Oh, No! A Top 10 List!

Jim Amidon — There have been years in my career at Wabash when the fall semesters dragged on as if they might never end; when the mood of the students was down and winter break seemed like it might never come.
There also have been semesters, like the one that ended last Friday, when the energy, mood, and pace started and finished at a fever pitch. It seems as though I just blinked and football season had come and gone, and suddenly the rich, green leaves in the arboretum were replaced by gently falling snowflakes.
As I sat in my office last Friday afternoon watching students walk across the campus mall after finishing their final examinations, I spent a few minutes thinking about all that happened — all that was accomplished — in the four months since the students returned in August.
I can’t believe I’m crazy enough to attempt this — because I’m likely to leave out so much that I’ll certainly make lots of people upset — but here’s  my top-10 list from the 2009 fall semester (in no particular order):
10) Thirteen incoming freshmen spent 10 days with three professors on an immersion learning trip to Montana and Wyoming — before they had officially registered for classes. Professor David Hadley wove together an incredible freshman tutorial course built around fly fishing — and the sport’s relationship to ecology, politics, and literature.
Those students bonded with one another — and their professors — in an unprecedented way, and the course provides a good model for how we might orient new freshmen to the Wabash experience.
9) Speaking of innovative courses: Martin Madsen’s “mythbusters” physics class set the bar pretty high.
By replacing textbooks and lab manuals with video cameras and YouTube videos, Madsen captured the attention and imagination of his students, who not only learned a lot of physics and math, they became pretty fine filmmakers, too.
8) When the student workers in the Schroeder Career Center put out the call to local businesses, churches, and agencies to attend our Community Fair, more than 90 participants responded. That’s a pretty remarkable number for a town this size, and a great statement to our new students and faculty about the strength of our community.
7) The Sphinx Club came up with an idea in the middle of the fall to hold a Sunday afternoon “Meal on the Mall.” The organizers rallied all of the fraternity cooks, our campus food service provider, Bon Appetit, and a couple of our administrative offices for an all-campus cook-off. Each group brought their favorite dish — and enough of it to feed a few hundred — and a huge segment of the campus came together to dine outside on the mall. Donations were collected and in November, the Sphinx Club gave the Boys and Girls Club a check for $850.
6) The Wabash Theater’s production of the Greek classic The Bacchae was complicated and difficult, but also brilliantly performed, stunningly designed, and beautifully costumed.
5) Roberto Giannini’s Little Giant soccer team opened the season on the road, at night, and against a talented Wheaton College team ranked 23rd in the nation. His young charges gave us all a glimpse of the future with an impressive 3-1 victory.
4) Homecoming brought scores of alumni back to campus, including a reunion of alumni lawyers — four of whom had argued successfully before the Supreme Court. The icing on the cake of that reunion came when the national alumni association named long-time political science professor Melissa Butler an honorary member of the Class of 1985.
3) I’m always amazed at the lengths our professors will go to provide students an immersive experience in and out of class.
This fall, students had the chance to rub shoulders and learn from legendary African sculptor Lamidi Fakeye and award-winning writer Jonathan Lethem — two terrific examples of how our small size can also be a great strength.
2) President Pat White and Dean Gary Phillips announced just last week the tenure promotions of five exciting, creative, and brilliant young teacher-scholars.
Hat’s off to professors Peter Hulen, Amanda Ingram, Tim Lake, Peter Mikek, and Brian Tucker for not just surviving the rigorous review process, but thriving in this unique living and learning environment.
1) What? Did you honestly think number one on a top-10 list would be anything other than Wabash’s 32-19 Monon Bell victory over our arch rivals? The “I will not fail you, coach” battle cry from Matt Hudson epitomized the team’s guts, strength, and spirit.
That top-10 list barely scratches the surface of all the wonderful accomplishments and achievements of the fall semester. And we’re only halfway through what is shaping up to be another incredible year — one worthy of reflection and praise — in the great history of this College.
Take a moment right now and jot down your favorite moments of the fall semester. I have a hunch you’ll struggle to keep it at 10!

The Midnight Munch Tradition

The end of the semester at Wabash brings many certainties… final examinations, lots of time in front of the computer, plenty of research time in the library, and a midnight snack on Tuesday evening to provide a break from what can seem to be endless studying.

A record number of Wabash faculty and staff (numbering over 30 strong) gathered to join the crew from the Bon Appétit food service group on campus to serve the traditional Midnight Munch. A total of 230 students braved the cold and gathered in the Sparks Center around 11 p.m. to enjoy plates full of eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, biscuits and gravy, and even some fruits and pastries. 

View photos from the Midnight Munch here.

For many — both students and servers — the night is not about the food. It’s about the fellowship. Discussions of classes, winter break plans over the holidays, and the successes and struggles of the fall semester took place in the serving line and at each table. For some it was their final meal on campus before heading home for a well-deserved break and some final holiday shopping. For others, it was a quick repast before heading back to the library to go back to work on those last few pages of a paper due in few short hours.

The Gentlemen of Wabash Are Quiet

Jim Amidon — I took a phone call from a Wabash College alumnus on Friday. He asked me how the “gentlemen of Wabash” were doing.
I was a little confused at first then asked, “You mean the students?”
He said, “Yes, the gentlemen of Wabash.”
He’s one of those proud Wabash alums whose fondness and enthusiasm for the students is boundless. And he never refers to them as students; always “gentlemen.”
Well, the gentlemen of Wabash have been quiet, I told him.
Part of it might have been the frigid temps last week, but largely the campus was quiet because the students were busily completing papers and projects, and this morning they begin final exams for the fall semester.
Shortly after I hung up from that phone call Friday, I started working on a summary of the college for a public website. In describing the kind of students we seek, I found myself using phrases like “hard-working young men who thrive when challenged” and who want to “reach their fullest potential.”
About that time it occurred to me that’s why the campus has been so quiet the last week.
About 850 pretty serious students were working incredibly hard to be prepared for the final examinations they will take this week. Professors were holed up in their offices creating new, more difficult tests that will push their students beyond simple rote memorization.
Wabash professors want their students to be able to solve problems using critical thinking skills of the highest level. And the students want the toughest exams possible.
Trust me when I say that’s not all that common in higher education today.
To use an athletic analogy, to be the best team, you have to beat the best teams. Kind of like Wabash quarterback Matt Hudson needing to win the Monon Bell game to finally feel good about his record-setting career.
I take for granted the honor I have to work at a place like Wabash where the standards are so high. No, we don’t have the highest entering SAT scores of our peer group of colleges. But once students are here, they — and their professors — set off-the-chart expectations.
Such high expectations allow the students to get the most of their liberal arts experience while they are here, and prepare them to become leaders in our rapidly changing world.
I don’t mean to claim that this doesn’t happen elsewhere. It does, for sure.
But at Wabash, high standards of excellence are in the water; nobody here “settles.”
Rigor and challenge run through the bloodstream of Wabash students.
Guys here get their adrenaline flowing before the start of a game or race, sure, but also as they prepare to take a test they know will be difficult. This is a community bent on achievement.
Sophomore Kristijonas Paltanavicius just finished directing the Vanity Theater’s Miracle on 34th Street. He presented at a national theater conference in November. He was stage manager of a Wabash play in October. He’s taking five classes. English isn’t his native language.
Gary James is taking five classes. He’s involved in student organizations. He edits the award-winning student newspaper, The Bachelor. He goes to plays, sporting events, and lectures as a campus leader. He’s looking into graduate schools and career options. He’s a finalist for the Teach for America program.
Patrick Garrett, a local kid, is taking a full load of challenging pre-med classes. He’s doing research with a professor. He’s making the Dean’s List every semester. He’s also a really good father of his son, Myca.
These Wabash men are special. And while they are special, they are not unique.
There are hundreds of other “Wabash gentlemen” who are balancing similar levels of challenging coursework and extracurricular activities, while imagining their futures.
Indeed, it’s easy to take for granted what a motivated — and motivational — place Wabash College is.

Learning “the Wabash Way”

Steve Charles—Just got back from a talk about last year’s summer study in Ecuador program—12 students and four faculty members who spent two weeks teaching English as a second language to high schoolers in a rough part of Quito and in the Amazon Rainforest.

You’ll get the stories about the tough work the students completed (and a pretty cool photo of Victor Nava ’10 surrounded by his Ecuadorian students) in the upcoming issue of Wabash Magazine. From what I heard interviewing students and faculty, this “teaching module” may have been the most effective and meaningful iteration of the program thus far. Both for learning a second language, and for learning how to live wisely and humanely in a difficult world.

Today Ryan Bowerman ’11 said, “I learned more Spanish in the classroom teaching English [to Spanish speakers] than I did in the Spanish classroom.” Program Co-Director Jane Hardy believes this service component forces our students to speak the language they’re trying to learn at a much deeper level. She now recommends service work or an internship that gets students working alongside native speakers for those serious about learning a second language.

But what stays with me from the colloquium I just attended was something I couldn’t see in the one-on-one interviews of students and professors I conducted for the magazine story. This noontime presentation was the first time I had seen them all together—these students and faculty who comprised a mobile learning laboratory in Ecuador last summer. (See photos from the session here.) Professor of Spanish and the Program Director Dan Rogers noticed it before I did, of course, and he put it best:

“The subtext here is the learning that happens for both students and faculty when they study abroad together,” Dan said after the question and answer session, during which students and their professors shared some of the funnier and less publicized moments from the trip. They were laughing together, the way fellow travelers do when they’ve been on a journey of many unexpected, sometimes difficult, sometimes wonder-causing twists and turns. The way you laugh when the journey has changed you in good and fundamental ways, sometimes in ways only your fellow travelers understand.

Of course, they told stories on each other, on themselves. I’ll post a couple of photos here that begin to capture the fun of that.

But the good humor was an indicator of something deeper.

“It’s wonderful to watch the way you are all interacting here,” Dan told the group “It’s interesting the ways this shared experience between faculty and students creates this community that persists way beyond the experience itself. It’s cool to see that community reunited here today.”

One of the Powerpoint slides’ for the presentation read “Learning Through Play, the Wabash Way.” The reference was to the two afternoons Wabash students played soccer with the Ecuadorians (they were going to play basketball, but the Ecuadorian students took one look at the tall Americans and said, “Futbol.”)

But this "Wabash Way of Learning" Dan described is something I’ve seen in the laboratory here, as when Professor of Chemistry Scott Feller says, "The best part of the undergraduate experience is when students realize I don’t know the answer to the problem they’re working on."

I just saw it a month ago in Colloquium, as Professor of Psychology Preston Bost and Dan spent an hour and a half “exploring” Augustine’s Confessions one late weekday night alongside 16 seniors.

I read about it on the Wabash Web site last summer, when Professor of Political Science David Hadley and Professor of Biology joined their freshmen in a plunge from a bridge into the Yellowstone River to celebrate a week spent together learning side-by-side.

In the upcoming issue of Wabash Magazine, President Pat White describes a Wabash faculty “willing to stick their hands in the lives of these young men up to their elbows.” That “close engagement” his Strategic Plan proclaims rewards the professor just as it enriches the student. Students become teachers, professors become students, all fellow learners on a formative journey.

This does happen in the Wabash classroom, to be sure. But in these mobile learning communities moving through a world where the environment is so often out of your control, you’re more likely to encounter that leveling, role-reversal,  or co-learning that teaches students they’re not only responsible for their own education, but may be responsible for others, too.

Pat Garrett ’12 described his experience teaching in Ecuador (the first time he’d ever taught) this way: “To me it was an example of what it means to be a Wabash man. Until now, I couldn’t quite grasp the College’s mission statement. But now I get it. It’s something that has to be lived and experienced, and that is what I am doing!”

That’s learning, the Wabash way.

In photos: Ryan Bowerman ’11 enjoys Professor Pittard’s story; Assistant Professor of Teacher Education Michele Pittard; Bowerman tells a story of his own; Josh Johnson ’11