Dear Diary: Five Things I’ve Learned About Wabash

By Prof. Jennifer Young
  March 25, 2004

Excerpted from a Chapel talk on April 10, 2003

I’d like to thank you all for coming to listen to me today.  I’d like, also, to thank the Sphinx Club for inviting me to participate in a chapel talk.  I am honored to be here.


Prof. Young, Speech Department


You probably already know the title of my talk due to the sandwich boards worn by the Sphinx Club members.  (I have to say that, as a new member of the community, it is a wild experience to walk past a student who has your name inscribed on his chest—as though I was the entrée of the day.)  So, you probably know that the title of my talk is "Dear Diary: Five Things I’ve Learned About Wabash."

Well, there is no actual diary.  OK, there is, but it’s currently being made into a major motion picture.  What I’ll talk about today is a "mental" diary—entries that I’ve made in my head as the school year has gone by.  I’d like to share several of these entries with you and the 5 lessons that I’ve learned from them.

* * *

August 29, 2002, The 1st day of class:
"Dear Diary, Oh my gosh, where are the women?  They weren’t kidding when they said this is an all-male college.  I walked today from my office in the Fine Arts Building across campus to the bookstore, and … everywhere, there were men.  They were talking in groups on the sidewalk, walking to classes, and throwing Frisbees on the mall.  They were everywhere, and I was alone.  I finally made my way into the bookstore, and out of the corner of my eye, I spotted someone with long hair.  At last!  Another woman!  But no; it was only Mike Bachner."

"I knew, of course, that Wabash is all-male, but I didn’t expect to be so aware of it.  Walking across campus, I’ve never felt more aware of my gender in my life.  God forbid I wear a skirt and heels and draw even more attention to my difference."

Those were my thoughts that first day.

August 31, 2002: The 3rd day of class:
"Dear Diary, I saw a remarkable sight in my public speaking class today.  A student walked into my class, and I couldn’t stop looking at his pants.  They weren’t sweat pants, but they were made of a light-weight material, were plaid, and had a draw-string waist … almost like pajama pants.  I thought, ‘Could they be?  Certainly not!’  But as I looked more closely, I noticed that his T-shirt was excessively wrinkled and that his hair had obviously not been combed that morning, and as the student approached me, there was that slight, but distinctive odor.  Yes, he wore his pajamas to my class."

This is a sight that I have since seen multiple times, but it stopped me in my tracks at that first sighting.  Never before had I seen a student so unapologetically, so obviously arrive in his pajamas.

I suppose this is illustrative (perhaps to the extreme) of the students’ feeling of comfort in an all-male environment.  They don’t have to worry about impressing anybody or being distracted by such superficial concerns.

Yet, it struck me as ironic that I’ve never been so conscious, so deliberate in my choice of clothing.  In fact, I consulted with two other female faculty members before I wore one particular outfit, lest I overly "declare" myself as Woman.  This is not a simple matter of vanity, mind you.  Before I came to Wabash, I never worried much about what to wear.  But now, it’s a conscious decision every day.  I wonder, ‘Is it stylish, but professional?  Appropriate without being frumpy?’"

The first lesson that I’ve learned is the simple irony that the very conditions that make the men here not need to focus on their gender are the same conditions that cause me to focus so much on mine.

* * *

November 18, 2002:
"Dear Diary, Today is ‘the’ day.  Today in Speech 101, we discuss the ‘f’-word—feminism.  In particular, feminist criticism."

That’s right, gentlemen.  I’m a feminist.  BOO!  Did I scare ya? 

"My stomach is in knots.  How will my students respond?  Will they reject this type of criticism and turn the discussion into a debate against me?  Or will they simply dismiss it and sit in apathetic silence?  The difference in our genders has seemed so prominent to me, that I’m worried that I will have trouble relating to students, or they to me.  Today’s conversation about feminist criticism may well go up in flames."

Two hours later:
"Dear Diary, What an amazing class period!  Today was one of the best conversations all semester.  We critiqued Toby Keith’s ‘Who’s Your Daddy’ music video—the stuff of feminist nightmares!—and my students and I shared similar observations, interpretations, and conclusions about the video—from a feminist perspective.  In the midst of this conversation, it struck me that, for a time, I had forgotten that my students were all men and that I was a woman.  And I realized that I had gotten to know them as people, and they me."
I’ve learned, secondly, that being a woman in the Wabash classroom is much less of an obstacle to productive, exciting conversations with my students than I had anticipated

…I’m going to step away from the gender issues now, so you can all breathe more easily.

* * *

July 23, 2002:
"Dear Diary, I just spoke with my department chair, and we confirmed the courses that I’ll teach next year.  In the spring, I’ll teach a class called C&T.  This is the kind of class that you dream about—reading great books and discussing them with a small number of students.  And even better, the syllabus is already prepared for me!  I’ve heard such great things about this class that I’m really looking forward to teaching it." 

February 7, 2003, The 3rd week of C&T:
"Dear Diary, This is hard.  This week we covered Schleiermacher, Wagner, and today Nietzche.  I am being stretched in every direction.  Many of the readings are new to me, and I’m struggling to know what to do with them in class.  I’m tired, and my students seem tired too.  I’ve spoken to several other C&T faculty members who feel the same way.  Nine more days until the next C&T lecture…and counting."   

March 26, 2003, Tommy’s:
"Dear Diary, It’s a tradition that every year after the Brigance Forum lecture, the speech faculty and seniors head to Tommy’s.  Wanting to uphold tradition, I joined them, of course.  While talking to several seniors there, I mentioned that I’m teaching C&T.  Their reaction astounded me.  They described their undying love for the course, referring to the class as ‘one of the best at Wabash.’  One senior even wished that the course was 2 years long!  If I suggested that to my current C&T students, I think they might explode!  And me with them!  So, where’s the connection?"

I’ve learned, thirdly, that Wabash students love C&T, but only in hindsight.

* * *

September 24, 2002:
"Dear Diary, Today I heard that the Princeton Review ranked Wabash students 8th for ‘never stops studying.’  I wasn’t surprised.  I’ve been impressed by how hard my students here work, and I always hear them talking about how many hours they’ve studied and how little they’ve slept.  I’m glad that I decided not to set aside a class day to teach them how to use the library for things like finding scholarly articles.  Since they ‘never stop studying,’ they’re surely skilled at using library resources."

November 5, 2002:
"Dear Diary, My students had a literature review due today.  Since I hadn’t heard from them about the assignment for several days, I assumed that they were doing fine with it, putting their excellent study skills to work.  By last night, however, at least half of them had called or emailed me to declare that, after exhaustive hours in the library, they discovered that no scholarly articles have ever been written about their topic, so what are they to do?  Highly skeptical of these claims, I turned to my computer to search for myself.  Within just a few keystrokes, I found several articles for every student’s topic." 

Fourth lesson learned: Wabash students work very hard, but not always efficiently.

…By the way, if you’re taking one of my classes in the fall, you’ll find a day set aside for learning how to better use library resources!

* * *

October 25, 2002:
"Dear Diary, I looked at the Wabash mission statement today, which is to teach men to ‘think critically, act responsibly, live humanely, and lead effectively,’ and I was reminded of the vision of the Wabash man… as a free-thinking, rugged individualist; driven to succeed, to become a leader; a unique figure."

"Then, when I later walked across campus, I encountered a herd of muscle-bound, backwards baseball-capped, ‘Wabash Always Fights’ T-shirted, Dave Matthews’ listening, short hair and medium side-burned … Wabash men."

This dichotomy between the vision of the individualistic Wabash man and this monolithic herd of indistinguishable men leads me to offer a final, more prescriptive, lesson.  Call it a gentle word of caution from a recent émigré to this odd, wonderful, and challenging college culture: Celebrate the fraternity that you find in your houses, dorms, and classrooms, but beware of the insidious siren of conformity that calls to you to look, act, and even believe the same things—so that you can, indeed, embody the vision of the "Wabash man."

* * *

To conclude, one final diary entry: April 10, 2003:
"Dear Diary, Today I gave a chapel talk.  What an honor to stand where so many great Wabash faculty members have stood before me, and to look out at the students who will become the leaders of tomorrow.  I am excited and amazed by this place where students take the initiative to organize a slate of speakers for each semester; a place where students—together with faculty and staff members—gather each week to consider one person’s thoughts; a place that I am proud to now call home." 

Thank you.

© 2003 by Jennifer Young
Not to be reprinted without permission.