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Erika Nelson-Mukherjee, Associate Professor of Modern Languages and Literatures

Nichols Fellow 2018-2020

Professor Nelson-Mukherjee’s project is titled “The Salve of Stories: Creating Community through Shared Narrative Practices.” She will use the fellowship to develop a course that addresses the larger issues of death, dying, and human destruction.

Professor Nelson-Mukherjee proposes that it is through stories that we make sense of our lives, communicate our thoughts, express ideas, create a shared sense of purpose, experience community, and enable others to know more about our individual hopes, dreams, lives, insights, histories, backgrounds and cultures. The courage to share our stories of struggles and triumphs with care, authenticity, and vulnerability can help expand our empathy and understanding of others. Our willingness to enter into the still silent, unknown spaces of ourselves can give voice to our own unheard narratives and allow us to find commonality and imagine together something new. It might just prove to be a remedy we need for some of our social ills, a salve for our modern day souls. Rita Charon calls such an approach to communal stories “Narrative Medicine”. Along with her colleagues at Columbia University, she demonstrates and teach that the principles and practices of regular communal reading practices, personal reflective writing and the sharing of stories contribute to a good self-care and better health care for other people’s well-being.

The Nichols Fellowship will enable Professor Nelson-Mukherjee to engage students more deeply and meaningfully in Narrative Medicine’s practice of parallel chars by complementing the academic work she does with individual and communal reading, listening, and reflective writing practices as a means of strengthening the power of the individual voice and the presence of a compassionate, collaborative community. She will create a course, offered as a Modern Languages in Translation class on Narratives of Suffering and Healing, which would include works by German language authors Franz Kafka, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Celan, Jenny Erpenbeck, Julia Franck, Doris Dorrie, and Herta Muller, whose works speak to these issues with great richness of description and insight. The fellowship also will support conference attendance with students at the University of Iowa, a conference at Union with filmmaker and author Doris Dörrie, and a joint paper with student participants in the University of Iowa’s The Examined Life Journal.

The course is planned to be taught in Winter 2019.

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Best Practices

Embark on a learning journey together and encourage students to engage with stories – their own and those of others. Carefully select and curate a variety of well-crafted texts that also challenge you. My best choices have included texts that still hold unanswered questions for me, which I share with students, seeking their input and ideas. Good questions help open up memorable discussions. Listen closely to students’ responses. Enable each student to share, and witness them, even if you disagree with them. Be open to learning from them. Clarify when there is confusion. Make it okay to make mistakes and learn from them. Help students recognize the role they play in contributing meaningfully to the class’s collective and collaborative explorations.

Use dialogic practices to develop greater narrative competence and close reading skills that foster students’ trust in their own voice. Offer students ample opportunities to read, create, write, tell, share, interpret, analyze, listen and respond to stories collaboratively and communally. Encourage students to reflect on these texts and respond directly and meaningfully to other students’ contributions. Give writing prompts that allow students to create and share short 3-minute reflective writings in response to texts read and discussed, or let them to create their own collaborative poem by asking each person to contribute a line. Take time to read texts out loud and be creative together. Ask them to ask questions. Talk about what works. Teach students to teach others and let them lead discussions. Be willing to be vulnerable with them. Share stories from your own life experiences and be open to being changed by theirs.

JILLMARIE MURPHY, PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH

Nichols Fellow 2016-2018

Justice is contention. Through contention all things come to be.” ~Heraclitus of Ephesus

Matter invades every aspect of human existence. It is inescapable and unassailable and so are its furtive and sometimes indescribable influences. The material world communicates through what it is as well as what it means. Hence, material objects covertly shape the immaterial—how we think and what we feel, our affect and essence. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel suggests there is no fundamental separation between humanity and materiality, as everything we are emanates from our perception of self that is a symbiotic reflection of the mirror image out of which we create form.

My Nichols Fellowship course, “Theory of Things,” focuses on the tangible and intangible things that human beings encounter throughout their lives and the way in which material objects influence us, and, more importantly, how the lack of material objects adversely affects marginalized, displaced, and dispossessed individuals. Most people desire and value things, and in most Western cultures, much emphasis is placed on acquiring objects. While the objects themselves do not create conflict, the value individuals place on things can generate adverse consequences, particularly for those who do not have the economic means to obtain those objects or who are themselves viewed as objects. Indeed, the “desire” to own something and the “value” that is placed on acquiring objects are themselves intangible ‘things’ that produce other intangible things, such as greed, envy, arrogance, violence, deceit, and insecurity.

Best Practices

As class evaluations have demonstrated, students feel challenged in this course and find the material compelling and thought-provoking. As one student recently told me: “This course changed my life! It made me think about things in ways I never imagined.” The course also includes several field trips that provide students with an opportunity to consider material objects from a variety of perspectives and immerse themselves in the material world in ways they may not have considered prior to taking this course. Various assignments students work on throughout the course—“The After-Life of Things Walkabout,” “The Body as Thing Video Project,” “Literary Things Perusall Project,” and their final Maker-Space projects—help challenge students’ perceptions of themselves and the world around them.

Theory of Things required students to create physical replicas or 3D images of various objects found in the literature they read—Ex: child’s white coffin, black shark’s tooth, mourning doll, wooden flower, knit blanket, lambrequin, tschagatta mask, etc. Ultimately the students were asked to upload projects to an interactive course website that can be shared with members of the Union College community.

The work provided students with opportunities to:

  1. think about literary objects in non-traditional ways
  2. consider how to use available resources to create tangible objects that bring students beyond the written word and toward an understanding of the vitalism of literary things
  3. identify ways that literature helps signify the interassimilation of humanity and objects
  4. take creative risks to help shift students’ cognitive understanding of the creative materiality of objects and the formative power of things.

Students were encouraged to:

 

  1. be open and receptive to re-framing conventional understandings of literary objects
  2. advance, implement, and communicate ideas about literary objects in nontraditional ways
  3. demonstrate ingenuity and resourcefulness in adopting new ways to imagine literature.

ASHRAF GHALY, CARL B. JANSEN PROFESSOR OF ENGINEERING

Nichols Fellow 2013-2016

New Course: ENS-299 Environmental Forensics

The course that the fellowship funded was offered for the first time as planned in the Fall term of 2014 within the Environmental Science, Policy, and Engineering (ESPE) program. This course covers environmental law, insurance for environmental liability, contaminated site history, transport models, chemical fingerprinting, risk assessments, forensic site management, and dispute resolution techniques, etc.

The course concluded with a stakeholder meeting where a very complicated case was debated in the classroom. The details of the case were made known to the students before the meeting and the roles of actors in the case were randomly distributed to the students. They were asked to study the role of each character and be prepared for a class debate in which everyone had to be equipped with the relevant information to argue their point of view. This meeting was a tremendous way to show the students the complexity of environmental forensics and the difficulty associated with reaching fair conclusions. What made the experience really unique was the frustration that appeared on some students’ faces when other students argued a point stronger than theirs. This experience alone demonstrated the harsh environment in which environmental forensics cases are litigated. The great success of offering the course prompted me to schedule it again for the Fall term of 2015 where I presently have almost a full class.

Union’s Academic Affairs Council has permanently approved this new course (ENS-299 Environmental Forensics). I would like to thank Union College and the donors that made this fellowship possible.

Best Practices

Students taking any of my courses must be prepared to think and develop a position, and most importantly to articulate the reasons for adopting such a stance. This is always known upfront in the course’s syllabus as shown on the course’s website, and is strongly reinforced in the first class when I see class registrants for the first time. I do not only consider my role as an educator but also as a moderator and facilitator. After I present the known and unknown factors about cases under consideration, every student will be asked to share their thoughts. I always like to promote an environment of respect and professionalism in debate. I like to encourage passionate debate in an unintimidating climate. Every one in class is entitled to their opinion and is also free to stand their ground provided that they offer comprehensible justification founded in evidence.

Carol S. Weisse
Professor of Psychology and Director of Health Professions Program

Nichols Fellow 2011-2013

One of the most rewarding aspects of developing these courses was having the opportunity to involve students in the process.  By engaging students in the design of the Humanism in Medicine course, they were able to contribute to the intellectual environment of the College and “own” the learning process.

It was also personally rewarding to see students move from thinking about a class as a presentation of facts to an active experience capable of producing “ah ha!” moments. In several planning sessions, we reversed roles as the students became instructors, and I became their student. These sessions provided me with a better window to student learning and the opportunity to share my own style and philosophy of teaching. Sharing my passion for teaching and personal goals as an instructor was affirming and professionally energizing. The Fellowship has allowed me to think more critically about my own teaching and ways to continually improve it.

An unexpected result of receiving the Byron Nichols Fellowship was that it has helped me to make connections with faculty at other institutions who are interested in the personal and professional development of students both in and outside of the classroom.

The grant provided an opportunity for me to think deeply about my teaching and how I connect with students both in and out of the classroom.  I am more at ease taking risks in the classroom and find myself more comfortable and capable of engaging students in the learning process.

Best Practices:

Reverse roles with students and allow them opportunities to teach you (the professor), leaving ample time to discuss the art of teaching and techniques that are engaging any audience.

Create opportunities for personal interaction outside of the classroom (I invited students to my house for a film discussion over Sunday brunch, took students on a field trip to an art studio, spent an afternoon outdoors firing pottery, and organized a retreat at the Kelly Adirondack Center).

Resist the urge to treat the classroom as a place for the presentation of facts, and instead be open to the classroom as a space where active interchange and engaging experiences can create “ah ha” moments and an enthusiasm for the learning process.  This may require letting go of some content, which can be very difficult when one has identified a syllabus packed with learning outcomes!

students in Humanism in medicine course

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Stephen J. Schmidt, Professor of Economics

Inaugural Nichols Fellow 2009-2011

The Fellowship enabled me to address a number of ethical issues related to economic and social policies. For example, students wrote papers on the propriety of affirmative action, protecting interns from exploitation in the workplace (to which many could relate personally), whether the World Bank should encourage activities that create pollution in developing countries, and whether school vouchers are morally acceptable. I assigned a variety of readings dealing with these issues to the students and required them to state and justify their own positions on the topics, which were then the basis for classroom discussion of the issues. In these discussions, I was able to create an environment where students took the risk of committing to a public view on a controversial topic, explained their views to their peers, and engaged in a civil discourse about the merits of their views where those differed.

Best Practices:
Require students to write a short paper explaining their position on an issue and their reasoning, due on the day of the discussion of that issue. This raises the quality of the discussion by allowing students to present a variety of different justifications for positions. From there, the discussion can move to questions about which justifications are more compelling, and what assumptions about the nature of justice underlie each position and its reasoning. This brings students to a much deeper understanding about how policies can be evaluated as “right” or “wrong” choices for society.

Student with Professor Schmidt

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