Mountaintop project showcases professors who have been at Lehigh for more than 40 years


This summer, a team of three undergraduates and one graduate student began working on a piece of visual archive that explores the stories of professors who have taught at Lehigh for 40 or more years.

Through a Mountaintop project grant, English professor Elizabeth Fifer recruited the team to make her vision, called the 40+ project, a reality.

“I created the project as a kind of oral history,” said Fifer, who is also featured in the project.

The 40+ Project was designed to bring students into dialogue with professors in all four colleges through videotaped interviews. Students explored the changing course of professors’ careers, their challenges and also their achievements throughout their time at Lehigh.

The students involved in the project came up with questions tailored to the professors’ interests and what would have the greatest impact on the future generations of Lehigh. Questions explored the enduring value of teaching, the successive waves of students and courses, how things have changed over time, how Lehigh has continued to develop over the years and what has fueled these professors’ long service to the university.

Featured professors include Sharon Friedman, a professor in the science and environmental writing program and Laura Olson, a professor in the political science department, who both began their Lehigh teaching careers shortly after the integration of women on campus in the 1970s.

“Contrasting my early days at Lehigh with what is happening now reinforced how much Lehigh has changed me for the better, particularly in helping women students and faculty have a major impact on campus life,” Friedman said.

Friedman was able to reflect on the major changes Lehigh has experienced to improve the life-work balance for the female professors on campus.

“Women faculty members don’t have to plan to deliver babies only in the summer, as was the case during my first five or six years here,” she said.

The students involved in the project included Devon Borchetta, ’16, Andina Toscano, ’16, Isabelle McCarthy, ’17, and Avi Setton, ‘16. The students all have backgrounds in English and were able to work collaboratively toward accurately portraying the stories of some of Lehigh’s longest-serving professors. Setton said the Lehigh English department is beginning to embrace the aspect of film and literature and its applications in telling stories.

Some of the students participated in a class taught by Fifer where they combined film and literature, which gave them a foundation to complete the project. All of the students had a working knowledge of film editing as well as interview skills.

As an incoming teacher for the spring semester in the American studies department, Avi Setton was able to see what his future could hold as an future educator.

“The most interesting thing was to see to see the gratification that you get at the end of your career,” Setton said. “Something that resonated with me the most was something that was said by Professor Laura Olson: that teaching allowed her to be a good student forever.”

Students described the 10-week process as very rewarding, although challenging. The 10 weeks were primarily spent emailing professors, scheduling interviews and recording. The students said they struggled with trying to schedule and edit the footage in a timely matter. They’re now working on editing the footage and hoping for a release date in early October.

“It’s a piece of preservation, which is huge,” Setton said. “There’s nothing visual like this that’s been documented at Lehigh. It was interesting to see Lehigh’s history and how far Lehigh has come.”

The team is hoping the project will have a huge impact on the Lehigh community and that everyone will have a chance to see how it has grown over several decades.

“I hope the Lehigh community gets to know more about these professors that have been such huge staples at Lehigh over the years,” McCarthy said.

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