—We talk often about how immersion trips recharge and reshape our students’ lives, and rightly so.
I’ve been on two of those trips and seen the changes. I’ve read accounts of them from dozens of students over the years, and I’ve published in Wabash Magazine professors’ reflections on how and why this defining pedagogical approach of early 21st century Wabash is so effective.
When I think of experiences I wish I’d had as a college student, the immersion trip is what comes first to mind.
We talk less often about how immersion trips recharge and reshape our teachers. Yet in many cases, it’s no less true. Read David Hadley’s post to the “Flyfishing: The Liberal Art” blog (when it gets posted this weekend), if you have any doubts. Here’s a teacher nearing retirement who may just be doing the best teaching and learning of his life.
I find his entry—and his class’s symbolic "leap of faith" from the bridge over the Yellowstone River—moving but not surprising. Last week when I photographed David and his class as they worked on their casting skills in front of the Chapel, trying to teach freshmen the basics of flyfishing—this focus on the physical and mechanical rather than intellectual exchange he’s used to leading in the classroom—was already causing him to reflect on his teaching methods.
“You teach something for 30, 40 years and you make certain assumptions,” he told me (and this is a paraphrase) after trying to come up with the words to explain how to cast, then practically miming the technique for the student. “This makes me rethink some of the ways I teach political science.”
That same evening I watched David Krohne, a masterful teacher of biology field work, the original immersion trips, practically throwing himself into instructing these guys in casting, using any way he could—visual, auditory, physical, whatever worked—to help them get better.
Aus Brooks—retired Aus Brooks—was coming at it his own way, having conversations with the students, listening, learning about them, quietly sharing his own thoughts.
Watching three professors teaching flyfishing technique to 12 students in Little Giant Stadium may be an unexpected sight, but the one-on-one attention, the effort, the give and take, is a decent metaphor for the lengths to which Wabash teachers will go to reach their students.
Not to mention the distances they’ll go.
On this one trip, many students had more one-on-one talks, shared discoveries, and laughs with their Wabash professors than students of earlier years had for their entire careers. A road trip with your professors and students, some of whom may just become your friends for life, all the time having your eyes opened to the world around you—how much better can it get? We know how important that’s become for Wabash students today, with all the distractions they face. But Wabash professors are also getting all those interactions, all those conversations, the deep rewards of working, traveling, and learning together. They’re recharging and reshaping each other.
The frequency of this exchange between so many Wabash students and their teachers is one of the reasons I believe today’s Wabash is the best, and for the largest number of its students, that it’s ever been.
I remember watching a similar rejuvenation a dozen or so years ago in another Wabash teacher, Aus Brook’s good friend, chemistry professor Paul McKinney.
In the twilight of his career, of his life too-soon ended, he mentored new professors (then) Charlie Blaich and Scott Feller and others on the Teaching and Learning Committee, and at the same time gained new momentum for his own teaching.
In his final Chapel speech, still recovering from treatments for the cancer that would eventually take his life, he spoke speak passionately on "Love and Language," drawing equally from the Bible, Plato, Galileo, Li Po, Nietzche, Heisenberg, and Max Planck, and wrapping it all up in 20 minutes and receiving a standing ovation from his colleagues, students and professors alike.
In those last years he also gave the most energetic, impassioned talk I’ve ever seen at the Ides of August, the annual event where faculty share their scholarship and reflections on teaching with one another. Standing in the lobby of Salter Hall, using a stretched out Slinky (Professor John Zimmerman holding the other end) to explain something whose meaning seems less important now than the zeal with which Paul explained it.
When I interviewed him that year, Paul told me, “There are two kinds of truth: the cold truth and the hot truth. The cold truth is very dehumanizing; what one needs is warmth of truth in his contact with other in the learning process
“I try to use the metaphor of the fire to start my class. I try to talk about creativity, and it doesn’t have to be in the sciences, it’s sort of a human drive. I think what one tries to do is to work with students so that you’re an advocate for the best that they can give.”
I can’t think of Montana and flyfishing without thinking of Norman Maclean and his book, A River Runs Through It (one of many books Hadley’s class is reading this semester) or the lines made famous by Robert Redford’s film adaptation: "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it."
Or the elegaic final words: "I am haunted by waters."
But reading the writing of students, alums, and David Hadley from this trip, and sitting through yesterday’s Ides of August, where younger professors talked about the ideas, equations, experiments, and art that keeps them awake at night and gets them up in the morning, I thought of Paul McKinney’s fire.
“May the fire always be with you,” he said at the end of that final Chapel talk.
And it is, in ways that Paul would revel in today.