Jim Amidon — Wabash College held its annual “Awards Chapel” last Thursday night. I’ve attended well over a dozen of them during my time at the College, and each year it’s a remarkable event.
It’s also pretty formal. Students who will receive prestigious academic awards are invited to attend by the Dean of the College, as are their parents. Faculty and staff presenters sit on stage, while a crowd of about 500 lines the pews.
President Pat White welcomes everyone to the Chapel. Last Thursday, he even joked a bit about how formal the event is — and inefficient. He said it would be far easier to simply email congratulations to the award winners and post their names on the website.
“But that’s not Wabash,” he said.
And so began the evening. Department by department, faculty came to the lectern to announce the awards they were giving, what makes the awards special, and the names of the winners. The crowd applauded the students as their names were called and again after they had their photographs taken.
As President White announced at the start, the process continued — inefficiently — for the next two hours. It’s the inefficiency that makes it a wonderful and genuinely Wabash event.
We take the time to provide background about the awards that are presented; to talk for a moment about the person whose name is on the award; and we celebrate each student, one by one, for his accomplishments — applauding twice and capturing photos of each student.
Awards Chapel is yet another in a long line of wonderfully inefficient Wabash traditions that I love so much.
I also love the presentation of the penultimate award of the evening. Just prior to Dean Mike Raters’ presentation of the Mackintosh Fellows, Dean of the College Gary Phillips takes to the lectern to announce the winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Award for Excellence in Teaching.
At a College like Wabash that so values excellence in teaching, receiving the MMA Award is a very, very big deal. It’s akin to picking the MVP of the All-Star game.
In keeping with tradition, Dean Phillips kept the crowd waiting until the very end of his citation to reveal this year’s recipient, referring to him as “our winner” throughout his presentation. Dean Phillips then announced that long-time Professor of Classics Joseph Day is this year’s winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold Excellence in Teaching Award.
“Our winner enjoys the reputation of being a superb lecturer, able to turn a phrase, focus an argument, and condense in a most succinct way the central meaning, the nub, of a text or event or cultural moment,” Dean Phillips said when he announced the award. “One graduating senior, who is not a major in our winner’s department, confided to me in his senior exit interview that he so enjoyed our winner’s lectures that he would walk over to Detchon on the way to his Hays Hall lab just to stand in hallway outside the classroom and listen.”
I regret never having Joe Day for a classics course. I’ve had the honor of listening to him lecture a few times over the years — either invited lectures or just eavesdropping while taking photographs. He is an amazing scholar and captivating teacher. He is worthy of the award as this year’s “MVP” of our All-Star teaching faculty.
Professor Day has a long and illustrious resume that includes several books, journal articles, and original research on Greek epigrams.
“As described by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the epigram is, ‘A dwarfish whole; its body brevity, and wit its soul,’” Dean Phillips said. “For those of us familiar with our winner’s manner — whether in faculty or committee meeting, in colloquia or Ides talks, in candidate job talk or casual conversation on the mall — we see an alignment of scholarly interest and personal style: brevity, witty soul, and, of course, the omnipresent bow tie.”
I think Dean Phillips captured perfectly what makes Joe Day “the epitome of the Wabash teacher/scholar,” as he put it.
In his 27 years on campus and here in Crawfordsville, Professor Day has demanded the very best from his students. Most Wabash students want their professors to be tough and critical, bringing out their true intellectual potential. Joe Day does that as well as anyone, and does so with sophistication and exacting detail.
For an archeologist and scholar of classical civilization, it is in the details where one finds meaning. As Dean Phillips said so eloquently of Professor Day, “Attention to details instills a habit of mind that opens students up to the unexpected, to the bigger questions.”
Awards Chapel couldn’t have finished on a higher note. There — at an event introduced as both celebratory and inefficient — we honored an excellent teacher for his outstanding and, yes, inefficient teaching style, which for nearly three decades has brought out the very best in his students.