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WLAIP Gives Everyone Time to Reflect, Including Professors

Former Visiting Assistant Professor of English Andrew Klein – This year’s Wabash Liberal Arts Immersion Program has come to a close, and I’m humbled by the dedication and enthusiasm with which these 23 young men have met the challenges of the past month.

The program left a particularly strong impression on me this year as it was both the first time I’ve worked with students in the program and the last time I will teach here at Wabash.

Former Visiting Assistant Professor of English Andrew Klein

Former Visiting Assistant Professor of English Andrew Klein

I’m told students tend to approach this program with trepidation and, in some cases, outright resistance to the idea of losing their last summer at home with friends and family. So, it was gratifying to hear so many them write of the reversal of those sentiments over the course of the month upon discovering deep friendships, confident mentors, and a wellspring of intellect and academic potential within themselves. I was proud to hear my students, who only a month earlier had been dancing at their high school prom, embracing the critical self-awareness needed for them to seize their college education and to get the most out of the next four years.

Dr. Crystal Benedicks and I were responsible for the English 101 course. From July 1 to July 26, we guided our students through spirited discussion and an intensive reading and writing schedule. We asked our students to assess honestly their prior relationship with reading and writing, to examine critically the educational models they had known since kindergarten, and to explore their own personal credo or guiding question as they moved forward into a new semester and a new life.

This process of meditating on their past, present, and future gave these students what so many of us need but fail to find before committing to our next Big Thing: time to reflect.

Hearing the students encapsulate this reflective process in their final audio essays taught me the value of encouraging students to locate themselves within their studies. They described how this experience had taught them that their success going forward would hinge not on departure from their past – a past often painted with the vivid colors of their home and family life – but on embracing and uniting their new ventures with their old traditions.

Listening to these students’ final words, recorded just a day before the program ended, I was struck by how quickly their morphed into certainty. That, here at Wabash, they will take control of their lives and achieve their dreams. One student spoke of his eagerness to develop freely his ideas in dialogue with caring teachers. Another wrote of how he could pursue his education without the shame he’d felt initially about expressing himself and his ideas. All of the students found some reason to be hopeful and confident where before they had been skeptical and unsure.

If we are able to move students to feel this way before their first semester has even begun, then I consider what we’ve all accomplished this summer a job well done.

And I do mean “all” — the WLAIP works well not only thanks to the enthusiasm of its professors and students to work together but also to the guidance of others. Dr. Robert Horton, Dr. Zachery Koppelman, and other faculty were a constant, supportive presence, and together we created a productive environment that was intense for the students but not overwhelming. However, it was the student mentors and writing tutors who were exceptionally vital to this course. I saw not only our new students improve and grow, but I saw more senior students rise to the occasion and readily adopt roles of leadership and mentorship.

I left the course changed myself —invigorated by what I had learned from these students and how we as instructors can offer guidance, newly aware of how important a student’s background can be to how we approach our courses, and, what’s more, looking forward to how I might take this experience and pay it forward at my next position at a liberal arts college in Canada.

2018 WLAIP participants

2018 WLAIP participants

WLAIP is a powerful reminder of the effectiveness of the intensive, student-centered education for which Wabash is best known. And those who come through it ought to be particularly proud of their achievement.

So congratulations to Cristian, Luis, Jorge, Clarke, Emiliano, Jayden, Davionne, Ali, Johnny, Sammy, Jose, Marco, Gianni, Jonathan, Eddie, Gerald, Chris, Mike, Jesus, Walter, Leo, Elijah, and Eli. You have much to be proud of this summer, and Wabash gains so much by having you here. Congrats as well to Anthony, Leon, Ra’Shawn, Corey, John, and Kike — mentors and tutors whom Wabash is also lucky to have.

Here’s to next year’s WLAIP!


OLAB: A Herzog Family Tradition

Matchmaking and marriages. Children and grandchildren.

Tobey Herzog has seen it all during his time with OLAB, the Opportunities to Learn About Business summer program, and that’s just from his own family!

OLAB is a one-week hands-on introduction to business and the market economy for young women and men entering their senior year in high school. Now in its 46th consecutive year at Wabash, the program’s success is known nationwide.

Professor of English Emeritus Tobey Herzog

Professor of English Emeritus Tobey Herzog

In 1978, Tobey began his time as an OLAB instructor teaching about writing job applications. He later taught advertising and marketing and worked with OLAB until 2010.

“I really enjoyed interacting with the high school students in that environment because they were highly motivated,” Tobey said. “I liked watching the students take the material I taught them and put together their own ads and campaigns. Plus, it was a nice change of pace.”

OLAB marketing campaigns featuring children often included Tobey’s then young sons, Rob and Joe.

And when they were both old enough, Rob and Joe went from the instructor’s kids to participants to OLAB counselors.

Joe’s wife, Marci, also went through OLAB.

Then there’s Rob’s wife, Beth. She didn’t attend OLAB as a high school student, but her connection to the program makes this family’s story even more interesting.

Rob was living in Washington D.C. and studying at Georgetown, when he came home one weekend for a wedding.

That evening, he had plans to reconnect with his former OLAB counselor Greg Shaheen, who has now worked with OLAB in various capacities for more than 30 years.

“When he showed up at my house,” Greg recalled, “we started talking about the wedding, and he said he had hit it off with one of the bridesmaids (Beth). He said something along the lines of, ‘If I lived in Indiana, she would likely be the one.’

“I looked at him and said, ‘Then why are you here with me??’”

At that, Greg made Rob change their original plans and drove him up to Culver, Indiana, where Beth was working at her relatives’ root beer stand.

OLAB was two weeks away, and the program was short a female counselor that year.

“So I hired Beth on the spot,” Greg said.

“Beth had no idea what the program was even about,” Tobey laughed. “Greg was doing this for Rob and Beth. That was his motivation.”

Mia Herzog

Mia Herzog, bottom right

Tobey had no idea he was working with his future daughter-in-law that week, but he said that week allowed him to see how great she is.

Rob and Beth later married, and – of course – Greg was in their wedding. Now their oldest daughter, Mia, is participating in OLAB this week.

“It’s become somewhat of a family tradition: Herzog-related people go to OLAB,” Tobey said. “It’s a rite of passage in the family, and I’m really excited that Mia’s here.”

“And they owe it all to me,” Greg laughed.

“But sincerely, it is really cool to see how everything has come full circle.”


Part of the Family

There I was, sitting in the grass on the Mall, surrounded by a sea of black gowns, trying not to let my red pants be a distraction from the Commencement ceremony.

With Garrard McClendon '88

With Garrard McClendon ’88 in Chicago

My job is to let everyone see what I see – through stories, photos, and social media – but I always tell people to pretend I’m not there. (Red pants probably don’t help with that.)

In one of the moments that day when I lowered my camera from my eyes, I caught Sam Gellen ’18 wave at me as he got in line to get his diploma. I smiled and gave him a thumbs up, and, in that moment, I realized how much I’m rooting for these guys.

My first Wabash Commencement was last year after I had worked at the College for about six months. I had met several students, but I didn’t really know them. This year was different.

Every week this past school year, I had the opportunity to write about a different student. Even though our interviews lasted at most 45 minutes, I consistently walked away feeling like I had seen a different side of each student than I was prepared for.

When we got past what they thought I wanted to hear from a marketing perspective, they really opened up. Some of them shared funny stories, others shared heartbreak. Some of them talked about their achievements, and others talked about learning from their failures.

They made me laugh. They made me cry. And more than once, they made my day.

  • When Henry WebberHunt ’18, who loves fish, learned about my deep hatred of sea creatures, he told me I needed therapy.
  • Ra’Shawn Jones ’20 got so excited talking with me about his baby niece that he showed me several photos of her on his phone.
  • One night when I was taking pictures and completely focused, Byshup Rhodes ’19 came up behind me to say hi and made me almost drop my camera.
  • Jayvis Gonsalves ’18 congratulated me on my marriage when he saw an email come from the same Christina who had been emailing him before but now had a different last name.
  • Jake ’18 and Nick Budler ’19 competed with me in a GIF competition on Twitter.
  • Brock Heffron ’19 ran over on the football sidelines to give me a high five one day when I was taking photos at football practice.
  • And, more than once, members of the Sphinx Club have been more than willing to make fools of themselves to help me with social media.

I think I’ve watched more sporting events at Wabash in a year and a half than I did during my four years at my alma mater.

I attended my first Oaken Bucket game last year, and I was quite unimpressed by the size of the prize. I mean, come on. We have a 300-pound bell.

When my husband wanted to do a chemical reaction instead of a unity candle for a wedding ceremony, it was Wabash Professor Laura Wysocki who helped make it happen.

That same day, when our best man brought our car around for us to leave, Post-It notes of all colors covered the entire vehicle. Everyone there thought it was the bridal party. I knew better. What I was looking at was the prank the rest of the Wabash Communications and Marketing team had been planning since they received their invitations.

At the 2016 Monon Bell game

At the 2016 Monon Bell game

And it was Garrard McClendon ’88 who helped me plan my anniversary trip to his city of Chicago exactly one year later.

Sitting there in the grass on Commencement Day, I began to think about the Wabash community – the Wabash family.

I had written about it.

I had photographed it.

I had tweeted about it.

But it took me until that moment to realize…I’m a part of it.


A Lasting Influence

Richard Paige — Some professors cast long shadows.

For author, noted prosecutor, and former Mayor of Indianapolis Stephen Goldsmith ’68, this influence is 50 years and counting.

“It was just amazing,” he says, speaking of a constitutional law class taught by Professor Philip Wilder, one Goldsmith says was his favorite.

“What I remember about constitutional law is there were two sides to every issue,” Stephen says. “There was a majority opinion and a minority opinion and both were very well reasoned. If you read one and you didn’t read the other, you would think that was inevitably correct. The way Phil Wilder taught that was amazing.”

Stephen Goldsmith ’68.

Looking back a half century, Goldsmith remembers thinking of political philosophy and the questions that arose: what are we all about? What are we trying to do as a country? What did (John) Locke intend for us?

He then mentions a textbook that another professor, George Lipsky, used. It’s one Goldsmith still has on his bookshelf today.

“I underlined every other line in a different color,” Goldsmith explains. “Lipsky taught me how to think about threads of philosophy over time and their meanings. What does that mean with the great American experiment and what does it mean in today’s life?

“The combination of political theory with Lipsky and constitutional law with Wilder taught me how to think broadly and how to analyze.”

For a man set on public service when he arrived on campus, that was a welcome byproduct on the way to a degree.

“What Wabash did was taught me how to think and to apply that critical analysis to public policy,” Stephen says. “I didn’t learn politics at Wabash, I learned how to think about the policy.”


On Friendship and These Fleeting Years

Richard Paige — Fraternity brothers, cast mates, friends. But this isn’t your average Wabash story.

Jared Cottingham ’18 and Nathan Muha ’18 first met on the tee ball fields of Lowell, Indiana, 17 years ago. Nathan’s father was the coach. They’ve been friends ever since.

At the conclusion of Commencement on Sunday, the two will take separate paths — Nathan to Chicago to gain a foothold in the theater business and Jared to medical school in Kentucky.

“I don’t think it’s going to be all that strange,” Jared says. “The ties are continuing to deepen. It’s not going to matter where we are on the map. That’s life. The same thing happens with family, and he’s family.”

Nathan Muha.

Family might be selling this connection short. Think of the conversations in the hallway or lunchroom at school, the rehearsals, or your first college roommate. Every meaningful moment in your young adult life shared with the same friend.

“So much of the joy of knowing someone for so long is that all of these formative experiences happen along with them,” Nathan says.

While, obviously, very close, the chance to spend these college years together was simply a happy accident, according to Jared. Both sort of assumed that they would be going to other schools and didn’t talk much about college choices. During one of those off-hand winter break conversations, they discovered both had applied to Wabash.

As Nathan says, “Wabash was the best opportunity for both of us.”

Jared Cottingham.

Strolling to the Senior Bench for this conversation, each looking the part of a college graduate complete with coffee in hand, the talk turned to friendship, to the ones made here. Nathan boiled friendship down to the essentials. It’s a lesson many learn over time, but not usually at 22.

“It would be unfair to expect out of a friend the things I’ve gotten from Jared because of time and experience,” he says. “That’s not something you replicate. We’ve both made really incredible and fantastic friends here – ones we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives – yet that doesn’t compare to a lifetime with another person.”

For Cottingham, there is comfort in togetherness.

“It’s interesting because friendship provides you with a rock to reflect on the experience, but also to make the experience that much more special because there is an enduring theme of simply being together,” he says. “A lot of our friendship has revolved around the academic year and we’ll go on hiatus for the summer and not see each other for months. That experience of not seeing each other once in a while has never diminished our friendship. We always pick up where we left off.”


Wowed by the Art of the Film

Richard Paige — What’s it like to sit down in a theater and see your story on the silver screen?

“He said he was only taking notes and he put actual things I said in there!” Patti McCrory Harbaugh laughs. “I didn’t want anybody to know I’d really said those things.”

The he in question is writer/director Russell Harbaugh ’06. Those notes led to Love After Love, a movie that looks at how a family deals with the loss of its patriarch, an experience Harbaugh knows well. The story is loosely based on the passing of Russell’s father, Glenn, and how his mother, Patti, learned to carry on.

It’s a story Russell has been tinkering with for 12 years, a span that covers the time since graduating from Wabash. And now that the film has been released to critical acclaim, there are questions being answered for Patti as well.

Russell Harbaugh ’06 holds his script for “Love After Love,” complete with his notes scribbled in the margins.

“He spent literally 12 years dealing with it,” Patti says. “At first I couldn’t imagine why. I was slow to catch on, but that’s the way he was getting on with his life and mourning.”

Patti talks of her own struggles with moving on, feelings of betrayal, and making connections. She also found comfort in her son’s ability to take a nugget of their conversation and turn it into a scene in the movie. Not a direct link, but certainly an emotional one.

“The story really does veer from our family, but there were times when I felt like I didn’t fit one place, and I didn’t fit another,” she says. “I couldn’t understand when Russell and I would talk about it, how he could connect that activity in the film with our conversation. I understood things better seeing it as a story.”

Patti, a longtime costume designer and member of the theater faculty at the University of Evansville, is proud that her son embraced the power of art, and remembers fondly when that power might have been unleashed.

“It all started at Wabash when someone put a camera in his hand and said, ‘you gotta document this trip,’” she says. “Suddenly he had a reason for looking. We do that as artists. We try to process what we are experiencing.”

Love After Love opens nationally Friday. After a dozen years of conversation, of tinkering, of finding just the right voice, it’s now a story to share broadly. Patti sees her son at ease with the attention the film has brought. She sees it as a gift.

He’s brilliant,” she laughs, “I’m his mother, so I can say he’s brilliant, right? I’m wowed by the art of the film.

“There was something really visceral about it, but I wasn’t caught off guard because he took me along in the process,” Patti says. “That’s a gift, too. He could have gone off and just done it, but it’s felt like we’ve been connected the whole time.”


Gunther’s Research Not So Black-and-White

Associate Professor of and Chair of Psychology Karen Gunther wanted to be an artist when she grew up.

In junior high, she decided she was better suited for science or math, but she never let her creative side wane. After knitting and sewing with both of her grandmothers almost her entire life, Gunther picked up quilting while studying biopsychology at Oberlin College.

Associate Professor of Psychology Karen Gunther

“I wanted to somehow combine quilting with science,” Gunther said, “so I ended up studying color vision.”

Gunther says it’s fun “immersing” herself in color, and her passion for her work even extends to her personal life.

The wedding rings for her and her husband, who is also a vision scientist, were designed based on their field of study. Coral, chrysoprase, and lapis stones were used to symbolize the three cones found in the retina – red, green, and blue, respectively. Onyx lines are on the sides of their rings, which are similar to the stimuli the couple uses in their research.

After recently receiving a grant worth more than $200,000 from the National Science Foundation, Gunther’s research is about to expand.

“Vision scientists have recently determined that the retina routes the cone signals into three ‘cardinal color’ pathways: red vs. green, bluish vs. yellowish and black vs. white,” Gunter explained. “But how do people perceive colors beyond the six cardinal colors – the ‘non-cardinal’ colors?”

The grant will fund three years of research, as well as summer interns for Gunther, but it was a long process to get to this point.

Gunther applied for the grant in August 2017. In early December, she received an email from the NSF that she had not uploaded a title slide for her grant.

The couple's wedding rings

The couple’s wedding rings

“This meant they were going to discuss my grant and put the slide up during the discussion,” Gunther said. “This was great news because my last NSF submission was rejected before discussion and they liked my grant enough to let me still submit the title slide!”

And though the waiting period was long, Gunther said she never stressed.

“Because the primary expectation of Wabash faculty is to teach, with secondary emphasis on research, my job wasn’t relying on the grant as it would have been at more research-intensive schools. Some researchers at other schools are on “soft” money, which means they need to get grants to get their salaries. I wanted the grant, it would be satisfying, it would fund more summer interns, but I wouldn’t lose my job without it.”

 

 

 


Philosophy, Ethics, and Emerging Scholarship

Richard Paige — It sounds like a pretty big deal.

Philosophy professor Adriel Trott is among a six-person team charged with developing a code of ethics for publishing in the field of philosophy through a $75,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant awarded to colleagues at Fairfield University and other locales.

Adriel Trott.

In addition to encouraging better and more concrete guidelines for citation practices (Wabash Always Cites!), such a code could lead to the field improving efforts of inclusion and who gets tenure.

“One goal is to make publishing for people outside of research institutions more accessible,” Trott said. “My involvement shows the extent to which Wabash is involved in efforts to improve the scholarly environment in ways that ultimately serve our students.”

While the field actively seeks the work of more women and scholars of color, Trott feels this effort is about how philosophy accepts and shares important new work. This group’s charge will be to think about how scholarly journals direct and make judgments about emerging scholarship and how that literature is actively referenced.

Led by principal investigator Kris Sealey, Trott and her colleagues hope for a change of thinking, where scholars cite based on relevance and broad attention to an issue leads to more inclusive citation practices.

Why does this matter? The numbers of citations a work receives can influence the tenure process. This effort hopes to better identify which scholarly works are influential and driving the discipline forward. Trott says a goal is to encourage scholars to take these questions more seriously as well.

“The long-term hope is that such an effort encourages more students from marginalized groups to pursue philosophy majors, when they see themselves better reflected in the scholarship that is taught,” Trott says.


“I’ll Push You”—The Other Side of Friendship

Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray

Steve Charles—When I heard that the movie “I’ll Push You” was about two best friends—one in a wheelchair—on a 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage across Spain, I assumed the hero would be the pusher. Patrick Gray, who so loves his friend that he’ll do anything to help him.

And that’s not wrong. But it’s only half the story.

That’s only half of what friendship is, not to mention what love is. Because the real hero of the story is the guy in the wheelchair.

And this is how our hero introduced himself Sunday night after a screening of the movie in Salter Hall—the first words he uttered as he wheeled onstage:

“I’m sorry you had to see my butt crack up there.”

So this is a hero of a different sort.

The disease that put Justin Skeesuck in the chair is called Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy. Ironically, MAMA, for short. MAMA’s vicious. She makes your immune system attack your nerves, tearing them down bit by bit. Justin first noticed symptoms when he was 16, six months after he’d been in a car accident. The onset was slow.  He was able to pursue a career as a designer, get married, have kids. But he says he could feel the disease ravaging its way through his body nerve by nerve.

“I would get twitching and cramps in whatever muscle was going to go next.”

“We spent years trying to make him better and he’s just getting worse and worse,” his doctor says in the film. “And the hardest thing is telling him what’s going to happen.”

Justin and Patrick have been friends since grade school. They were born a day apart in the same small town in Oregon. They practically passed each other at the hospital doors. Justin’s dad says “the boys have never really gotten into trouble, but let’s just say they’ve created a little havoc.”

There are pictures of them at one each other’s graduations, with their girlfriends who become their wives who become the mothers of their kids. All smiles and goofy looks.

Then there’s this picture of Patrick carrying Justin on his back on the beach some time after the diagnosis. The friendship deepens. Patrick tears up when he describes watching Justin struggle. He says he wishes it was him instead, and he says it in such a way that you realize it might be easier for him.

One day Justin is watching a Rick Steve’s Europe episode on PBS about the Camino de Santiago and wonders out loud if he could do that—if he and Patrick could do it. And Patrick, being the friend you can always count on, says, “Sure. I’ll push you.”

But the pastoral images Justin saw on the travel program don’t show the 4,000 feet they’ll have to climb the first day, the creeks they’ll have to ford, the two days of “something a lot like Kansas” they’ll have to cross in the heat, or the treacherous descents. It all seems like a moderately difficult walk on film—unless you have wheels and about 200 extra pounds to push up those hills, those rocks, through that mud. And part of the wheelchair breaks early on.

About 3/4 of the way, after a place they call the iron cross, Patrick cramps up—his legs become twitching, painful muscle. He’s lying on the road face down and some people who have been helping are trying to massage the cramps out. A family that has joined the two friends for a couple of days now has to stay longer, as the two friends are about to face one of the toughest stretches of the trail to get to the town of O Cebreiro.

Patrick is  struggling with his soul as much as his body—he regrets taking a job that has taken so much time that he doesn’t see his kids as much as he used to, that he isn’t there for his wife, who earlier in the film calls Patrick “my best friend.” Everyone else in the film has called Patrick “the kindest man I’ve ever met” and “generous to a fault,” but when Patrick is first thinking about helping Justin do the pilgrimage, his wife says, “Why not?” As  if the next line could be, “You’re not here anyway.” Patrick remembers times he’s been dismissive with his kids. His need to control things, putting others at a distance. Insisting he can do things by himself. And it’s weighing on him more heavily than the 10 or 12 times a day he has to lift his friend out of his wheelchair.

That’s when more friends show up. Friends along the way. People who have heard about Justin and Patrick, know the difficulty of this particular section, want to help them make it.

It’s a tough moment for Justin. He’s used to letting Patrick help, but now all these strangers?

“But I’ve learned that if you don’t let people help, you rob them of the joy they find in that,” he says. “The joy we find in helping one another.” And the next scene shows Patrick walking in the lead unfettered by the chair, all those friends doing the pushing.

“It’s the first time since we got here that I haven’t been connected to the chair in some way,” Patrick says. He seems disoriented.

But the scene at the top of the hill is joyous—all those friends taking turns pushing, encouraging, hugging, laughing. The very heart of the film. And only because Patrick can’t do it all by himself and Justin’s true humility allows others to step in.

When the friends reunite with their families at Santiago de Compostela, Patrick embraces his wife and says something to her, but we don’t hear it. It’s all tears and smiles.

And there’s this line from a guy who was with Patrick and Justin their first week on the Camino, an EMT:

“In my work I see people on the worse day of their lives; they call me when they don’t know who else to call. I’ve watched people die. What really matters at the end of the day, in that moment when your life suddenly changes, is the people around you, and the relationships you’ve built throughout your entire life. Taking the time to stop and be there for a friend, in whatever capacity they need. We can all do more of that in our lives. We can all take that time.”

 

After the film screening in Salter Hall Sunday night—after Justin’s opening crack about his crack—Patrick told us what he said to his wife at the end of that journey: “I am so sorry for all the times I’ve broken your heart.”

His wife’s response: “If you never broke my heart, how would I be able to love you more?”

He has since left the job that took him away from his family, and he and Justin now tour with this film and write full-time. Patrick’s marriage, and family, rejuvenated.

The half hour Q and A following the film was the most honest—at times funniest—public conversation I’ve heard in 22 years here. And it continued at the book signing, lots of words of encouragement, lots of laughter.

The philosopher Jean Vanier writes: “We human beings are all fundamentally the same. We all belong to a common, broken humanity. We all have wounded, vulnerable hearts. Each one of us needs to feel appreciated and understood; we all need help.”

Vanier also believes that people like Justin—who are living something we’ll all go through in our own way one day—help us to see that deepest truth.

Justin says in the film: “It’s a hard pill to swallow, and it’s something that I continually work through in situations where I have to rely on others to move me forward. I can’t do anything. I feel helpless. I kind of feel like a burden in some ways. And that’s a natural way of thinking.

“I have to continually let it go. I have to continually trust and love and let them find their joy in it.

“Because they love it.”

 

A group of students who walked the Camino last spring with Professors Dan Rogers and Gilberto Gomez as part of a Wabash class had a long lunch with Justin and Patrick on Sunday. Dan says they mostly swapped stories about the people they met there.

“The Camino is never just about you,” one of the friends in the film says.

There were about 160 people at the screening on Sunday evening, a good number of them students, and many of those students stuck around after the Q and A to talk.

You wonder how this film, meeting these guys, will fit into their liberal arts education, their understanding of what it means to be a man.

 

This event was funded by alumnus Larry Landis and other donors to the President’s Distinguished Speakers’ Series, as well as the Lecture and Film Committee.


13 Billion Years? Yeah, That’s Big History

Richard Paige — Big ideas seem to thrive at Wabash, so it wasn’t surprising that the Big History symposium generated an enthusiastic response on campus.

To the uninitiated, Big History is multidisciplinary approach to the telling of history covering a span of 13.8 billion years – from the Big Bang to the present.

“It’s as big of a context as you could possibly imagine,” said Rick Warner, Associate Professor of History and the driving force behind the symposium. “It’s humbling because if you did the math, you’d only be talking about the human experience for the last five seconds of the last class in the semester and recognizing that all of this is a part of our history in some sense.”

(from left) Anne Bost, Wally Novak, Dennis Krause, Rick Warner.

Multiple disciplines were on display Friday, as a physicist, chemist, biologist, and theologian took turns equating their areas of expertise to the continuum that is Big History.

Professor of Physics Dennis Krause explained that the way we interact with light is a direct interaction with history based on the time it takes light to travel that distance. For example, a reflection in a mirror is you two nanoseconds ago, while the sight of the sun in the sky is actually from eight minutes ago.

“We have equations that allow us to look back toward the Big Bang, or we can attempt to look ahead,” Krause said. “We’re here now, so we can look in either direction. It’s like taking a test. We have the final answer; we simply need to figure out how we got there.”

Associate Professor of Chemistry Wally Novak described how chemistry fits in, emphasizing the formation of stars and chemical elements.

“The first galaxy, including the Milky Way, was formed one billion years after the Big Bang,” Novak said. “What happened next? Chemistry. Nearly 4.6 billion years ago our solar system was formed and chemistry continued.”

That chemistry allowed for the formation of elements and the reactions eventually leading to life on Earth.

That was 3.8 billion years ago. According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology Anne Bost, biologists don’t understand how the first cell came to be, but they are interested in what happened next.

“The conditions on this planet were just right for life,” Bost explained. “As a species, we can recognize a problem, and we can make purposeful change. We are capable of wondering what’s next.”

(from left) Sam Surgalski ’18, Craig Benjamin, Derek Nelson, Ted Peters.

For Warner that wonder is what makes Big History worthwhile.

“This is a liberal arts experience par excellence because we get to think in many different ways,” he said. “I can learn from different disciplines and my students can too. It’s a quintessential experience because our students have interests across the board. There are lots of different ways to think about what matters.”

Keynote speaker Craig Benjamin, Professor of History at Grand Valley State University, talks of Big History and what was on display in Baxter Hall as a way to share information, to engage, and collaborate.

“Something like this is so beneficial, so exciting, to see professors like these coming out to share what they are doing with everybody,” he said. “In the last four hours we’ve seen how physics, bio, chemistry, and religion are all connected. History is always changing. The challenge for Big History teachers is to keep up.”

Benjamin went on to say that one of the unique aspects of Big History is that everything relates to the same starting point – the Big Bang – a point driven home by Novak, who used a Joni Mitchell lyric from “Woodstock” to illustrate.

“We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion-year-old carbon.”



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