New Dean of Faculty Talks Education, Accessibility, and Hum 110

The Quest had the great pleasure of sitting down with Professor of Psychology Kathryn C. Oleson, who was selected to become Reed’s Dean of the Faculty starting next semester.

Courtesy of Reed Magazine

Courtesy of Reed Magazine

Oleson was raised as one of eleven children in a suburb of Kansas City, before she ventured to the University of Kansas as a prospective education major. As a sophomore in college, she took a social psychology course and found exactly what she was looking for. She went on to study social psychology at Princeton University where she met her husband, and the Ph.D. advisor who ended up officiating their marriage. While she ended up studying social psychology, it is clear that her original passion for education survived through three institutions of higher education, driving her to become Reed’s Chief Academic Officer.  From directing the Center for Teaching and Learning to mentoring students on their theses, it is clear that education and how to do it best still weighs heavily on the soon-to-be Dean’s mind.

During her time at Reed, Oleson has carried herself as a teacher-scholar, making the role of the Dean of the Faculty a natural fit. She sees Reed as a place where professors have incredibly high expectations, and she described Reed’s mission as a question of “how we give students the resources to be able to meet the expectations of the professors.” Central to this mission is finding and filling student gaps in understanding, from learning about advising to not understanding how to use office hours. Oleson also spoke about having high expectations, but being equitable about it — making sure that the struggle is productive. She reflected that productive discomfort springs up when the material is hard, not when it’s expressed in a way that is difficult to understand. 

Oleson spent the summer before her appointment writing a book. This book centers on nationally conducted research around inclusive classroom dynamics and how best to have difficult conversations with professors and students in the classrooms they share. Through the course of writing her book, and conducting the research that populates its pages, Oleson has come to realize how many commonalities exist between the way students and professors are thinking about the classroom. As she reflected more deeply, she constructed the image of everyone at Reed — student, staff, faculty — all coming together to “make the best education for students.”

When Oleson was asked about her role as the Dean of the Faculty, she touched on accommodations and the importance of helping faculty understand accommodations. Accommodations are a part of the academic mission of providing as equitable an education as possible, and therefore, helping students and faculty understand each other benefits everyone. 

Oleson will be the first Dean of the Faculty in this millennium to not have taught in Hum 110, something she has considered since her candidacy. While Oleson has never taught in Hum, she has felt the effects it has had on her students’ writing and critical thinking skills in her upper division courses. She is considering many different aspects of Hum and the new curriculum, from how suggestions are brought up, to who is able to bring them, and how healthy resolutions can be reached. Over the course of the interview, speaking with the closest stakeholders for a given issue was a consistent theme. Oleson reflected that, “Hum 110 is an important part of all of our lives at Reed. ”

As we went through the course of the interview, Oleson reflected on her 25 years as a faculty member with a deep commitment to the student experience, and what it means to leave the classroom for a little while. She is considering taking a short break from teaching classes after this spring. She is working towards getting a better foundation in place to understand her role as a dean. Her first month of the semester was spent learning about the administrative side that faculty don’t see: Vice President meetings, senior staff meetings, learning about computing, and the reactor, all part of the Dean’s list of responsibilities. She anticipated that there would be this learning curve on the administrative side, but realizing what she has to learn on the academic side has come as a surprise. A big part of this has been trying to broaden her perspective on academic policies in order to be a better Dean during the Committee for Academic Planning and Policy meetings. Oleson wants to be able to say more as she becomes Dean. Being able to sit deeper into her opinion as she becomes more comfortable in the job, Oleson wants to be open now, at the beginning of her time as Dean of the Faculty, in order to learn the most later.

As she reflected on the parts of the job that she is looking forward to, the Quest inquired about the job she’d be leaving behind. From the way she speaks about the thesis process, it’s not difficult to see how she considered each of the 96 theses she has advised not as simply words on a page, but as people, many of whom are still present in her life. Her quest to help students learn over the last two and a half decades seems fitting given the book she’s just written, President Audrey Bilger’s arrival, and the continued campus conversation around the student success initiative. Through all of the change so close at hand, Oleson reflected that the core of her life won’t change much: she’s still going to walk her dog and attend her son’s cross country meets.

Fittingly, Oleson doesn’t have a single specific favorite memory of her time at Reed. Rather, the whole collection of memories is her favorite. After 25 years in the classroom, the little moments are what stick out most. When the Quest asked Oleson what kind of Dean she wanted to be, she responded with a desire to be a part of the fundamental fabric of Reed, and to do so inclusively. She wants to be described as a Dean who “was true to what I thought was the fundamental learning at Reed, and getting rid of some of the barriers that are stopping people from getting to that. That I’m true to the idea of Reed.”

A story Oleson told exemplifies this desire. She recounted the tale of being worried about coming to Reed, about being the only social psychologist in a department full of people studying other types of psychology. She reflected on how, during her time at Ohio State, a group of social psychologists would fill her small apartment whenever they were able to muster. Now, having forged connections with friends, colleagues, and students at Reed, she has decided to take the next step of being the only psychologist in a land full of administrators. It’s hard to think that Oleson won’t do as well as the Dean of the Faculty as she has done elsewhere at Reed.

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