“Reciprocal Illumination”

During his stop at Wabash to discuss The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, author David Brooks described the goals many consider success—financial gain, personal happiness—as the first mountain of life. After reaching that summit and getting a better view, he said, some set off for something more and find life’s deeper rewards. 

Those who know Professor Eric Wetzel will not be surprised to learn that days after Brooks’ visit, the biologist was talking to colleagues about way the College might get students to that second mountain sooner. That’s the kind of vision and action that drives Wetzel’s teaching, led to his founding the College’s Global Health Initiative in 2008, and led the establishment of the new global health minor. 

It’s another reason he was named this year’s winner of the McLain-McTurnan-Arnold (MMA) Excellence in Teaching Award. 

Associate Director of Communications Richard Paige invited Wetzel to the Wabash On My Mind podcast in July to learn more about the teacher/scientist who urges students to look beyond earning a diploma and ask, “What will I do with this education? How will I help others?” 

WM: Why biology?

Wetzel: I always liked getting out in the woods.

When I was a kid, I had all kinds of field guides to wildflowers, and animals, and edible wild plants.

When I was in high school I was riding in the car with my brother, who was a physical therapist then, and he suggested I do that too. I was thinking about this when I saw this hawk fly across the road in front of us. I thought, That is so cool! I turned to him and was like, “No, I don’t think so.”

Professor Wetzel and Canton Terry ’21 search for invertebrates in Sugar Creek.

You teach in the classroom, in the laboratory, in the field, in villages in Peru. Is teaching in those remote settings a challenge? 

The ideal teaching situation for me is taking students to Belize for my invertebrate biology class, or to Peru for Global Health.

In Belize, I’m standing in ankle-and-knee deep water, pulling up animals out of the water, and I have a bunch of guys there and I’m saying, “Take a look at this! Look at this.” You pick up a shell that has five different kinds of animals existing on it.

In Peru, standing on the edge of slum, a shantytown community as far as you can see, it’s easy for them to see and appreciate these pretty horrible conditions.

These are ideal teaching situations.

For me the question is always, How do you capture that kind of teaching and bring that back to campus? Can I convey that kind of experience to students here?

When you won the MMA, Dean Scott Feller said, “Our winner pushes students well outside their comfort zone, actively working to challenge them, to disturb them as part of their education.” How did that word “disturb” become what we think of when we think of the Global Health Initiative? 

I was listening to a sermon by a reformed theologian. He was talking about the work of the Holy Spirit being that of “the disturber.” That stuck with me. I can’t even tell you how, but it translated into how I think about and talk about global health and the experiences that students have.

What I’m trying to do is to knock students off their own trajectory—get them to see through different eyes to get a more complete, a deeper, more complicated picture. I want them to appreciate and see the complexity they’re going to have to deal with and live in. Then I want to reinforce the fact that it’s really difficult to do this kind of work by yourself. These are collective actions, and you need people from different perspectives, multiple disciplines. It’s quintessential liberal arts.

We talk a great deal about how these trips affect the students. What do these trips do for you? 

The interaction with people in communities and our sustained relationships in Peru are what I think about with global health. That’s a deeply fulfilling thing.

In June 1 was in Peru, where Joey Ballard ’20 had been all month. We were doing a workshop about creating public health education programs for kids. I told Joey, “This is what keeps me going.” Working with kids, working with moms and these women in these communities, is really important.

When people hear “global health,” they may think only of Peru or international opportunities. But GHI offers so many local opportunities— Montgomery County, St. Joseph’s, Fountain, and Warren counties, food pantries in Indianapolis… 

We always say that Crawfordsville is also on the globe. The local community is part of the global community.

The bigger question is, Why do the international side? What’s the advantage of doing both?

There are common struggles. There are issues with which people wrestle. It doesn’t matter if you’re far out in the mountains or in the rainforest of Peru, or if you’re in Montgomery County some place.

There are some important differences as well.

For me, the absolute ideal is for students to have a local experience and be able to participate in the trip to Peru. There is a reciprocal illumination that occurs. That moment when one level of problem resolution informs the other level, that blows it wide open for students.

Do you ever think about the impact you’ve had on students? 

You want your work to have an impact, but if we make that our singular focus, we might miss the mark.

But I think about impact when I hear from a student like Bilal Jawed ’17, one of our early GHI stars, who is now in medical school and a Slemenda Scholar studying in Kenya. Or when I hear from one of that program’s directors, Bob Einterz ’77, who is also on the GHI advisory committee, that Bilal’s work in GHI really helped set him apart from the other applicants.

Or I hear from guys I haven’t heard from in a while say, “Man, yeah, I remember that [experience in Peru] like it was yesterday.”

That’s the longer term, lifelong disturbance that is part of our goal.

—interview by Richard Paige

Listen to the complete interview at Wabash On My Mind