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campus scene

Never a dull moment Mary Lynn's pedagogy
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On wisdom, gravity, timing, and truth McCormack scholar Bill T. Jones
Newest faculty, newest scholarship 24 new faces
Sportswrap Fall sports highlights

Never a dull moment

"We’ll be discussing Calvin Coolidge. That should be amusing!” enthuses Professor Mary C. Lynn on her way to her American-studies class about the 1920s. While some might question Silent Cal’s amusement factor, no one in Lynn’s class can doubt her delight in discussing the 30th president. She positively twinkles, frequently exclaiming “I love it!” after a juicy story.

Erin Hawrysz photo   
Prof. Mary Lynn (center) leads first-year students and mentors
in some all-American apple-picking to benefit the regional
food bank.

She begins by inviting students to offer the conventional “little red schoolhouse” view—Coolidge as capitalist, a man of few discernible beliefs—but then counters with the little-noted side of him as a vocal supporter of civil rights. “The whole point of that discussion was to understand revisionist interpretations,” she explains later. Asked what she would most like to overhear students saying about her class, she doesn’t hesitate: “That I made them think. What more could you want?” Well, this year she got one thing more: Skidmore’s Ciancio Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Lynn came to Skidmore fresh from the University of Rochester in 1969, as a one-year sabbatical replacement; she was still finishing up her dissertation on American women in the 1920s. “Once I got here I just sort of fell in love with the place, with the town, and with my husband,” she recalls, “and I never left.” In due time, daughters Katherine Clark Amoroso ’02 and Emily Clark ’06 joined the Skidmore family too.

Lynn, who authored Make No Small Plans: A History of Skidmore College and who delights in illustrating class discussions with research trips to Skidmore’s archives, has been on the front lines of the College’s development. She helped devise the women’s studies minor in 1977 and the liberal-studies curriculum in the 1980s, and when the First-Year Experience began its Scribner Seminars in 2005, she volunteered in the first wave, challenging herself as well as her students with a new topic—a cultural history of food in America.

Challenging herself is an essential part of Lynn’s teaching ethic. “I started about 20 years ago taking classes in areas that are not my own,” she says, recalling drawing and watercolor courses she was “lousy at” back in the 1980s, and more recently a 300-level ornithology course that was “so hard.” She is currently wrestling with Hebrew lyrics as a member of the Skidmore Community Chorus. It all gives her an important perspective when one of her students “doesn’t get it,” she says. “Trying to be a student in something I’m not automatically good at and really have to work hard at —I think it makes me a better teacher.”

Lynn begins each course by asking students to write a brief note about their goals for the class, so that she can tweak the material to touch on their particular interests. She stays on campus all day Monday through Friday, to be available to her students. She helps them find their own voices in oral presentations and carefully structured writing assignments. She draws them into class discussion and speaks privately to anyone who doesn’t volunteer; if they’re not comfortable being called on, she won’t insist. “You don’t want to embarrass your students,” she says. “We’re on the same side! They want to learn, I want them to learn.”

Emma Newcombe ’10, who has taken three courses with Lynn, notes, “She doesn’t give up on us easily; if we struggle with answering a question, she pushes us until we arrive at our own conclusion.” Lynn confirms, “I tend not to lecture. I really like asking questions and letting students respond to me and to each other. I learn things from students every year.”

That group-learning format works, says Claire Solomon ’10, who has taken “Born in America” and “The 1950s” with Lynn. “You know that she will be excited about what she is teaching. You also know that much of what you learn will come from your classmates.” Adds Solomon, “There is never a dull moment in a Professor Lynn class. And there is never a class without some sort of Skidmore anecdote—I learned something new about Skidmore’s history each and every day.”

Lynn surely loves to hear that. —KG