader context in which to situate your knowledge and for the parts that you knew very little or nothing about, they gave you directions on taking your first steps to becoming knowledgeable about what are traditionally president's responsibilities in that area.

"It also gave us a set of fair warnings of things not to do - one might bound in full of energy and direction and want to start moving immediately an institution that's going through the complex set of emotions and realities attached to a transition. Everybody needs some time to settle into these changes, and we were given a pretty acute sense of that. This is a big moment not only in the lives of the predecessor leaving the job and of the newcomer coming into the job, but for the community as a whole. It's change that's invigorating but also nervous-making."

A native of Detroit, and graduate of Mt. Holyoke and Yale University, Vickers taught at Dartmouth from 1973-1987, then joined the USC faculty as professor of French, Italian and comparative literature. In 1994 she became dean of curriculum and instruction for USC's college of letters, arts and sciences to work on a three-year curricular revision project for the general education program.

"I'm very glad that I lived in California for 10 years," she said. "It gave me a different perspective on many of the most complicated topics we face as a nation that have to do with the nature of pluralism in American society. It also made me think about the ways in which the East Coast is Atlantic directed and the West Coast is Pacific directed, and what differences of philosophy and cultural makeup come with those different orientations.

"But despite the wrenching and wistful leave-taking from Los Angeles, the minute I hopped into a rental car at the Boston airport and headed up to New Hampshire for a visit, it felt like being home again. Returning to the East Coast feels comfortable and right."Vickers will be inaugurated as president on December 6 and begin to visit alumnae around the world this spring (see her travel schedule). Here, she answers questions about education and life.

What are the main insights, conclusions you take away from the USC curriculum project?
I bring away more insights and conclusions about the process of revising a curriculum than conclusions about what an ideal curriculum might be. I think we came up with a good program through an enormous amount of compromise and through some pretty committed insistence upon certain core liberal arts values that in the end we had to get behind and fight for. Curricular revision is an extremely difficult process because there's so much at stake. At an institution like USC, where 10 of the 18 schools have undergraduates, each of those faculties had significantly different visions of what would constitute the core of a USC education and what six courses every undergraduate should take.

It wasn't just a matter of discussing what constituted the most solid ground for 14,000 undergraduates, it was also a struggle about the nature of disciplinary and interdisciplinary -- the residual pull of traditional instruction in a department or area and a sense that it needs to move somewhat beyond that.

And no matter how you would try to pull the conversation into the territory of substance, it would suddenly get blurred and confused by the administrative and budgetary realities that were so bound up in the structure of the general education curriculum.

I think I learned a lot of negotiating skills. I think I learned a lot about listening to people whose opinions were quite different from my own, whose students were not necessarily of the same profile as the students I was looking at in the liberal arts college, whose judgment I had to respect in relation to their ability to define what they felt their students needed.

Lyric moments from Petrarch to Prince
Nancy Vickers put a writing project on hold when she became a dean at USC, but it still tugs at her mind. A scholar of Renaissance lyric poetry, she had become interested in the music video as an embodiment of voice. "Short forms can be anthologized and wedged in between longer ones to fill up space; they take on a chequered presence and work their way into the interstices of our aesthetic lives in interesting ways," she said. "So the notion of taking the very brief format of the 3-minute video, what film director Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, Legend, Black Rain) refers to as the 'stretched still,' and seeing how much expression can be moved into it, intrigues me."

Photo of Nancy VickersPhoto of Nancy VickersPhoto of Nancy Vickers

Much of Vickers' early work was on the Italian poet and humanist Petrarch (1304-1374). Petrarch also wrote about history, politics, epistemology and ethics, but his love lyrics to "Laura" were what captured the cultural imagination of the period. His Rime sparse, or Canzoniere, as the collection is alternately called, brought music back into poetry through use of the ode, sonnet, and madrigal.

"The Rime continued to be enormously influential throughout the European Renaissance well into the 15th and 16th centuries as a sequence of very popular forms, in large part because they were adaptable in so many different ways," Vickers said. "They were often set to music, performed in entertainments, sung in the streets, circulated in manuscript at first because the printing press had not yet been invented, and subsequently became one of the best-sellers of the early print era. I had looked at a number of issues pertaining to how Petrarch's work defined a set of norms that governed Renaissance lyric production.

"That prompted me to think about the passage of what was originally an oral form into manuscript -- the form of Petrarch's production -- and then into print, although the oral form was never erased. From there, I began thinking about how the love song, which began as a song, then became a text and then a printed text, with the 20th century became a recorded song and then potentially a recorded song with visual accompaniment in music video. Now, in some early forms of interactive formation for computers, it is becoming something that the so-called 'reader' or 'listener' can manipulate, rewrite and configure her or himself.

"In analyzing lyric, one must ask, Who is speaking? To whom is that person speaking? Are we the eavesdroppers on this very private and intimate exchange between 'I and you' or are we being addressed by the lyric self? Is this an instance or snapshot that we're seeing in a story about the relationship between these I-you people, whoever they are? The print moment of lyric is in fact the strange moment of its history, the moment in which that whole disembodied song-self has to be reimagined into the text by the reader. And all of the interesting generic issues surrounding lyric manifest themselves and redefine themselves in very interesting ways when you conceive of it as a visual medium."

Vickers' subjects were not just any music videos, but those composed, performed and often produced by the same artist, who thus would be likely to think about the song as a video during the writing process. "It is more typical for a songwriter to write the song first," Vickers explained. "Then a band or an artist is found to perform the song. The director chosen by the record company for the video comes up with a concept to go with the song that is somehow attuned to the nature of the performer, and then it is produced for its promotional function. The individuals I wanted to look at, however, were the very powerful figures from about 1985-1990, the apogee of music video, Prince, Madonna, George Michael. I was looking at the creative control freaks, not five guys jamming in a garage.

"I was also very interested in all cultural forms that reach massive audiences and exert an enormous influence upon our culture -- 40 million records sold; what on earth does that mean? 200 million people watching a 2-minute commercial that is a mini-music video lyric moment. What does it mean for 200 million people to participate simultaneously in a lyric moment? It's really quite an exceptional phenomenon.

"The public can jump to wrong and alarmist conclusions about scholarly consideration of such topics, but if there were any testimony to the importance of people who have a classical formation and a critical eye looking at and thinking about popular culture, it is the very power of the negative response that it often elicits. Go to what a culture wants to censor or doesn't want you to talk about and you will find some of the most powerful forces within that culture."

Return to top

What are your thoughts about current issues for public primary and secondary education? What responsibilities does higher education have to drive those curricula?
We have to face up to the extraordinary difficulty of delivering secondary education in late 20th-century America, with problems ranging from violence in the public schools to overcrowding of classrooms to salaries that often do not reward teachers as the serious and hardworking professionals that they are. The world of knowledge is exploding in virtually every direction, and it is very difficult to design a single and directed and focused curriculum that's going to speak to the needs of a variety of students who are going off, increasingly, to completely different styles of subsequent education and/or preparation, whether that be community colleges, vocational schools, or research universities, each of which has somewhat different demands than liberal arts colleges. There are far too many pressures on the public system for any niche to be driving at some levels the specific content of that curriculum.

It's safe to say, however, that we are seeing students come to college without certain sets of skills. So, it seems to me that despite some differentiation in terms of the preparation demanded of students going off on a wide variety of different tracks, there are areas where we should be working with secondary education in terms of enhancing students' capabilities.

The two that come most immediately to my mind, possibly because I'm a literature professor, are the ability to read and the ability to write. Because these kinds of skills are often best developed with a lot of individual attention to students, we're finding students very unprepared in these areas. Additionally, in a culture that is so visually oriented and in which students often do not read for entertainment, reading has taken on an entirely different position within the kind of cognitive exercises that students have performed over the years.

These are certainly skills that liberal arts colleges are designed to enhance. I'm not a big fan of becoming very professionalized early in one's postsecondary education, although I come from a world in which it prevails. Students need to have a basic ability to confront complex material, think through how to assimilate it, pose the right questions about it and render their results in a comprehensive and coherent way that can be understood by people who are specialists and by people in a broader audience or population. Structuring a good argument, making one's thoughts comprehensible to people outside one's own head or one's own jargon or even one's own language -- these are skills at the core of anything one could choose to do in life.

Photo of Nancy Vickers with students
Agata Jose-Ivanina '01, Tahira Ahmed '01, Alyssa Tryon '01, Meredith Wooten '01, Nancy Vickers, Jayleen Lawler '01.

The other strong point in a liberal arts preparation is simply the ability to move from area to area. The breadth that we demand makes one capable of changing gears intelligently at a relatively advanced level and prepares one to be a learner throughout life. People change careers many times in their lives and quite frankly, the fact that you go from anthropology class to chemistry class to literature class is a fine preparation for whatever changes are going to be part of both a professional and personal existence over the next 50 years.

Return to top

How do you see the role of technology in the curriculum?
Current technologies in the classroom can enhance the learning enterprise very effectively, but they're always there to accompany and embellish, in my sense, an experience that has to involve some level of human contact and attention to the needs of students.

It's a great paradox, to my mind, that as I go to a Web site across the sea and communicate in a chat room with people thousands of miles away, in split seconds and with enormous ease, I also find myself sitting in my study for longer hours, alone, with my eyes glued to a screen. The strange structure of solitude and interconnectedness that is a part of this technological revolution can be very positive in building some kinds of communities but can have a seriously detrimental effect on the giving of attention to the specifics of one's local surrounding that is such a focus of the late 20th century.

I think that as in all things what is required here is balance. We're at the stage of a new and exploding technology and when that happens, it's always out of control. If you go back and look at the early stages of print culture, it is years before people start coming up with any notion of intellectual property, of creating concepts of copyright. Books are being stolen right and left and printed at publishing houses that have no rights to them, and being misprinted and being rewritten by folks who are not authorized to rewrite them. With any new and radically altering technology, there is a period of shakedown where it's very unclear precisely where it's going and how anyone is going to control it, and that's the period we are in with the Internet and with computer technology.

That being the case, when I sit back and look at what many of my colleagues have done and what I myself have done in terms of teaching often canonical material while using this technology, it's extraordinary. When I teach Dante, I use the Internet to make myself available to students at the strangest possible hours with whatever questions they have. They can e-mail me and I can reply back to them at any time; they can talk to one another and work collaboratively in new ways. They can dial into the Dartmouth Dante Project and have 500 years of Dante commentary online for purposes of their researching. If they're English majors and can't read Italian, a number of those commentaries are in English. If they're Italian or classics majors and they have Latin, then they have yet more options for reading in the commentary tradition, and it's all there for them via telnet, which allows a computer user to connect to another computer via the Internet. It just puts at the student's disposal a set of informational resources and an ability to work with the professor and the other students in the class that are radically different and dare I say easier, better, faster than they have been in the past.

This in no way substitutes, or could it, in my mind, for the fact that we get together three times a week with the poem in front of us to talk through their problems with it, read it and work on it together, or that they write papers and that I labor over them and put a lot of individual commentary on those papers. Now I might type and send my comments via e-mail, or they may even be e-mailing me their papers so we're not losing them under the office door, but that said, the basic activities of the course remain similar.

Return to top

Can you describe some of the things you bring to work in your mental briefcase?
Well, the literal briefcase has different things in it every day! We won't peek into that! Collaboration: I am happiest when I am working with people. I think I am smartest and most productive when my ideas and thoughts are being bounced off other people, profiting from their comments, so the first mental briefcase item is not one of sitting alone in the office, pontificating from the second floor of Taylor Hall, but rather one of figuring out ways and contexts in which I can work in a genuinely collaborative fashion with various constituencies within the community and with the very talented people that I am lucky to have inherited as an administrative team. We all have our blind spots, but I genuinely think that I am capable of listening to other people, that I am capable of stepping aside from my position if they have really persuaded me that there's a better position, and that I'm not invested in having my way. I'm invested in finding the best way to move forward.

Community: There's a will to build a community of folks working together to do everything we can to both preserve and advance Bryn Mawr, and there's an accord with the deep commitment of this institution as a community of teacher-scholars.

Communication: I bring a will for us to be very forthright about who we are, what we do and be extremely proud of that. The accomplishments are extraordinary. We need to take that out into the world to places where a liberal arts education and a focus on women's education are under attack.

Classroom: I'm a dedicated teacher who always gets very engaged in the progress of her students and really can't not put that side of the higher education agenda at the forefront of my concerns. I love doing research, I love writing, but the students in the classroom always come first for me. Just watching how this institution cares for its students and how the faculty thinks and worries and studies what is going on in the classroom, it strikes me that it has never left behind the notion that the center of the institution is delivering a fine education to undergraduate and graduate students -- and the results all show that.

Return to top

What most tries your patience as an administrator, a teacher, a person?
As an administrator -- turf wars, which can often prevent people from ever addressing the issues or moving anything forward, and in particular turf wars wearing costumes of substantive disagreement.

As a teacher -- the student who isn't doing the work. I am so invested in getting students interested in the material I am teaching them that when I think they have defined a set of priorities that has put the Iliad at the bottom of their list, and I'm trying to teach it to them, it makes me a little crazy. It's not just the student who isn't engaged in my course, it's the student who isn't engaged in his or her education. Education goes on all throughout one's life, but this undergraduate stage when being educated is the center of your existence, and it's broad and opening up new worlds to you, is a very privileged moment, so it tries my patience to see that moment frittered away.

Personally -- daily life! The appliances that need to be repaired, the shoes that need to go to the repair shop and the shoe repair shop that says it's going to be open at 8 but in fact isn't open until 9, the errands that fill an inordinate amount of time and more often than not have to be done several times, being caught up in an incredibly complicated bureaucracy of any form whatsoever.

Return to top

Is there anything in your life you'd like to mention that might be considered a failure by some or that did not work out as you'd hoped?
At this stage, I somewhat amusedly think back to my reasons for choosing to go into academia. Certainly, I was fascinated by my field, but one of the major reasons was that the life of a teacher would permit me a flexible enough schedule to take care of my many children. Ha ha! Where are they?

I certainly thought, when I was an undergraduate, that what the future held for me was marriage, family, etc. It's something I thought I was going to do and it's something I would have liked to have done, and that's not how it turned out. Now, at 52, I don't experience it as a failure, although there were patches of my life where I did -- the mid-30s when everybody goes into biological clock nervousness. When you hit the magical age of 50, at least for me, you move to a kind of peace with the directions your life has taken, a comfort with them and a realization that you can do lots of things in life but you can't do everything, and sometimes you follow paths that are different than you ever would have imagined. Between the ages of 18 and 22, I never would have imagined myself as president of Bryn Mawr College and here I am.

There are lots of expectations that we set out for ourselves and that we try to achieve. Some of them we do and some of them we don't. As long as we're at peace with the ones we do achieve and do them to the best of our abilities, I think that's the most we can expect out of life. One just keeps moving forward and developing over time a better and better sense of who one is.

There were certainly moments where I felt that circumstances, relationships, didn't work out in precisely the way I hoped or imagined they would and those were painful. Life is full of struggles! Every stage of it introduces fresh difficulties. I listen to my mother talking about all of her friends dying -- and boy, that's going to be tough. I watched some of my friends raise kids who went through problem patches and that was very difficult. Certainly, making one's way in any profession is a struggle, and at a number of institutions I've been at over the years there have been difficult moments, being a woman in what was virtually an all-male environment. I'm hoping that keeps changing for young women today, but there are still plenty of environments where it hasn't entirely changed. I have many, many friends who were working to get tenure and raising families simultaneously, and those are difficult years. They are difficult enough for those who aren't raising families, but achieving a balance, dealing with that sense that you're giving the family or the job short shrift, is a challenge.

I have to say at this stage that having a completely rewarding, thrilling and exciting job and a world that's peopled with some wonderful friendships makes a very full life. So, I think I'm very optimistic and happy, contented with where things are at the moment.

Return to top

Photo of Nancy VickersWhat do you think about an alumnae association that is governed autonomously, as is Bryn Mawr's?
When I began meeting groups of alumnae, I would say "I'll be learning everything about Bryn Mawr; I really want to understand Bryn Mawr's distinctive qualities as an institution, for us to acknowledge and reaffirm those qualities, and then start setting priorities from what we think are the core values." The first thing everybody talked about was the honor code and the tradition of student governance. It strikes me that one of the things Bryn Mawr does is teach its students that they are in charge of their own academic performance at certain levels and we expect them to be independent minded and self sufficient and capable of governing themselves. So if we have an autonomous and somewhat feisty, in-your-face alumnae/i association, we made them that way. When we send them out into the world, they make themselves heard. That's clearly part of our successful formula.

Return to top

cover icon Return to Winter 1997 highlights

MHK