About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member every two weeks — same questions, different answers.
Claudena Skran, the Edwin & Ruth West Professor of Economics and Social Science and professor of government, has been one of Lawrence University’s leading international scholars over the past three decades.
Sierra Leone has been a particular focal point for Skran, researching and teaching on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the 10-year civil war and post-conflict peace-building in Sierra Leone, and refugee entrepreneurship.
The 1983 Rhodes Scholar has visited Sierra Leone nearly 20 times since first going there in 2005 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar. Dozens of Lawrence students have accompanied her and participated in various research projects.
Her work often tackles international relations, social entrepreneurship, sustainable development, and African and European politics.
Skran, who joined the Lawrence faculty in 1990, has served as a consultant for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
She holds a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and Master of Philosophy and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Oxford University.
We caught up with Skran to talk about her passions in and out of the classroom.
In the classroom
Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?
I want each of my students to know that I think of education as an adventure. Whether we are sitting in a classroom in Briggs Hall or gathered in an African village, my students and I are on a voyage together. Our journey always starts with what is familiar and known, and it moves into areas that are much less so. There will be challenging questions, unexpected lessons, and surprising results, but along the way we will find both excitement and fun. Much of what we learn together will not be on the starting syllabus; instead deeper understanding will emerge as we travel together.
Getting energized: What work have you done or will be doing at Lawrence that gets you most excited?
I love the point in a class or a course when everything “clicks.” This happens when a lecture point hits home, a discussion question takes on a life of its own, or when the students on a travel course all start to work together.
Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you that took you by surprise?
I first went to Sierra Leone as a Fulbright Scholar in October 2005. When I arrived, I thought that I would have a productive sabbatical, but I didn’t realize how much my life afterwards would change. Since then, I’ve worked as a consultant for the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, and collaborated with a global group of scholars studying refugees, women, and entrepreneurship. In addition, I have taught new courses on African politics and security, brought almost 200 Lawrence faculty and students into “traveling classrooms” in West Africa, and started the KidsGive scholarship program. In early March, I acted as the faculty guide for an alumni tour to Ghana, the first ever to an African country. One of the most meaningful parts of the tour was when the group visited the Cape Coast Castle, a former slave fort, and we left a memorial plaque from Lawrence University. Fifteen years ago, I did not expect to help create these deep connections between different parts of the Lawrence community and West African peoples and countries.
Out of the classroom
This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?
I have always thought of myself as both a teacher and a scholar. In regard to teaching, I am a strong believer in the value of experiential learning outside the traditional classroom. These kinds of experiences spark personal growth in young people, help them use the knowledge they already have, and give them direction and confidence to reach further. I hope that I will always be able to share my perspective with learners, even if I am not a full-time faculty member. But in answer to the question of what I would do if I weren’t teaching, let me just say that I have a few unfinished writing projects (both fiction and non-fiction) to complete. So, if I have any spare time, I plan to work on them, in this life rather than an imagined one, preferably in a scenic location.
Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?
Main Hall Green. The green is beautiful no matter the time of year. It always pleases me to know that generations of students and faculty have enjoyed sharing it. I especially like the sign that mentions Lawrence was the first coeducational institution in the state of Wisconsin.
One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?
My taste in music is a very mixed bag, and contains such disparate things as hymns (“Amazing Grace”) and rap (Flo Rida) as well as ’70s ballads (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”). Maybe a common thread is an inspirational transcendence; Mr. Mister’s “Broken Wings” and Damien Marley’s “There for You” are two of my favorites.
Film is Knives Out, for the sheer fun of it.
The book is Soft Power (2004) by Joseph Nye. It is still well worth reading. It offers the important lessons that ideals are a key source of power, and American values—not simply military might—helped the U.S. to win the Cold War.