Defying Definition

By Sian Leah Beilock

As an academic, and especially as a scientist, I tend to distill and define everything I encounter. I love Excel charts and labels, data points and statistics. But I also know, from my immersion in the arts and humanities, that if you don’t look past bullet-pointed outlines and step-by-step directions, you miss something—the openness that true creativity requires.

I have now spent the last year at Barnard, and I see this inspired and inventive approach to learning each and every day. This place, our students, and our alumnae often defy easy definition. They adapt to change, forge new paths, and think in unique ways—all of which is a very good thing.

We are certainly living in fast-moving times. Education is changing. Technology is changing. Pedagogy is changing. And the needs of this College are evolving by the minute. As an institution, we have to be flexible, open-minded, and quite simply, ready for anything. This is something that Barnard has always embraced. And this is the reason for The Cheryl and Philip Milstein Center for Teaching and Learning—a building, which opened this fall, that will enable us to respond, nimbly and powerfully, to all that is happening around us. The Milstein Center reimagines how students and faculty learn from each other by crossing and combining disciplines in dynamic, often unexpected ways.

Our students—who come from nearly every state and almost as many countries, from all socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds, and from a wide range of religions and life experiences—insist on a dynamic and fluid approach to education. They are hungry to try new courses and new majors. They push boundaries and honor diversity. They challenge us all daily to rethink old notions and rework old plans.

It is also clear as I get to know you, our alumnae, that Barnard has always drawn students who embrace the challenges and possibilities of their time. Barnard women have historically defied definition. You only need look as far as this issue of the Magazine to understand what I mean.

Take Mae Yih ’51. She left Shanghai just before the Chinese Revolution, and wasn’t able to return home. On route to the U.S., someone mentioned Columbia University and the women’s college across the street, and Barnard became her destination. Yih majored in economics and was the first Chinese American, man or woman, to be elected to a U.S. state legislature. Influenced by then-Dean Millicent McIntosh, who regularly told students to be of service to their communities, Yih volunteered for everything. She said yes to every opportunity, and that openness has shaped her remarkable life.

Margalit Fox ’83 studied at Barnard, learning from the women around her, and later attended SUNY. She earned her master’s at Columbia’s School of Journalism and went to work as a copy editor at The New York Times, beginning in 1994. A decade later, an opening in the obituary section breathed new life into her career, and she has written some 1,400 obits for the paper since. But life has many chapters, and Fox left the job in June to devote herself full time to writing books. I admire both her stellar work at The Times, and her willingness to change gears and focus anew.

And then there is Sharon Dizenhuz ’83 who felt that her life story, with its hardships, didn’t fit with her notion of Barnard and success. Over the years, she had made assumptions about her classmates and their achievements that made her feel like she had let Barnard down. Then, at her 30th Reunion class dinner, after much coaxing and encouragement, she took the floor and revealed how family challenges had put her career on hold—how the choices were tough and the options seemed limited. Her openness was rewarded. Without judgment, her classmates welcomed her honesty and related to her experiences—ones that were more widely shared than Dizenhuz had imagined.

That openness and sense of community are precisely what we are celebrating in The Milstein Center—a building full of possibilities and opportunities that we are only beginning to imagine. It will be thrilling to watch how The Milstein Center changes our community. Physically, it is a stunning structure, connected to Altschul Hall and Claremont Avenue. Philosophically, it is an interactive and dynamic hub, meant to facilitate collaboration and dialogue, and to honor the process of learning by tapping into the latest technologies. Take the Movement Lab as one example—both dance and psychology will use the lab to explore their interest in our bodies, but through different lenses.

Every day there is something new to consider in the wide and increasingly diverse Barnard community and in the world outside our gates. If you spend time with enough amazing Barnard women, you can’t help but see around you with more open and creative eyes. It’s definitely happening to me.