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Another last-minute innovation-fund proposal

Topics/tags: Grinnell, things I was writing already

Two days ago, I shared my draft Innovation Fund proposal to support a more humanistic approach to evaluating Grinnell’s Individually Advised Curriculum. Those of you who read my most recent set of sabbatical plans may recall that I had planned to write a second Innovation Fund proposal that focuses on Convocation. After posting those plans, I was contacted by a group of others who had similar thoughts. We ended up having a series of discussions [1] about the idea and, along the way, found that a variety of concerns were raised. And so we planned to drop the issue, at least for now.

However, once I finished the draft of my first Innovation Fund proposal, I decided that I really do care enough about changing Scholars’ Convocation that I considered it appropriate to write a Planning proposal for that project. Such a proposal would permit more substantive discussions of the complications and might give us some directions forward. It helped that last Thursday’s Convocation was wonderful [1].

Unfortunately, my thoughts were less coherent for this proposal; I wish I’d had the chance to get my collaborators to read, correct, and contribute. However, as I noted in the prior case, it’s often better to submit and fail than not to submit at all [2].

Name of Project Lead:

Samuel A. Rebelsky

Email of Project Lead:

Project Lead’s role at Grinnell:


If there are co-proposers for the project, list each name/email/role at Grinnell:

[I have some, but I’m not sharing them in the musing.]

Submission Type:

A Pilot project implements an innovative idea. It is evaluated for success based on goals and measurements as determined by the project lead. Pilot projects can apply for up to three years of funding.

A Planning project investigates whether a certain innovative idea is feasible before the actual implementation. Planning projects are limited to one year of funding.

Planning project (1-year)

Focus Area of Project (may choose up to 2):

Curricular Innovation

Short Title: (In a few words, what is the title of your project?)

Recentering Scholars’ Convocation

What is the amount of funding that you are seeking? (List dollar amount for each year. Pilot project annual limit is 50,000. Planning project limit is 10,000.)


Abstract: (Up to three sentences, please.)

Scholars’ Convocation plays (or should play) a central role in a Grinnell education. However, over the past few years, several factors have led to declines in both the number of offerings and in regular attendance at Convocation. We propose a planning workshop to investigate two approaches to recentering Scholars’ Convocation: a return to weekly Convocations and a Co-Convocation Course.

Project Description:

(What is the project? Include the significance and potential impact of the project, how the project relates to teaching and learning, and the institutional support, equipment or physical resources needed for your project to succeed.)

Forty years ago, then-President George Drake instituted the tradition of Scholars’ Convocation at Grinnell. Although Grinnell had had some regular lecture series, as well as an earlier tradition of religious convocations, Scholars’ Convocation instituted a new approach to lectures on campus. With the institution of the No Requirements Curriculum a decade earlier, Grinnell students had lost the experience of having some common intellectual heritage, a set of readings or pieces of knowledge shared among all or most students.

Scholars’ Convocation was intended to address this issue. Scholars’ Convocation talks intentionally addressed a broad audience. In addition, no other events were allowed to be scheduled at the same time as Convocation. As a regular opportunity for the campus to come together for an intellectual purpose, Scholars’ Convocation could expose students to a broad range of topics and, because the experience was common, give them an opportunity to employ that broader knowledge in their other academic endeavors.

Unfortunately, today’s Scholars’ Convocation series no longer achieves those important and lofty goals. Many factors contribute to the change. First, about fifteen years ago, the Faculty voted to reduce Convocation from twelve or so meetings per semester to only six. This year, we have only four in the fall and five in the spring. The infrequent offerings make it less likely that students remember to attend Convocation; when Convocation is weekly, they know (or should know) that there’s an event to attend. Second, a scheduling experiment temporarily moved Convocation from 11am on Thursdays to lunchtime; that change led to a drop-off in attendance that has continued through the reinstatement of Thursday convocation. Third, the number of events on campus has increased significantly, limiting the time many members of the campus community feel they have available to attend Convocation. Unfortunately, unlike Convocation talks, which are designed for a broader audience, these additional events are often more narrowly focused. Fourth, although the general prescription against offering events in conflict with Convocation remains, some offices on campus flaunt that prescription. For example, SEPC training was scheduled at the same time as this year’s opening Scholars’ Convocation.

In this project, we propose to explore ways to re-center Scholars’ Convocation in the Grinnell Curriculum. As we have noted, Scholars’ Convocation has the potential to expose the Grinnell community to a broad range of disciplines and perspectives in such a way that the knowledge gained from Convocation can inform other learning and discussion on campus.

We suggest two initial approaches to achieving these goals. First, we would like to investigate mechanisms by which Scholars’ Convocation could return to a weekly event. The proliferation of events on campus suggests that we should not simply add more talks. Rather, we would prefer to consider ways to incorporate in the Convocation series a variety of other regular talks that are intended for a broad audience, including the Writers@Grinnell series, talks from the performers in the Grinnell Events series, some of the distinguished lectures on campus (e.g., the Chemistry department’s Danforth Lecture and the Classics Department’s McKibben Lecture), a repeat of the annual Faculty Lecture, and departmental lectures that can be addressed to a general audience.

Second, we propose to develop a one- or two-credit Co-Convocation seminar that allows students to build upon the weekly Convocation series. In this seminar, students will read and discuss papers related to upcoming Convocation topics and then debrief after Convocation on both the papers and the talk itself.

It might also be possible to develop a seminar that employs Convocation very differently: Rather than focusing on the content of each Convocation, participants in this seminar might focus on the presentation styles of the different speakers, reflecting on strategies, strengths, and weaknesses. In Grinnell’s post-graduation surveys, alumni regularly report that they would have appreciated deeper grounding in presentation skills. A Convocation-based seminar might help address that issue.

Because there are many complexities associated with both the broadening of Convocation and the addition of Convocation-related seminars, we suggest that we begin with a Planning project. Our focus will be on a summer faculty/staff seminar in which we explore the goals of Scholars’ Convocation, review the past few years sets of events at Grinnell, propose ways to build weekly Convocation, and design the seminars.

Strategic Goals:

(How would this project contribute to the success of one or more of the College’s six strategic goals? They are Teaching and Learning; Learning Spaces; Enrollment; Post-Graduation Success; Alumni Engagement; and Financial and Human Resource Management.)

This project aligns most closely with Teaching and Learning. It provides a first step in restoring Scholars’ Convocation to the center of a Grinnell education and providing a structure that permits Grinnell students to receive common exposure to a multitude of disciplines.

Diversity and Inclusiveness: [11]

(How does the project contribute to a college community that maintains a diversity of people and perspectives as one of its core values?)

This model of Scholars’ Convocation intentionally exposes students to a variety of perspectives. We will also consider other mechanisms by which weekly Convocation and the Convocation seminars can contribute to diversity and inclusion.

Learning objectives and measurable outcomes:

As this is a planning project, we do not anticipate a deep assessment process. Our primary objectives are (a) a proof of concept that a weekly Convocation is possible (e.g., through modeling a past year at Grinnell) and (b) draft syllabi for one or two Co-Convocation seminars.

Describe why the project is innovative and its suitability for the Innovation Fund:

(Why is the proposal uniquely suited to the stated goal of the Innovation Fund rather than other funding sources? Also include risks/challenges and how they may be addressed.)

As noted above, Scholars’ Convocation provides an opportunity to give our students (and the broader campus community) a common set of intellectual experiences. As such, it coheres with the primary goals of the Innovation Fund. There would be a possibility of funding through the Summer Workshop budget; however, workshops funded through that model likely focus more directly on the building of skills or knowledge among participants.

The greatest risk/challenge in the project is the question of whether we can develop a model that (a) will not add significantly to the number of events offered on campus and (b) will encourage people to attend.

Describe the project lead’s qualifications (and co-leads if applicable):

Professor Rebelsky has been on the faculty of Grinnell College for over twenty years.


Budget breakdown:

Provide a list of budget items, their estimated costs, and totals for each year of the project. Option: Instead of entering all the budget information in this application form, you may (1) email an itemized budget to, and (2) enter will send by email in the field below.

Summer workshop: Three days, approximately fifteen participants and two leads. $10,000.

I know that this is not up to my normal standard of writing or thinking. Apologies to my co-leads!

[1] I’ll likely write a little bit about it in a few days.

[2] Submitting does add a burden to the members of the Innovation Fund Committee. If I didn’t think the project was worthwhile, I would not have made the effort. I hope that they can deal with a less-well-articulated proposal.

[3] In person and email.

Version 1.0 of 2019-09-29.