Role Reversal

Faculty members turn back the clock and return to the classroom as students
By Alexandra Sear '05

It's 8:59 a.m. and Sam Pellman is anxiously awaiting the start of Professor Edith Toegel's third-semester German class. He did his homework, he studied his vocabulary, yet still he knows the next hour will be a tough one. He only hopes he can get through it without looking like a fool. Though he is sitting in an ordinary classroom, Pellman is no ordinary Hamilton student -- he has been a member of the music department faculty for 24 years. What could possibly prompt a professor to take on such a venture while teaching a full course load? It's the simple fact that Pellman is, he confesses, "one of those poor souls who just can't give up on the idea of being a student."

What's more, Pellman is not alone. Many professors over the years have taken on even more work than their normal teaching loads by sitting in on a colleague's class — sometimes for just a lecture, other times as devoted students for an entire semester or year. Some need to learn a language to prepare for a sabbatical, others want to understand another discipline to team-teach a course, and still more admit they simply haven't learned everything they'd like to know. It takes a special kind of academic climate to cultivate a faculty confident enough to put professors and students on par with each other, and Hamilton's core focus of a liberal arts education makes the College just the place.

Sometimes narrowing the choice of what class to take, and what one has time for, is as difficult for professors now as it was when they were students. As Professor of Biology David Gapp says, "I look at the College Catalogue every semester and think, "Oh, that looks good and that looks good and that looks good' ... you have to resign yourself to the fact that you can't do everything."

Yet sometimes the choice is easy. Every college has its legendary courses, and some become just as much an institution as the professors who teach them. Austin Briggs, the Hamilton B. Tompkins Professor of English Literature emeritus, has been offering his seminar on James Joyce for so many years that he finds himself teaching the children of his former students. Among the faculty members Briggs has helped through the mazes of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses and a sampling of Finnegans Wake are Karen Brewer, associate professor of chemistry; Katheryn Doran, associate professor of philosophy; Patrick Reynolds, associate professor of biology; Frank Sciacca, associate professor of Russian; and Emeritus Professor of Economics Sidney Wertimer and his wife, Ellie.

They all came to Briggs' class knowing they had to read (plenty), to talk (though, everyone was quick to claim, not too much) and to work through what may very well be the most difficult literature in the English language. Variously described by students and Briggs himself as "difficult," "funny," "subversive" and "life-affirming," James Joyce is, Briggs says, "brilliant and deeply enjoyable, but an author most readers need a lot of help and encouragement with."

Briggs believes that in teaching Joyce, it is useful to draw on the strengths of every member of the class. A student who was a former 4-H member once gave details on foot-and-mouth disease, a topic in Ulysses; another told of her experiences on her junior year abroad as a bar maid in a pub; and Mrs. Wertimer spoke about growing up in an Irish-Catholic family. Sometimes having a Ph.D. comes in handy. Doran recalls being asked by Briggs, "Okay, Katheryn, explain Nietzsche to us in three minutes." "I produced what I could," she quips.

Briggs does not treat anyone in class with kid gloves, and he says, everyone, including fellow faculty members, has to "put up with a certain amount of indignity" to be in his class or to study Joyce at all. Briggs recalls the time he put Reynolds on the spot. In Joyce's time, it was widely believed that the Irish were racially inferior to the English. To illustrate the point, Briggs used Reynolds, who is from Ireland, as the example of the lowly Irishman. Briggs called attention to what he claimed was his superior Anglo-Saxon profile in contrast to the primitive Celtic features of Reynolds.

The antics of various and sundry colleagues aside, the Joyce seminar is a class to be remembered. Briggs is a self-described "high-energy teacher" who is never opposed to the unconventional in intellectual pursuits, especially when the subject is an unconventional as Joyce. Class often convenes for the last meeting of the semester downtown at Don's Rok or the Village Tavern, fitting venues for those who know Joyce's works. A tavern meeting turned out to be the proper place for Reynolds to give his final class presentation on a passage in Ulysses where Leopold Bloom delivers "an ode to stout." Reynolds also entertained his former class by playing the Irish fiddle at the Joyce course reunion Briggs usually hosts at his home in the spring.

The draw for many professors (and students) to be in class with Briggs is more than just their desire to finally get through Ulysses. Like the seminar itself, he has attained an almost mythic status on the Hill. Doran says she took the course because "for years it was rumored "this is the last time he's offering it,' and it's legendary. Hamilton has a really young faculty, and Austin is one of those pillars of history. In ways relevant to the texts, he tells stories that give you the feeling that he is a microcosm of life here, and he holds many secrets of Hamilton and expresses them in interesting and loving ways." Reynolds concurs: "He is, of course, an internationally highly regarded Joyce scholar, and the opportunity to take a course from such an eminent academic is really quite special . . . in case that truth would get lost among all the guinness."

The James Joyce seminar is only one of many popular classes, and though it was the natural choice for some, other faculty members find serendipity takes them into unfamiliar disciplines. Says Brian Collett, professor of physics and lover of music, "I made the mistake [in my Physics of Musical Sound class] one day of saying that I thought the gamelan (a set of indigenous Indonesian percussion instruments) was more about rhythm than melody. A student of mine said "Absolutely not,' and that I simply must come play it and find out." Collett joined Associate Professor of Music Lydia Hamessley's World Music course for the remainder of the semester and never made the mistake again.

Professor of Music Sam Pellman decided to take up German again (after a less-than-stellar undergraduate stint with the language) after being similarly encouraged. "I'd been kicking around the idea of taking German for years and years, and one day I was walking along Martin's Way and mentioned it to [Professor of German] Edith Toegel. She immediately threw up her hands and exclaimed "You must!' I really had no choice in the matter," he says happily.

Language classes are some of the most common places to find professors sitting alongside students.

Women's Basketball Coach Julie Diehl '93 recently took Intro Spanish with Jeremy Medina, the Burgess Professor of Romance Languages and Literature, to brush up after years away from a language she's "always had an interest in." (And, after "switching gears and being able to be the student instead of being in charge," Diehl says she concentrated on her work just as much as if she were back at Hamilton and taking the class for credit. She remembers that one of the women she was coaching at the time was in Medina's other section of Intro Spanish, making for a bit of healthy competition. Though of course, "I won," Diehl says, "I got an A.")

Professor of History Maurice Isserman sat in on Sciacca's first semester Russian language class in the fall of 1996 to prepare for his stint as the Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American History at Moscow State University. As he says, having "never studied a word" of the language, he was faced with "a semester of living in a Russian city, shopping in Russian stores and using public transportation."

Although some may assume professors should naturally be the best students in class, many insist the reverse is the case: the longer they are away from thinking outside their discipline, the harder it is, especially in language classes. Isserman goes so far as to confess, "I was, without doubt, the worst student in the class, if not in the entire history of the Russian program at Hamilton ... I chalk it up to age. The ability to absorb a foreign language certainly worsens with time." Pellman agrees: "My brain is so much slower than it used to be! And I am much too abstract now — I was trying to analyze the language when I should have been more worried about how to get an aspirin in Munich." Pellman was also one of very few professors to receive a grade, earning a solid B. "People can talk about grade compression, but I worked damn hard for my B," he says.

As is the case with many students, having a difficult time in a class prompts faculty members to work harder, though with a healthy new sense of humility. When learning to lead an orchestra for the first time in Professor of Music Rob Kolb's Conducting course, Professor of Comparative Literature Peter Rabinowitz found himself limited not by the willingness of his intellect, but by the inevitable physical changes age brings. "Conducting requires a certain amount of physical flexibility, and it was like I was learning to ride a bike too late in life. I knew what I should look like, but I couldn't make my body do it. I think the other students appreciated being able to watch me trying and failing." The experience brought back "a visceral memory of part of what it's like to be a student: to fail, to be confused and to be frustrated."

Many things about being a student are stressful, and some don't change with age or further education. There is no hiding at Hamilton from writing or speaking, even if you earned your Ph.D. years ago. Part of the final exam in Toegel's German class is a presentation in front of the class, and Pellman vividly remembers the "total terror" he felt at the prospect: "I hate public speaking. That's why I'm a piano player." Rabinowitz had a similar experience when it was his turn to conduct the orchestra at the end of the semester. He remembers, "It was completely scary. I almost threw up beforehand ... I still don't have the confidence to look at the tape that was made."

Heavy workloads can also bring back the feeling of being an undergraduate. Karen Brewer has taken four English seminars and two Latin courses, and even though she often felt as though she were in a reading group where she "just happened to be 20-odd years older than the rest of the class ... there is no avoiding, now as much as then, being faced with 200 pages of reading at midnight." And yet the most rewarding parts of learning can be worth the work — both Brewer and Reynolds likened being able to take new classes to having gym time to themselves, clearing their minds and exercising their intellects.

Taking a class also allows faculty members to improve their own teaching — after all, they are learning from the best. Reynolds finds another reason faculty flock to Briggs: "He is a good listener, and good at directing students — things we all aspire to."

Collett notes that encouraging extended discussions in class is a skill, and he is still a bit in awe of Hamessley's ability to do so. "Our [World Music] class was very, very different from anything I've ever done," he says, "and Lydia's ability to sit there and listen when students are talking, her restraint, is just amazing." Music professors must take lessons in grace, as Rabinowitz has similar things to say about what he learned from Kolb: "Rob is so good at lightening the mood of a class and especially at giving criticism that doesn't hurt. I'd like to think that after taking the class I'm as critical as I've ever been, but maybe just a little sweeter."

Professors agree that there's much benefit in being shaken out of their comfort zones, if only to remind themselves how much they don't know. After all, as Gapp says, "[Professors] wouldn't be in this business if we weren't interested in knowing things." His students have benefited from his taking Shakespeare, medieval history and anthropology classes at Hamilton. He says, "Through my years here, I've endeavored to anchor the science I teach in context. Science didn't just spring out of the blue, and the direction it goes in is increasingly affected by the culture around it. Galileo's progress being hindered by the Catholic Church is the obvious example." Knowing Shakespeare also brings the "wonderful tradition of history and literature" home to science students. "After all," Gapp adds, "Shakespeare employs many plant-derived potions, like Friar Lawrence's made with deadly nightshade laced with atropine which can actually make someone appear for a time as if they are dead."

Gapp, along with Brewer, could be poster children for cross-discipline interests. Brewer thinks the experiences she's had in her English and Latin courses are invaluable, as faculty members can "appreciate the breadth of education Hamilton offers and get to know other faculty members as partners in teaching." Pellman agrees: "There are so many interesting faculty members here that it is terribly wrong to keep oneself hermetically sealed in one's own discipline."

Hamilton cultivates its students into lifelong learners, who hopefully never feel it's too late to learn something new. Open-minded professors are influential in turning students into Hamilton's ideal of the liberally educated person. "Who knows?" asks Brewer, "maybe we are more role models than we realize. If we're liberally educated ourselves, then we think liberally and pass our love of learning anything and everything on to the students we see every day."

Alexandra Sear '05 is a philosophy major/math minor from Canterbury, Conn.

Contact Information

Stacey Himmelberger

Editor, Hamilton Alumni Review
198 College Hill Road
Clinton, NY 13323
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