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Learning: Oh, For the Joy of a Fourth-Grader!


Most people would probably agree that the standard recipe for joy does not include long division and a written essay.

But Melinda Mueller's 10-year-old daughter, Katie, might beg to differ.

Mueller, a political science professor at Eastern Illinois University, remembers seeing her daughter step off a school bus last spring and begin jumping joyously into the air. When questioned about the origin of her good mood, Katie told her mother about her day's successes in long division and on an essay she'd written about Martin Luther King Jr.

"And since that day," Mueller said, "I've thought about how wonderful it would be if all of us could jump in the air like a fourth-grader over something we've learned during the day."

As Eastern's 2008-09 Faculty Laureate -- the university's official spokeswoman on the importance of a general liberal arts education -- Mueller hopes to promote her idea to students of all majors.

"A liberal arts education is a concept so embedded in my mind that it is difficult for me to imagine higher education in another form," Mueller said. "I want to do my part to promote intellectual curiosity. I want our students to not be ashamed of wanting to learn.

"I want them to take the best advantage they can of their opportunities to explore the unknown, and not just know what they need to learn for a test."

Mueller recalled that she was "blessed with parents who said go out and learn whatever you want to learn."

And she did just that.

"I did not attend college to choose a major or a career, but, rather, to learn," Mueller said. "I loved my political science major, but I also adored my English minor, and consumed classes from other disciplines with gusto."

At Eastern, Mueller teaches both Honors and traditional sections of "American Government." She acknowledged that some students adamantly proclaim in the beginning that they "don't like political science and that they don't want to be a politician."

She tries hard to help them realize that government is important to all their lives, no matter what their major. Education majors, for example, often take special interest in No Child Left Behind legislation.

Another student, Mueller recalled, did research on laws that govern paintball and its safety standards. "It was a special interest of his and it turned out to be a really cool paper to read," she said.

She has established three broad goals for her undergraduate students.

"First, I want my students to build critical thinking and writing skills," she said. "It is important that my students learn how to think and write about a problem then simply to memorize the 'right answer.'

"Second, I encourage intellectual curiosity; the joy of learning can get crushed when students focus on standardized testing and memorization. With intellectual curiosity, students can be life-long learners, able to more easily adapt to changing environments and society."

And finally, "I want students to recognize their role as global citizens. While no tool exists to create 'good' citizens, a liberal arts education plays a significant role. Whether my students get involved in service learning or write essays envisioning their future civic life, my hope is (that) they consider voting, volunteering, socializing their children or even running for office."

Mueller's first official act as this year's faculty laureate will be to deliver the keynote address at this year's fall Convocation, set to take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 2, in the Grand Ballroom of the MLK Jr. Union. The faculty laureate is chosen by Eastern's Council on Academic Affairs.

Mueller said she is humbled by the honor and by the praises of her fellow faculty members who nominated her.

"I am delighted to be on the faculty at Eastern, where our general education program represents the ideals of a liberal arts education," she said. "General education is not a useless set of courses to plow through, simply to pursue a major. Learning in general education courses is essential for learning in the major or minor, and essential for life-long learning and citizenship."



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