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A Classroom Immersion

Jim Amidon — Spending a couple of days in the Wabash classroom with Details magazine reporter Jeff Gordinier was precisely what the doctor ordered to start the school year. Over two days, we made it to nine different classes taught by Wabash’s newest and most legendary professors. While the goal was to give Jeff a sense of what it’s like to attend a college for men, the experience charged my batteries in a meaningful way.

John Aden took his world history students outside to the Fuller Arboretum, where they broke into a pair of warring armies. Aden didn’t carefully choose the groups; he just split the class in half. He acknowledged that only a handful "had read the text" and knew what to do. For example, archers (who could move five steps when it was their turn) took high ground, naturally, but were too far away to strike. One side filled its ranks with catapults, the other had none. It was a crude display, but it was also quite clear that Aden was making his point about the strategies that went into medieval warfare. If I imagined really hard, I could almost see our guys dressed for a scene in Gladiator. Okay, not really, but it was a cool way to bring the material to life.

Before David Kubiak’s Intermediate Greek course, I asked the students what they thought of their professor. One said, "He terrifies me." Another: "The hardest teacher I’ve ever had." Then, in unison, three guys said, "Probably the best teacher I’ve ever had." When Kubiak came into the classroom, he briefly discussed the quizzes from the previous week. "Don’t you know by now I only give you these quizzes so that you’ll know the things that really irritate me." He then went over the various issues the students continue to get hung up on, that "irritate him." He was, in that 50 minutes, equally tough, challenging, and supportive.

Bill Placher’s Religion in Literature class provided a completely different look at classroom dynamic. I would later learn that the class includes freshmen through seniors, roughly 25 percent of each. And the conversation was amazing. They were discussing John Updike, and while I didn’t know the text, I felt as though I did by the high level of conversation and the way Placher eased it along. Bill’s been in the Wabash classroom a long time, and I doubt any student has ever felt embarrassed in his presence. His classroom is a safe one, where students can express themselves freely.

We dropped in on Greg Huebner’s figure drawing class in the art department on a day when the students were sketching a nude model. What shocked me most was the "all business" approach the students had. If anyone felt uncomfortable in the room, it was either Jeff or me — the outsiders. When the model disrobed, the students started sketching as though it was a disciplined exercise involving a bowl of fruit. This at a college for men!

I never had "Fast" Ed McLean for Constitutional Law, but I gather from most of my Wabash lawyer friends that it was their best training for their careers. Jeff and I sat it on an early morning version of the same class taught by one of McLean’s former students and a practicing lawyer, Scott Himsel ’85. At Wabash, we don’t go in much for adjunct professors, but Himsel was amazing. What he got out of the students at 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning was spectacular; they were well prepared and discussed the day’s Supreme Court case with detail and clarity.

There were other classes, too, that were equally impressive: Steve Webb’s freshman tutorial class during which he had students read aloud their essays and critique one another; Joy Castro’s creative writing class that began with a 10-minute free writing exercise in which Jeff participated; Warren Rosenberg’s freshman tutorial on Men and Masculinity, during which the guys — in sometimes blunt terms — said that "Yes!" men can be friends; and Peter Bankart’s Human Sexuality course where guys, with some discomfort, discussed hormonal problems in women.

What an immersion for our reporter friend and for me. In fact, I think I’ll make such immersion experiences a regular beginning to every semester.

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