Dean Finds Answers Through Questions

By Carol Keochekian ’81
Photo by Brian Stethem ’84

Joan Griffin, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

Growing up with a Lutheran minister father, Joan Griffin was always involved in conversations about philosophy, theology, history and culture. Although the discussions were thought provoking and helped to form her interdisciplinary approach to learning, it wasn’t the dogma or assertions shared that most caught her interest. It was the questions that these sessions stimulated.

So, it’s not surprising, especially in light of the strong Lutheran tradition of questioning, that CLU’s new Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences has started her term by interviewing and asking questions of faculty members.

Committed to an interdisciplinary approach in higher education, Griffin has been encouraged by the faculty’s ideas and hopes. “I have found that the faculty here has wonderful energy especially in interdisciplinary endeavors – more so than other places. They have lots of ideas of what they want to do.”

Griffin’s initial challenge is to determine how all these ideas fit into the University’s strategic plan. “Given limited resources,” she states, “you can’t do everything. But the added challenge here is that CLU faculty appear to want to do everything and to do it well.”

By listening and querying, the new dean hopes to find consensus on important questions that affect academics at the University such as: What should a liberal arts education accomplish? How should Lutheran intellectual traditions shape that education? What do we mean by interdisciplinary and what paradigms should give methodological or philosophical coherence to our interdisciplinary programs? How do we determine which new majors we should add to the curriculum?

Interdisciplinary approach

Approaching academic programs with an interdisciplinary perspective seems to be deeply ingrained in the new dean. Fascinated since childhood by literature, history and philosophy and how they intersect, Griffin pursued a master’s and Ph.D. in Celtic Languages and Literature at Harvard University after earning a bachelor’s degree in English and American literature from Washington University (St. Louis). Her graduate study allowed her to explore several academic areas and to dip into the fascinations of the medieval world.

“I find the Middle Ages and early Renaissance a very interesting period of history,” she says, “and well suited to interdisciplinary investigation.”

Through such study, the scholar has looked at cultural collisions in the medieval world and how various systems of thought modified one another. While an earlier generation mourned “the fall of Rome,” Griffin found the “dark ages” a dynamic era in which cultural upheaval led to a medieval synthesis. She has found consolation in the past by remembering that historically “good things come out of troubled times.”

Listening and learning

An English professor for nearly 20 years at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Griffin served as Associate Dean for General Education for two years before coming to CLU. In her years of teaching, she found that her students had not changed as much as she had. She learned that the classroom belongs to the students and that they learn much more readily when they have more say in the class agenda. And, she learned to listen.

“Initially, I thought I was going to convert all my students to medievalists. I soon realized that they have different needs.”

Griffin then began to emphasize building skills and helping students learn to think on their feet in addition to mastering content. “I learned to listen to what the students’ interests are and became more willing to let go.”

Just as she listened to students, Griffin plans to listen to faculty and explore with them topics such as “What is CLU to you?” and “What is the ethos?”

“I’m very interested in exploring what it means to be a Lutheran university – not in the Midwest, where there are some pretty good models of Lutheran colleges – but in California, where so many things are freshly imagined.”

While investigating these identity questions, Griffin is also exploring the relationship between the College of Arts and Sciences and the Schools of Business and Education and how to expand their collaborative relationship.

“We must be a really good liberal arts college to support graduate education. I don’t know of many good graduate programs that aren’t based on strong undergraduate programs.”

Griffin is approaching her new position with a keen interest in discovering and setting a new direction. Although her feet are scholastically planted in the Middle Ages, her eyes are definitely focused on the future.

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