Our students are always involved in study abroad, immersion learning, and other smaller and individual experiences which help them uniquely shape their Wabash education. We’ve recently had small groups of students in Portland, Oregon, and San Francisco, attending conventions.
Student body president Cody Stipes was invited to attend the 2010 American Israel Public Affairs Committee Policy Conference in D.C. Here is his summary of the experience.
Steve Charles—My grandson Myca is the first boy I’ve helped to raise from infancy. I have four sons, but the first died before he was born, and I came to know the other three only after I married their mom and they were 7, 10, and 12 years old by then. Experiencing these first two years with Myca, I regret more than ever that I missed their earlier years. I think I might have treated them with more understanding, been less put off by their surge for independence, better stood by them in their difficult teenaged years.
What prompts this reflection is a recent visit with Professor David Blix. I was walking home late couple weeks ago, noticed the light burning in his second floor Center Hall office, and stopped by to talk (one of the great luxuries of this job.)
At some point the conversation came around to Wabash teachers. David’s not only one of the best, but as a Wabash student he was taught by some of the most revered—men like Eric Dean, Raymond Williams, Hall Peebles, Vic Powell, and Jack Charles. I asked him what he thought were the essential qualities of a Wabash teacher, and David said, “I think, in a sense, one needs to love the minds of students. Here, of course, that means one needs to love the minds of young men.”
His words have been echoing in my mind ever since. In part because he captures so well an essential mindset of teaching in this place, but also because he put into words exactly the characteristic of teachers that caused me to want to be a part of Wabash College soon after I came to work here 16 years ago.
One of the first themes we went after with Wabash Magazine was “Teachers,” and for that edition I interviewed David’s classmate and closest friend, the late Bill Placher ’70. I walked into the office of one of the most nation’s most respected theologians and saw fascinating artwork—a Tibetan woodcut, a painting of Lao-Tzu “riding into the unknown,” a photograph of Bill’s father—but very few items on his wall that hinted at his many books, his extensive work for the Presbyterian church, or his own deep faith. When I mentioned this, Bill said, “I never thought about this much before, but if there were a lot of crucifixion scenes on the walls of this office, there would be less of the kind of space I try to give students.”
Anyone who ever watched Bill teach or had a long conversation with him experienced that safe “space,” that intellectual hospitality that this brilliant mind offered students. They walked away from those conversations thinking more deeply, and having articulated their thoughts more clearly than ever before, because they had been in the presence of a teacher who respected, challenged, enjoyed, and invested a good part of his life in their developing minds.
I’ve seen variations on that same hospitality as I’ve interviewed professors here across the academic disciplines over the years. These come immediately to mind—Professor Scott Feller’s genuine joy in learning alongside his students in research, economics Professor Kay Widdows’ descriptions of traveling with her students in Ecuador, theater Professor Dwight Watson’s praise for the student stage managers he has collaborated with here—and the list could go on and on.
But last week I got to see that respect and hospitality live and up-close. I sat in on Colloquium on Important Books, the course in which seniors discuss great books every Wednesday night with a different two professors for each session. The students run the class, and the professors are guests. These professors volunteer to participate—the class doesn’t count toward their course load. But Professor Brian Tucker ’98, who coordinates the course, says he never has trouble finding teachers. And teachers from Spanish Professor Dan Rogers to psychology professor Preston Bost to math Professor Chad Westphal have told me how they value and enjoy the depth, the seriousness, the humor, and personal growth so evident in those conversations, which often stretch beyond the allotted hour and a half.
It’s a place to see teachers who respect, challenge, and revel in the minds of their students, and to see how students respond when that deep respect, challenge, and enjoyment have been offered to them here for four years.
Last week’s guest professors were David Blix and philosophy Professor Mark Brouwer, who allowed me to photograph the class. Here’s a photo album from that session, along with photos from an earlier session I photographed in the fall. I’ll have some quotes from those sessions in the next issue of Wabash Magazine, but I hope these photos tell a story of their own.
We just had 325-plus prospective students on campus for Honor Scholarship Weekend. If any of them, or their parents, were to ask me why they should consider Wabash over their other college choices, I’d talk about the Gentleman’s Rule, about the opportunity to learn alongside brilliant men and women whose students’ education is their first concern. I’d add that they’ll make friends here that they’ll keep for the rest of their lives, and that they’ll be able to take chances to be the persons they were truly created to be.
But asked to give a single reason, I’ll refer them to the words of Professor Blix and what seems to me a foundational value at Wabash: You’ll have the opportunity to be taught by men and women who have come to love the minds of their students, teachers who love the minds of young men.
In photos (from top): Vincent Tran ’10 listens as classmate Edward Davis makes a point about Lu Xun’s short story, Diary of a Madman, during a Wednesday session of Colloquium on Important Books; Professor David Blix ’70; Mark Thomas ’10
Photos by Steve Charles
Steve Charles—Last week I celebrated Frederic Chopin’s birthday, a first for me.
Didn’t really celebrate, I guess. Just yelled out “Happy Chopin’s Birthday” to Tian Tian ’11, who is the only reason I realized that March 1, 2010 was the 200th anniversary of the great composer and pianist’s birth.
Tian’11 had dropped by my office in January, his first visit since returning from his semester in Paris. (Tian was featured in “Snapshot from an American Dream,” WM Fall 09, where we focused on his internship at the Children’s Museum and his serendipitous summer stay with Bob Wright ’87 and his family (pictured here, looking on as Tian plays the piano in their home).
He returned from France inspired.
That’s the way he described the way he felt when he walked along the Seine River on All Saints Day, November 1, visiting the grave of his musical hero Frederic Chopin.
“The French take All Saints Day very seriously,” Tian told me “Chopin’s grave was practically piled high with flowers.”
I asked Tian if he’d had a chance to practice in Paris for his recital of Chopin’s works this April and I was surprised to hear, “Not much.” One of the reasons Tian was drawn to Paris in the first place was the fact that Chopin had enjoyed one of the most creative periods of his life there. Tian wondered how living in the city, surrounded by the art, the sights, sounds, and smells of a city Chopin loved, might reshape the way Tian played his music.
And that’s when Tian used the word inspired. As soon he returned to Crawfordsville over the break, he headed for the piano to begin practicing again. He said yes, he was a little rusty, but he spent hours just playing and noticed he was playing the Chopin differently, maybe had something different, and more, to give the pieces. His piano teacher noticed, too.
“I think living in that place he loved, walking those same streets, I absorbed something,” Tian told me. “Even though I wasn’t able to play piano as much, I was inspired. And I brought that back with me.”
I picture Tian playing piano in the Fine Arts building while seniors are studying for comps, the whole day his to play the music he loves. I wonder if that playing didn’t transport Tian back to his own time in Paris, too, and the sounds of Chopin take him from the cold C’ville winter back to autumn walks along the Seine. I wonder, too, how the time in Paris will inspire his painting (Tian is an art major, economics minor).
His recital of Chopin’s work is scheduled for Friday, April 9.
Steve Charles—“In his ability to create complex characters and pair them with suspenseful situations, Simmons stands almost unmatched among his contemporaries.”
That’s the last sentence from Publisher’s Weekly’s starred review of Black Hills, the just-published 27th book by Dan Simmons ’70. To go with the starred review his book Drood (more recently chosen among the Top Books of 2009 by Publisher’s Weekly and by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly) received when it came out around this time last year. To go with the starred review his 2007 bestseller The Terror (also named a Top Book of that year by Amazon.com and Entertainment Weekly) received when it came out.
So Dan’s on a roll. But that’s not the reason I’ve been looking forward to the publication of Black Hills more than a year. Sixteen months, to be precise, since Dan was generous enough to let me read drafts of the first 79 typed pages and a section of the amazing vision in Chapter 14. And then left me hanging, wondering the true nature of the “possession” of the main character, Paha Sapa, by the ghost of George Armstrong Custer. Would Paha Sapa as an old man working for Gutzon Borghlum, succeed in blowing up the faces of Mt. Rushmore? Would that act exorcise the ghost? And did the book The World Without Us, which Dan had seemed fascinated by when I last visited, have some role in what I’ve heard is a remarkable final chapter of the book?
But as much as the unfolding events, I was looking forward to hearing Dan’s voice in this book. I know Dan’s reverence (though he might object to the use of that word) for the Black Hills area, his irritation with stereotyped and inaccurate depictions of the Lakota, and there was an intimacy and conviction in the chapters I read that reminded me of what has moved me most in my favorite Simmons works, several of which are among my favorite books, period.
One of the great pleasures of knowing a writer and his work over time is that each new book seems like a journey with a trusted guide. I always look forward to seeing where Dan will take me next, but this time the voice announcing the trip seems even more intriguing. A little like the morning in my teens when my father woke us up and said, “It’s time to go to Hawaii.” He knew we could not even imagine the beauty we were about to see.”
Okay, so Dan’s taking us to the Black Hills, not Hawaii. There’s a ghost, a survivor of genocide, and a likely explosion. So the comparison breaks down. Which is why Dan’s the writer, and I’m not.
But the voice I heard in those first chapters made me want to go along for the ride. Led me to believe I would find something true and numinous, the latter a word I had not recalled until I read this section of Black Hills:
“Numinous, the teacher and poet and historian Doane Robinson tells Paha Sapa, means everyday things charged and alive with spiritual or supernatural meaning surpassing all normal comprehension.
“Paha Sapa almost laughs. He does not tell Mr. Robinson that his—Paha Sapa’s—life had been numinous up until the time it had been taken over by wasichus and the Wasicun world.
“The world of his childhood had been literally alive with unseen meaning and connections and miracles; even the stones had lives and stories. The trees held sacred secrets. The prairie grasses stirred with truths half-heard in whispers from the spirits that surrounded him and his band of natural free human beings. The sun was as real a being as his uncle-father or the other men walking past him in the daylight, the stars over the plains shivered from the breath of the dead walking up there, and the mountains on the horizon watched and waited for him with their revelations.
“Numinous. Paha Sapa almost smiles when Doane Robinson teaches him that wonderful word.”
My favorites of Dan’s works, from Song of Kali and Phases of Gravity to Summer of Night and Winter Haunting to Worlds Enough and Time and Muse of Fire—have been charged with spiritual meaning for me. The pages I read from Black Hills were leading me that direction. So I’ve been anticipating, to put it mildly, the rest for over a year now.
It’s interesting that Dan’s book Black Hills is being published as Wabash welcomes to campus the young writer Benjamin Percy, who describes his own stories as “literary genre.” He elaborates in this interview with PopMatters editor G. Christopher Williams:
“A lot of contemporary “literary” fiction is full of gorgeous metaphors, gorgeous language, with so many stories ending sparkling with epiphanic dew. And along the way, sadly, not much happens. It’s as though authors have lost touch with what made them fall in love with reading: plot, story. And I think there’s something healthy about getting in touch with this again.
“So I’ll take a haunted house story or a Western or a tale of revenge and reinvent it through a literary lens, honoring some of the archetypes and conventions, breaking others over my knee, in an effort to make the reader feel at once moved and entertained.”
Having read some of Percys’ work, I’m really looking forward to hearing more. And the thought of his meeting with our own young writers is exciting.
I’m excited, too, to see the artificial walls between “literary” and “genre” fiction dissolved by artistry and imagination by writers like Percy, Jonathan Lethem (who was here earlier this year), Michael Chabon, and Karen Russell. Beautifully written books with unforgettable characters where something actually happens!
Of course, Dan Simmons has been doing this for years. Which is another reason I’m so looking forward to getting my copy of Black Hills.