3/29/2017 Kristen Evans ’07

Courses That Define Us

This magazine article is part of Winter 2017/Issue 88
  • courses illustration Image Credit: Illustration by Patrick Leger

“He jumped up on the desk and recited a monologue in character as King Lear,” marveled one alumna, as she recalled a particularly inspiring theater professor.

You could be forgiven for thinking Linda Schorr ’88 was describing that famous scene from “The Dead Poet’s Society,” when Robin Williams—playing an English teacher with a penchant for Walt Whitman—leaped onto his desk and asked his class to look at the world from a different perspective. But you’d be wrong.

The professor in question wasn’t the infamous Mr. Keating at all, but our very own Gordon Wickstrom, who created waves during his tenure at F&M. From 1968 until his retirement in 1991, Wickstrom taught theater at F&M, helped found the Other Room Theatre, and served as a pioneering advocate for avant-garde performance on campus.

Schorr wasn’t the only alum who recalled Professor Wickstrom’s memorable style. In a social media post in November, Franklin & Marshall Magazine asked former students to share their favorite classroom memories, and Wickstrom cropped up five times. Unsurprisingly, alumni showered love on many other beloved professors, too, in an outpouring that transformed a typical Facebook inquiry into a detailed history of inspiring classroom moments.

While I’d wager that few F&M graduates have encountered a professor willing to scale classroom furniture in the name of inspiration, just about every student I know experienced a moment in class or office hours that set us on the paths we walk today.

All of which begs the question: What is it, exactly, that makes classes and professors memorable? If the formula doesn’t require a “Dead Poets Society” moment, what does it take for a professor to make a transformative impact on a student?

As the responses on Facebook revealed, some of these moments were as dramatic as Wickstrom’s theatrical command of the Bard. Others instilled in former students a quiet conviction about where they should go next—and what they were meant to do.

From veterans struggling during the Vietnam War to a new generation of students forging into uncharted territory, many graduates followed the lead from their favorite classes and professors—uncovering and examining much about the world along the way.

 

Fueled by Encouragement

In the spring of 1969, when Franklin & Marshall was simmering with Vietnam War protests, Neil R. Young ’71 arrived on campus fresh from the Navy. Professor of History Charlie Riggs, who taught a class titled “Icelandic Sagas,” took Young on as a student despite his late registration date.

“I think Charlie figured out I was a little withdrawn, so he reached out to me—told me I was OK,” recalled Young. “That meant a lot.”

As a married student and former service member, Young’s social life and outlook diverged from those of other students on campus. He struggled with whether or not to stay in school. Riggs, along with history professor John Joseph, became mentors, encouraging Young to pursue his interests in Middle Eastern history.

But the invasion of Laos in 1970, along with a personal tragedy, conspired to take Young away from his studies. Days after Nixon invaded Cambodia, Young’s father died, and he received orders to report back to the Navy.

“When I think about life at a small liberal arts college and the military, what I remember are contrasts,” Young says. “Watching students shut down the college, and, several weeks later, being in the middle of the North Atlantic on a mid-watch listening on the passive sonar as whales called to each other.”

In the midst of the chaos, the bank called up the loan Young co-signed with his late father to pay for school, putting his finances—and his future at F&M—in jeopardy. F&M eventually intervened on behalf of Young, offering him a full scholarship to finish his last year of school.

“I think that, after gratitude, all of us are fueled by encouragement,” Young says, thinking back on the mentorship he received from Riggs and Joseph.

While Young didn’t become a history professor, he graduated with a degree in history and later launched his own financial services business. Young’s daughter, Annie Claire Frisbie, graduated cum laude from F&M more than 20 years later, in 1995. Frisbie went on to write the screenplay for the 2004 film “Speak,” starring a little-known actress by the name of Kristen Stewart.

“Annie came up with the idea of attending F&M herself,” says Young. “I’m so glad she did. Nancy and I are very proud of her.”

 

Majoring in Environmental Science—Because of a Literature Class

When he arrived at F&M, Gregory Fullam ’18 had no idea what he wanted to do. But the 20-year-old from Mansfield, Mass., who comes from a family of teachers and lawyers, was encouraged to explore his options.

“I figured [my major] would be English because that’s what I’ve always been interested in,” says Fullam, who recently declared an environmental studies major.

Like any good liberal arts student, he started by taking as many different kinds of classes as possible, enrolling in astronomy, French and American studies. During his sophomore year, he noticed a literature class cross-referenced with environmental studies. Professor of English Judith Mueller’s “Nature in Literature” course drew upon everything from medieval portrayals of nature to contemporary science fiction written by Ursula K. LeGuin. It encouraged Fullam to pursue additional interdisciplinary work.

“The class approaches the question ‘What is nature?’ from multiple disciplines—from philosophy, from religious work, from science writing,” explains Mueller, who works on the environmental studies committee with her colleagues in the natural and social sciences. “I thought if we noticed how what we’ve understood nature to be has been different in different times and places, we would, perhaps, be a little bit more critical of our own way of seeing it today.”

This approach launched Fullam into a full-scale investigation of the relationship between language and human concepts of the environment, which crystalized during his study-abroad experience in Madagascar.

“People there treat nature differently than we do [in the U.S.],” says Fullam, who was fascinated by the country’s agricultural economy. “We don’t really see how we exploit the environment,” he continued. “I was particularly interested in how that [attitude] comes through in the ways we write about nature or think about nature and the environment.”

Fullam soon realized that a single academic department wasn’t big enough to answer all of his questions—or help him make sense of his observations while abroad.

“I’m now trying to go through the process of creating a special studies major that combines environmental studies, English, and philosophy,” says Fullam. “It all really came about through this particular class.”

For Mueller, Fullam’s interest in tackling big, values-based questions about attitudes toward the environment makes plenty of sense.

“The emphasis in environmental studies at F&M is on policy and science, and that’s great,” says Mueller, “but I think what the humanities bring is a reflection on values. How do we persuade people to pay attention and to think about these really enormous problems?”

Fullam says he’s unsure of his career plans, but he’d eventually like to communicate why environmental science matters in our everyday lives. He says it could lead him to journalism, law, or another field altogether. His impulse to communicate with the public is exactly what Mueller and her colleagues hope to foster in environmental studies.

“We reflect together about what kinds of interventions might effect the most change,” she says of her teaching collaborations with professors in the sciences. “They’re going to leave here, and they’ll be making choices about their rhetorical intervention in the world.”

 

The Power of Mentors

Hilary Green ’99 remembers well her trips to the Gettysburg battlefield as an F&M student. With an interest in history stoked by classes with professors Louise Stevenson and Doug Anthony, she developed an academic passion for the Civil War and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

“I pretty much went to Gettysburg every semester I was at F&M—and always on the worst possible weather days,” recalls Green, laughing. “History wasn’t just in the classroom. Professor Stevenson made that time period feel really alive and also allowed us to do original research.”

Green’s time in the rain—and in seminars with professors Stevenson and Anthony—stuck with her. She enrolled in graduate school at Tufts University, earning her master’s degree in American history while she debated applying to medical school. Then a routine visit to the Student Health Center changed everything.

“It was 8 a.m. and there were 60 people in the lobby,” she recalled. “I went into my appointment and there was a grad student on rotation with the doctor, and they just looked exhausted.” She stuck with the social sciences.

One doctorate and many years of teaching and research later, Green took a position as an assistant professor in the Department of Gender & Race Studies at the University of Alabama.

“The classes with [Professor Anthony and Professor Stevenson] really shaped what type of history I liked and what I thought I could possibly do as a career,” Green says.

She published her first book in 2016, citing both F&M professors as significant influences on her research and methodology. Green’s monograph, “Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890,” is a study of the growth of black public schools after the Civil War and comes right out of interests fostered in Stevenson’s seminar on Abraham Lincoln.

In addition to her research on black public schools, Green also studies how African Americans remembered and commemorated the Civil War. And in a move she attributes to Anthony, Green uses a trans-Atlantic framework for her scholarship and her teaching.

“I’m not surprised at all that Hilary is doing really well in the professoriate,” says Anthony, who taught Green in a course on trans-Atlantic slave trade. “She was not afraid to be the lone dissenter. If we were reading a text and everybody else read it one way, and she saw it the other way, she would lay out her argument. It was never aggressive, but it was always firm, and I often felt like Hilary was right.”

As a professor, this is the kind of student-driven exchange Anthony lives for. “I feel like my job is to be 100 percent engaged but whenever possible, to be 100 percent engaged with my mouth shut,” Anthony says of his desire to “stay out of the way” of student-to-student learning. “We do this kind of learning in communities for a reason. Everybody reads the same text differently, everybody brings something else to it, and it’s in those gaps, I think, that another layer of learning occurs.”

Anthony also has a strong dedication to helping students take a personalized approach to learning—a commitment that Green values.

“I developed personal relationships with both Professor Anthony and Professor Stevenson. They introduced what mentorship looked like, and they were very much models for me,” says Green, who strives to bring a personal touch to her large lectures at the University of Alabama. Most semesters, she works with more than 50 students per course but still wants to give them a taste of her liberal arts background.

“I make sure I know their names; I know who they are,” Green says of her students. “If I see them, I say hello and bring that warm, smaller campus feel to this large institution. And that’s definitely from professors Anthony and Stevenson.”

Who knows? Twenty years down the road, Green’s own students might point to her dedicated mentorship as the fork in the road that made all the difference as they navigated a large state university–the memorable class that helped them embrace an entirely new direction in their studies or career.

For Green, it was that same thoughtful, personal approach to learning that made her time at F&M so memorable—no superhero leaps onto the teacher’s desk required.

 

What makes an F&M course memorable? Can it be life-changing? Alumni remember the transformative impact professors and classes had on their lives and careers. 

 
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