Bishop’s University: undergraduate experience

Tradition as a source of innovation

Bishop’s University sees the future of undergraduate education in the liberal arts tradition it was founded on nearly 200 years ago

Sometimes the most revolutionary thing you can do is get back to basics.

That certainly seems to be the perspective of Jessica Riddell, an English professor at Bishop’s University.

In the past five years, Dr. Riddell has launched a number of innovative programs to enrich the undergraduate experience at the Lennoxville, Quebec institution. While her initiatives are novel, Dr. Riddell says they’re all rooted in the university’s traditional liberal arts education model.

“We focus on exemplary interactions between students and faculty,” Dr. Riddell explains, “and on extending learning outside the classroom—creating opportunities for experiential learning and stimulating students in a holistic manner.”

Those objectives led Dr. Riddell and her English department colleagues in 2009 to launch a conference exclusively for English undergraduates: QUEUC – the Quebec Universities English Undergraduate Conference.

For students, by students

Now a well-established annual event, the conference brings together arts and humanities students for a weekend of multidisciplinary seminars and workshops on English literature, drama, history, music and more. In the beginning it was limited to Quebec, but has since expanded to draw participants from across the country.

Students coordinate the conference and make up the majority of the 40-member organizing committee. The conference is also peer-reviewed and senior students rigorously vet submitted papers—of which there were more than 180 last year.

“Students are the ones doing all that incredible work,” explains Dr. Riddell. “They own it, they have such pride in it. Being part of the organizing committee gives them the opportunity to apply the skills and critical judgment they’ve been learning during their coursework.”

Fifth-year student Kristy Benz, a former conference coordinator, agrees. “Being involved in the Quebec Universities English Undergraduate Conference and seeing how things are run was a great opportunity for me. In undergraduate programs, you don’t usually get to have that kind of experience.”

Ms. Benz says she knows she’ll retain the communication and organizational skills she gained during her experience—and has already applied them to the coordination of a university drama festival.

Making the exceptional commonplace

The conference isn’t the only initiative Dr. Riddell has helped introduce at Bishop’s. STEP (the Students Seeking to Excel Program) began as a weekly seminar for English students on the fundamentals of writing. Realizing other faculty members were doing the same kind of ad hoc tutorials with their students, Dr. Riddell suggested pooling resources and formalizing the program. Today, STEP is a school-wide phenomenon run by the university’s Student Council and attended by 60-80 students weekly.

More recently, the energetic English prof helped stage TEDxBishopsU, an interdisciplinary conference on the future of undergraduate education modeled on the now world-famous TED talks. Dr. Riddell says the TED tagline, “Ideas worth sharing,” resonates with the university’s liberal arts values.

“We wanted with TEDxBishopsU to explore those lightbulb moments when, as a student, you go, ‘Ah-ha!’ because something has clicked,” explains Dr. Riddell. Response to the TEDx event was enthusiastic and plans for a second edition are already in the works for 2013.

“Learning happens everywhere”

Part of what Bishop’s espouses is the idea that learning isn’t restricted to the classroom. As Dr. Riddell puts it, “It happens in labs, on the soccer field, in the auditorium.” The initiatives she’s helped launch all ensure that learning is part of every facet of the Bishop’s undergrad experience.

“We don’t feel new and innovative as much as we feel we’re tapping into the core mission, vision and values of what this university has been about since 1843. We’ve been talking about these things for 175 years,” she concludes with a laugh.

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