Monday, March 12, 2007

Professor Drout: Should I Come to Wheaton?

It is getting to be college decision time, and I've had a bunch of emails from prospective Wheaton students that basically ask the question given above.

Let me start with a quote from my high school swimming coach, Mr. Wishart, that has always stayed with me. I told him that I had decided to go to Carnegie Mellon. "That's a name school," he said. "And that's good. But college is completely what you make of it. Even the worst college in the US can teach you everything you need to learn if you decide to try."

At the time I was a little deflated, but he was right (and also right that the IM should have been my best event, no matter how much I hated the butterfly leg). College is what you make of it. If you don't get into your top choice, you can make that not matter by how hard you apply yourself. Even the lowest-ranked college has resources that will allow you to educate yourself if you decide to do more than the minimum.

But, let's say that you're one of the lucky few who has been accepted to Wheaton. Should you come here?

The short answer is "yes." I believe in this college. I have seen it change students' lives. I have put my students into the best Ph.D. programs in the world (Cambridge, Toronto) and seen them go to top law and business schools and succeed. I've had students win international scholarship, publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and get into their top choices for med school. I've seen really troubled students turn their lives around and become happy academic superstars. I'm sure these things happen at other places, too (I know they do, because many happened for me at Carnegie Mellon), but here I see it all the time.

I believe in Wheaton's "Connections" curriculum. Yes, I was one of the people who wrote it, but in the end the entire faculty came on board and designed an innovative curriculum in which classes are linked across disciplines. This is not half-assed interdisciplinarity, with English professors trying to teach biology. The brilliance of the curriculum is that the students, become interdisciplinary by taking real classes in different disciplines that that faculty have linked together. So, for example, the students in Figure Drawing are taking Anatomy for a Connection. The Students in "Race, Empire and the Victorians" are taking "Darwin and Biology" for the Darwin Connection. The students in Studio Art are taking Art, Color and Chemistry.

I believe in Wheaton's committment to teaching. I've never seen a bad teacher get tenure. I see the faculty as a whole constantly talking about teaching, working on improving our teaching and figuring out how we can adapt ourselves to the learning styles of our students as these change over time. 80% of the discussion in the Faculty Dining Room is about teaching: "Did you see John in class today? He looked out of it. Do you know if he is ok? His first two assignments were excellent, but then he tailed off. Who is his advisor? I'll give him a call." Is a typical lunchtime conversation. For the exhorbitant fee of over $40,000 per year, you are getting close attention for your child from multiple Ph.D.s who know your kid's name and tendencies, who can spot your kid on the other side of campus and say 'hi.' Who remember a good English 101 paper four years later and mention it on graduation day.

I believe in Wheaton's students. Every time I push them, every time I treat them like graduate students, every time I give them work harder than they think they can do, they have risen to the challenge. Wheaton students are less arrogant than their peers at the Ivies, and thus they actually learn more, because they listen. Wheaton students are basically kind and generous. In nine years there I've had exactly one discipline problem in one single class. Wheaton students are generally honest: they may screw up, they may not do the work, but they (generally) don't lie about it.

I believe in the Wheaton faculty. The faculty is genuinely devoted to the students and to the college. We have very different ideas about the best possible practices and the right way to go about our goals, and we fight about these, but nearly every single professor loves and believes in Wheaton. When I was a Ph.D. student at Loyola Chicago, nearly all the junior faculty thought that they deserved to be at a "better" institution. They didn't respect the University, they didn't respect the grad students, and they didn't respect each other. This is not the case at Wheaton. We don't all agree (if you have 10 Ph.D.s in a room, you'll have 11 opinions), but we seek the same goals of better student education. We think we belong here. We're devoted to the place.

I believe in the Wheaton administration. You have never seen a "flatter" or more efficient administration at a college. I don't always agree with the decisions they make, and I'll fight back when I have a chance and I think something is wrong, but the administration has, in my experience, prudently and effectively continued to improve the college. The administration respects the college, the students and the faculty. And any place where an Assistant (ok, now Associate, but I was Assistant then) Professor and another colleague can wander into the Provost's office and have an impromptu meeting in which a new research partnership program is developed, and that program is implemented in only a few weeks.... that's an administration that can improve the place.

Professor Drout, what you describe sounds like heaven on earth. There have to be drawbacks. What are they?

Good question. We don't have enough money to do everything that we would like to do. Our endowment is small, which is why our fees are big. We don't have enough room in the buildings. We don't have enough faculty to teach everything that we'd like to teach (there are work-arounds, including classes at Brown). Like nearly all faculties, we're too much of an intellectual mono-culture, and like all faculties, we have a tendency to be arrogant about things we are not expert about. Norton is isolated and somewhat boring. There is no Starbucks around. You need a car or a bus to get to Boston or Providence. Nightlife revolves around the dorms. Having faculty members know you by name can be a drawback when you want to sleep through class and then, terribly hung over, you see you professor in the mail room. People who go to Brown or Harvard or Amherst have more doors opened for them whether they deserve them or not. If you are interested in super-specialized research, we probably don't have someone who does it (i.e., if you plan on becoming the world expert in horseshoe crab taxonomy, Harvard is probably a better bet, though we do have a leading termite parasitologist).

I wouldn't go to Wheaton if I wanted to be an engineer or a concert violinist or a nuclear physicist. I wouldn't spend that much of my parents' money if I just wanted to doze through a big lecture a few days a week and then come out at the far end with an easy degree and some cool sweatshirts. I wouldn't go to Wheaton if I already knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life.

But I intend to send my own kids to Wheaton (if they want to go, of course), because I think--for kids who take advantage of it--the institution really works to develop individual potential in a way I've not seen elsewhere throughout my travels in higher education.

[P.S.: If you're coming to Wheaton to study Tolkien with me: 1). I'm flattered, and I'll do my best. 2). The official Tolkien course is only offered every other year, but in between there is Anglo-Saxon, Beowulf, Medieval Lit. in translation, etc. 3). I will be away doing research Fall 2009 and Spring 2010. 4). It would be wrong for me to promise that I'll always be here. I have no plan for leaving and I intend to to work at Wheaton until I die or they wheel me out the door for being too senile (though who knows how I'll feel after becoming Dept. Chair in July), but it's dangerous to predict too far into the future when one's life is intertwined with others' and their needs, jobs, etc.]


John Cowan said...

My law-professor father, Thomas A. Cowan, was fond of pointing out that all law schools deliver essentially the same quality of education; the "name" schools graduate better students because they recruit better students in the first place.

Steve Muhlberger said...

."I wouldn't spend that much of my parents' money if I just wanted to doze through a big lecture a few days a week..."

People like that shouldn't spend anyone's money on university until and unless they really have a reason to go.

Unknown said...

I wish my Sixth Form had a Connections Cirriculum, instead of letting me half kill myself by trying to do far too many A-levels.

wdh said...

My daughter has applied to Wheaton, I don't know if she will get in or decide it is the best choice for her. I'd like to compliment you on your teaching. I've listened to your course on rhetoric. I'd be pleased to have you teach my daughter if it all works out.

Bill - CMU '75 - Physics.

lucy said...

I was just reading through this blog and I hope it’s not too late to post (if you ever see this). I’m really impressed with what you say about the teaching and the commitment to students at Wheaton. I studied English at Cambridge UK. I’m not saying that to boast – in some ways it was great, the facilities were first-class (more money in the system I guess) and I’m sure some brilliant research was being written, but a fair few of the academics seemed to have forgotten about teaching, or saw it as a penance. They didn’t want to communicate ideas to lowly undergrads, and my first experience of Medieval literature was with an academic who used to open his door and stand by it, saying ‘goodbye’, after a precise fifteen minutes of the twenty minute supervision. We didn’t study anything pre. 1200, so Old and Early Middle are all new to me. I stumbled across your site when I was reading up on The Dream of the Rood as background to the later Medieval lyrics, and was hooked. I’m now reading and translating my way (slowly!) through OE literature and it’s built up my enthusiasm and confidence do a Masters in Old and Middle English. So – I just wanted to say thanks very much, and I hope your students know how very lucky they are.

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