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A Note of Thanks to Our Teachers

My youngest son was a pole vaulter, and there was a point in his trajectory at which he seemed to defy gravity.

“You should see yourself,” I would say. “You were flying!”

My son’s response to such praise was a litany of things that had gone wrong, needed improvement, things he could have done better.

Some of us have a built-in resistance (or distrust?) of praise.

But my words came back to me on Thursday as my colleagues in Public Affairs and I wrapped up three days of photographing Wabash professors and their students as they worked together.

You should see yourselves.

You should see the intensity of Martin Madsen’s eyes as he engages his students in physics; the way Bobby Horton (talk about intensity!) shifts from one learning mode to the next to make sure his students understand a point; Dan Rogers quieting a normally talkative student and pointing to one more reserved who needs to learn to articulate his views; Maureen McColgin moving so fast you can’t keep up with her in lab as she answers students’ questions and brings them materials they needed; Larry Bennett’s love for the music as he guides his class through a symphony; Bob Foote taking time before class to help a student struggling with multi-variable calculus; Tobey Herzog drawing out student insights as he walks them through books whose authors he has interviewed, whose work he so clearly knows and respects.

Yeah, some of the guys were sleepy. A few were sick. Discussion doesn’t always go as hoped, the enthusiasm less than a teacher hopes for. The real world of fallible human beings.

But for so many, the teacher’s respect for the material, mastery of the subject, and commitment to giving these guys something worth holding on to, professionally or personally, breaks through.

And it’s contagious.

I think of Professor Madsen’s physics class, a student at the board writing out an equation with artful elegance. I remember another student in Professor Foote’s class asking “the next question” about an equation, pushing the example, and Bob’s smile as he admitted the equation didn’t really work in that particular application.

I’m a math idiot, but I know beauty and learning when I see them. That’s what Howard, Jim, and I saw these three days. Wabash is an engine of teachable moments, and watching that spark jump the gap over and over fires us up. Writing about them and photographing them is a great “job.” Writing to help that engine keep running, even more rewarding.

“Welcome to our lab,” Paul LePlae told me when I showed up late on Tuesday and things weren’t going exactly as he’d planned in class that day (which, by accident, gave me a chance to see just how good he is.)

“Thank you for visiting with us,” Agata Szczeszak-Brewer told me after skillfully leading her students through Joyce’s short stories, even though my presence had the potential of being a disruption to class discussion.

Thank you for allowing us to visit, for putting up with three guys lumbering about your classrooms with cameras.

In the end, there’s no way photographs can†do justice to what you do. That’s something only you and your students know. But in at least a few of the photos, I hope you can see in your colleagues and students the fire that burns in this place. For those of us who have worked outside of academia, it’s something we never take for granted. So much learning at such a pace is amazing to watch.

Some folks say that teaching is a lot like walking a tightrope, but you were flying.

You should see yourselves.


Click here for some photos from Day 3.

In photo: Professor Martin Madsen


A Taste of Farm Living

Steve Charles—On a cold, windy spring day in 2003 I was visiting Professor Scott Feller’s farm when I noticed an odd-looking contraption with cranks and buckets in the laboratory-clean ‘tack room’ of his barn.

"That’s the cider press we just ordered," Scott said, pointing out the little black plaque that read: "Specially handcrafted for Scott and Wendy Feller, Happy Valley Ranch, Paola, Kansas."

Both Scott and Wendy grew up on farms in Oregon—Scott’s dad was a dentist, so his was more of a hobby farm. But Wendy’s family were large-scale farmers. So soon after Scott arrived to teach chemistry at Wabash, the couple had bought this property as a place for their family to work and relax together and stay in touch with the values and pleasures Scott and Wendy had grown up with.

The cider press was a way to extend that a bit, Scott said. He talked about his and Wendy’s notion of inviting friends, and colleagues out to the farm some autumn afternoon to get the feel and, literally, a taste of the Indiana countryside.

So last week, when I received an invitation to a "Cider Squeeze" at the Feller Farm on Sunday, I just had to see how this now annual event had turned out.

It was sweet and refreshing as a gulp of cider on a gorgeous fall day.

About 50 plus friends of Scott, Wendy, and their kids stopped by, transforming one pasture into county fair-like parking lot, mixing their conversation with the occasional bleats and baahs of the farm’s goats and sheep.

Scott and Professor Charlie Blaich, longtime friends who have collaborated on various projects at Wabash (including the first Celebration of Student Research and Creative work), grilled lamb burgers over flames that only occasionally got out of control (like most Feller/Blaich collaborations!).

And master chef and Professor Rick Warner wisely stepped back and took it all in.

Younger kids tossed apples into the chute while older kids—and, later, Scott and Professor Dan Rogers—worked the press. And the rest of us talked with other guests, wandered the farm, pet the goats, sheep, or Hannah the Morgan horse.

It was a relaxing, wonderful time, bringing together the Fellers’ 4-H, Crawfordsville community theater, school, and Wabash friends. This little farm intended to introduce their kids to the work, values, and pleasures of the family farm has enriched their friends’ and colleagues lives, too. And there’s even a touch of Wabash heritage there—Professor Emeritus of Chemistry Roy Miller’s old Ford tractor still works the land here.

Click here for a few photos of the afternoon.

Thanks, Scott, Wendy, Amanda, and Jake.

Photo above: Jake Feller works the cider press.


Bringing Back Brunch

Change the eggs and cooking utensils to acid solutions and beakers, and this photo from the Delt house kitchen could be a chemistry lab.

But that’s history professor (and former professional chef) Rick Warner, introducing members the Wabash Cooking Club to a tradition he thinks deserves to be brought back.

"I’m very excited to see the cooking club take off," Rick told me when I asked what brought him back into the kitchen with the 30-plus Wabash students who showed up for the weekly meeting Sunday. "I was thrilled when [club president] Robert Van Kirk asked me to make this presentation to the club, because I never completely left the kitchen world when I came to academe. I love to cook and I love bringing that joy to others, as my children will tell you."

"I decided to teach eggs benedict because brunch is a meal that fell out of favor in the 90s, probably because the notion of sleeping in and then consuming major quantities of saturated fats with champagne does not fit with the expectation of a more physically fit lifestyle" Rick laughed. "All things in good measure, though. Every gentleman should know how to make a good hollandaise sauce."

Living on Wabash Avenue across from campus, Rick and his wife, Kerri, frequently host students, faculty, and staff in their home. Their hospitality and Rick’s cooking prowess are well known on campus. But seeing him pass along those social and culinary skills to students is even better.

And the students in the club—from practically every living unit on and off campus—are into it.

"I’m going to be out on my own soon, and I need to learn how to cook††some time," Lambda Chi Matt Kraft ’09 told me when I asked him why he joined the club: To eat or to cook?

"I’m here for it all," senior independent Nate Mullendore told me. "I live off campus, so I cook for myself, and I wanted to learn more."

"I’m hear so I can learn to cook," freshman Delt Elliott Allen laughed. "And to impress the ladies!"

Rick will be teaching a freshman tutorial next fall entitled "Food and the Liberal Arts," where students will study food from a variety of scholarly angles: history, politics, chemistry, culture.

If Sunday’s Cooking Club presentationis any indication of interest, attendance shouldn’t be a problem.

—Steve Charles

In photo: Nate Mullendore ’07 and Mike Wartman ’09 learn how to prepare Eggs Benedict during Sunday’s Cooking Club meeting.

Click here for more photos.


Love…and a bit with a dog

Steve Charles—So this pug wearing a dress walks onto campus with a Scotty wearing a rented tux.

"What’s the news hook?" my colleague Howard Hewitt asks, uncharacteristically skeptical.

"Howard, the dog is wearing a dress," I say.

"And?"

"I took a picture of them in front of the chapel."

"And?"

"And…the pug made the dress himself."

"How does this advance the mission of Wabash College?" my boss Jim Amidon asks.

"Are you blind, Jim?" I say, barely able to restrain my frustration. "That Scotty is a screaming metaphor for the Gentleman’s Rule."

"NO!"

But Jim and Howard are in meetings right now, so here you go—just in time for Homecoming Weekend—Animals in Clothing. (Not to be confused with tomorrow’s Queen Contest).

(Willy Wabash courtesy of Mark Flexter ’79 and Angie McGlothlin, Angie McGlothlin, costumer/Barkley the Scotty courtesy of Guyanna and Jack Spurway ’69. Action figures sold separately.)


Wabash History 101

Steve Charles—The Purdue Boilermakers got their name from Wabash.

The Glee Club used to have its own Queen Contest.

The annual Class Fight (thankfully, a lost tradition) was covered by The New York Times in the 1890s.

These were just a few of the nuggets the 90-plus students attending Wabash History 101 heard today. That’s right—more than 90 students turning out to learn more about Wabash history.

Wabash Archivist Beth Swift is the reason. We call her the "activist archivist." She’s been bringing Wabash history alive with her digital archives, on-campus presentations, and articles in Wabash Magazine and the Parent’s Post.

Wabash yearbook editor and Sphinx Club member Ross Dillard ’07 spent part of last summer doing research in the archives and realized how fascinating Wabash history could be when Beth talks about it. He invited her to speak to students about it, and the turnout was gratifying.

"There’s a real interest in the history and traditions," Beth told me enthusiastically after her talk—well, a few minutes after her talk. I had to wait for four students and an alumnus to finish asking her questions before she could leave.

By the way, Purdue got its "boilermaker" moniker after playing Wabash, whose team members found the West Lafayette team lacking gentlemanly refinement. Playing "a bunch of foundry molder and boilermakers" is how the Little Giants put it, I believe.

As for the Glee Club Queen Contest—let’s not go there.

But you can check out the digital archives here.


Cooking in the President’s Kitchen

Steve Charles—Since his arrival on campus, President Pat White has been encouraging members of the Wabash community to get to know one another better and to join in the "grand conversation" of the liberal arts. He wants those conversations to happen in and out of the classroom, in professor’s offices and homes, and wherever members of this community gather.

Including his own kitchen.

When Pat heard about the culinary expertise of Robert Van Kirk — Sphinx Club member and president of the campus’s most popular group, the Wabash Cooking Club — he invited them to Elston Homestead. First Lady Chris White welcomed Van Kirk and fellow Cooking Club member Josh Owens ’07 and a remarkable evening ensued. (Click here for photos.)

Robert, who has been cooking since his boyhood days and whose father was in the restaurant business, served as chef and teacher, offering a primer on everything from the smoking point of various cooking oils to the right way to prepare juicy, succulent, and non-rubbery shrimp.

But as delicious as the meal was (and this guy can really cook — I’ve never tasted better shrimp), the conversations were even better. Robert had prepared some of the food ahead of time and had intentionally chosen seafood and beef dishes that he could cook while carrying on conversations with his welcoming host and hostess.

"If you choose something more complex, you’ll leave your guests to fend for themselves while you toil away in the kitchen," Robert said. "But this sort of dish actually facilitates conversation. Your guests can be in the kitchen with you, and you can continue to enjoy one another while the food is cooking. It helps everyone feel more relaxed and at home."

And, on this night, at home in the President’s kitchen.

These sorts of social tips, along with culinary skills, are being taught at the Cooking Club’s weekly meetings, which draw scores of students to the Delt kitchen every Sunday.

And if Van Kirk’s and Owens’ dinner for the President is any indication of how food can be a catalyst for "the grand conversation," the Cooking Club ought to become a required course!

In photo: Robert Van Kirk, Josh Owens, and First Lady Chris White enjoy cooking and conversation in the Elston Homestead kitchen. 


“Weird” music, great listening

Audiences watching percussionist Syud Momtaz Ahmed ’07 perform at Wabash know the incredible focus, experimentation, and joy he brings to his music.

Now the rest of the world is going to hear it, too.

Taz, as he’s known to us at Wabash, is the percussionist for Ajob, a band from his native Bangladesh that is the youngest group ever to sign with that country’s Ektaar label. The group’s long awaited debut CD was released in September 2006.

“Ajob, which literally means ‘Weird’, is not just another intrigue-junkie fusion band with no teeth,” writes the website Banglamusic.com. “Almost all the songs of their self-titled album exude musical experimentation of the finest order.”

Bangladesh’s The Star weekend magazine is similarly enthusiastic about fusion bands like Taz’s Ajob, which often blends the lyrics of the Baul tradition with western instrumentation and rhythms: “Be it the lyrics, the tune, the fusion of traditional instruments and western instruments, or the catchy western beats mixed in with the husky, spiritual sounds of Bangladeshi folk music, fusion and remixes have created a stepping stone for the new and improved Bangladeshi music world.”

For Taz, the music provides a necessary counterbalance to his studies and research as a chemistry major at Wabash. Once aspiring to a career in medicine, the senior has spent the past three summers doing research in materials chemistry and plan to pursue his doctorate in that field. He also plans always to have music part of his life.

“Music is a hobby that I love,” Taz says. “It’s a great escape for me; when I am playing music, I don’t have a care in the world. As a percussionist, I have that ability to make a song festive, angry, or sad. Music is my way of expressing how I think and how I feel about things; my perspective.”

The percussionist says his band’s first CD “is made with a lot of love.

“There’s this huge generation gap in music in my country,” Taz explains. “Most young people have migrated to Western music, but Ajob is attracting the younger audience in a way that other Bangladeshi bands don’t. We hope that they find the music interesting, but we want them to understand the deeper metaphorical meanings of the old, traditional folk tunes. They’re part of our culture, our heritage.”

Taz will be featured in the Fall 2006 issue of Wabash Magazine.

Click here or here to hear music from the CD.


When news breaks in Latin America, turn to Padgett

Steve Charles—Just found out from political science professsor Melissa Butler that Tim Padgett ’84 was a featured expert on PBS’s Jim Lehrer News Hour in early August.

The TIME Magazine Miami bureau chief won the Cabot Prize from the Columbia University last year for his "distinguished journalistic contributions to inter-American understanding." With Fidel Castro ailing and his brother, Raul, in charge of Cuba, the folks at the News Hour were in need of some of Tim’s expertise.

"Raul has always had this reputation as sort of a hard-line enforcer for Fidel, and that’s one reputation that, in recent months, Fidel’s government has been trying to soften with a sort of P.R. makeover," Tim told Lehrer. "You’re seeing long articles in the official newspaper, Granma, for example, that have been trying to present Raul’s more warm and fuzzy side as a family man and a grandfather, trying to build a little bit more of a human connection between Raul and the Cuban population that Fidel has had sort of a mystical bond with that Raul has just never had."

You can read a transcript of Tim’s appearance on the show at the Online NewsHour.

His TIME Online article, "Why Raul Castro Could End Up a Reformer," offers a more thorough analysis of the situation.


Wabash man holds his own on “The View”

Steve Charles—Just watched Dr. Steve Judah ’72 being interviewed by Barbara Walters and company on ABC’s "The View."

Wow! I wonder if there’s any speech class at Wabash (or in the world) that could prepare you for the rapid-fire questioning that came at Steve from around that table. As one of my colleagues noted, a marriage counselor appearing on "The View" is a lot like a liberal politician showing up on "The O’Reilly Factor."

But Steve was up for the challenge.

The subject was marital infidelity—more specifically: How can a couple stay together when one of them has had an affair? That’s the focus of Steve’s new book, Staying Together—When an Affair Has Pulled You Apart. Steve has had remarkable success in helping couples work through these situations, "using the crisis at†hand to teach something good."

Walters and her co-hosts on "The View" seemed intrigued but skeptical. Steve prefers to have the unfaithful spouse reveal the affair to his or her spouse during a session in Steve’s office. Co-host Joy Behar quipped that such a strategy was like setting up a homicide.

"I’d rather have a controlled nuclear reaction in my office than a nuclear explosion at home," Steve said. Snap. He outlined three reasons affairs occur, managing to get some helpful steps in between his co-hosts’ interruptions. He said it was important to "get the message" of the affair; what it means, what were its causes, and how a marriage relationship can be enhanced.

And he won over the crowd when he said that he usually suggests that the person having the affair let go of that third person and work on the marriage he or she has.

The audience applauded. And Steve’s message of hope came through loud and clear.

From the email I received from Steve a few minutes ago, he seems to have enjoyed the interview. "A fun and fulfilling experience," he called it.

Not my idea of fun, but, for the sake of those who were watching the show and are facing marital crises, I’m glad it’s Steve’s.

I’m looking forward to hearing more on Tuesday when I travel to Columbus to interview Steve for the next issue of Wabash Magazine.


Just a different vocabulary

Steve Charles—I stopped by math professor Mike Axtell’s office last week to see how much he’s enjoyed working with the Department’s Algebra Institute students this summer ("a lot") and how the experience differed from teaching the rest of the year ("I’m working with them on problems I may not have the solution to, so students have to get used to my being a colleague and advisor, not necessarily the guy with the answers").

I told him I’d enjoyed photographing the group, both as they worked one-on-one with Mike, and during their presentations. I loved the energy and camaraderie among the students.

"Of course, all it was way over my head," I added

"It’s just a different vocabulary," Mike said. And he’s right. The teaching I saw in Mike’s office was the same intense, one-on-one interaction I’ve seen here in the offices of professors of biology, chemistry, philosophy, religion, political science, economics, and history.

Chemistry professor Scott Feller calls it "working one-on-one with a student on a problem with an unknown answer." He says it’s the heart of learning in science and research. It’s not far from the artistic process I’ve watched art professor Doug Calisch work through with his students. It was just a different vocabulary.

My friend Joe Warfel ’04 wrote a piece for Wabash Magazine in 2003 entitled "Why I Math." It was a wonderful essay about the beauty he saw in mathematics. I think I caught a reflection of that beauty in the eyes of these students.

The Algebra Institute ends today with a talk by the president of the Mathematical Association of America—a nice capstone on six-weeks of research these students from all over the country have done. We’ll have more about it in the Fall 2006 WM.

Photos: (top) President of the Mathematics Association of America Carl Cowen enjoys his visit with Algebra Institute students. (middle) Anne Duarte and Michael Martinez take a juggling break in Professor Axtell’s office. (Middle) Professor Axtell and Katy Haymaker work together on a problem.