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Full Circle

A few days ago, I sat in the audience at the 19th Annual Celebration of Student Research, Scholarship, and Creative Work as a Wabash student condensed a semester’s worth of literature research into a fifteen-minute presentation. Samuel Stephenson ’20 didn’t know it, but as he stood at the lectern and talked about the theme of exile and societal nonconformity in a short story by famed Irish writer James Joyce, I was in the audience feeling a wave of déjà vu.

In five other rooms throughout the building, something similar was happening: students presented, audiences asked questions, and the larger Wabash community got a glimpse inside the scholarly workings of the College.

For me, though, this particular presentation was special: I’d been here before. Exactly here.

Five years ago, I had donned my only suit, watched a YouTube tutorial on how to tie my tie, and walked across campus to the same room, where I had stood at the same lectern, shuffled my notes, and given a presentation on the exile of the artist in James Joyce’s Ireland, all the while trying not to sweat through my suit jacket.

5 years ago, biking in Ireland as a student

Of course, the chance to present my work was an incredible opportunity: it opened a window of international travel for me, as the course had come with an immersive learning portion in Ireland; I did serious academic work where the writing had to speak for itself; but I was then also asked to take that heady work and turn it into something more easily understood by audiences outside of my field of study.

Later that same year, I walked across campus to attend the esteemed LaFollette Lecture, where my faculty sponsor—English Professor Agata Szczeszak-Brewer, the same faculty sponsor for Samuel Stephenson at this year’s Celebration—gave a rousing lecture about what James Joyce’s voluntary exile from Ireland could tell us about teaching the humanities, particularly at Wabash. The lecture left me emotional beyond my ability to put into words; in the aftermath, when I went to give my congratulations to Prof. Szczeszak-Brewer, I kept bumbling around for a word to describe how I felt. Once I found the word, I kept repeating it, hoping she would understand what I was failing to put eloquently: I felt affirmed, affirmed, affirmed.

I now know what I was trying (and failing) to say that day: I had just realized that Wabash was letting me in on what one of its former presidents had called “the grand conversation”—and I felt grateful that I had been given the tools and the opportunity to speak my piece in that conversation.

The year I presented my research, James Joyce’s Dubliners turned 100 years old. The book isn’t getting any younger; the scholarly research, however, is always changing, and Wabash students like Stephenson are tasked with carving out space for their ideas, and then inviting others in too.

Just as she did five years ago, last Friday Prof. Szczeszak-Brewer sat in the audience, having overseen a semester’s worth of progress, and asked still further questions, leading with inquiry. Community members turned the ideas over in their heads, genuinely curious about how these varied areas of study could benefit their own understanding of the world.

And I sat in the back of the room, affirmed, watching another Wabash mind get ushered into the grand conversation the same way that I had five years earlier.