After the bubble bursts

George Wyeth

Last spring, I had the – probably undeserved – honor of being the Scarff Visiting Professor in the government department, teaching on the subject I have engaged in for the past 20 years, environmental policy. This was the first time I had been back on campus for any length of time since I graduated in 1973.
I lived close to campus and spent most of my 10 weeks in Appleton re-immersing myself in the life of the Lawrence community after many years with very little contact. I moved from Washington, D.C. to Appleton, and from a government position managing professional staff to teaching students. These changes gave me a perspective that not many would be able to offer, so I thought I’d share my observations on that experience.
The strongest single impression I came away with was that the Lawrence community is more bonded, more forward-looking and basically happier than I recall from the distant past.
I’ve tried to adjust for the fact that things probably look rosier when you are not taking tests and writing research papers with the prospect of being graded at the end of it. I’m also taking into account that in the early ’70s a certain pose of alienation and cynicism was socially expected among students, probably masking the degree of enthusiasm we had for our classes, professors and activities.
Nevertheless, students at Lawrence today seem optimistic and enthusiastic in a way that I had not anticipated. I don’t mean optimism about their personal prospects – students seem very much aware of what the job market is like. I’m referring more to a confidence that individuals and small groups can accomplish great things, and a refreshing lack of the cynicism that in my day denigrated volunteer efforts as naive “co-optation.”
Students throw themselves into everything from working with Amnesty International to running a big organic garden, promoting the use of bikes instead of cars, contributing to a microfinance bank, arranging for solar panels to be installed on Science Hall or collecting books for children in Ghana.
Students today are also joiners in a way that simply was not the case in my time. My best estimate is that there is one club for every two students. I wondered how much of this was motivated by the desire to have something on the resume, but the activities were real and the commitment seemed genuine.
In almost all cases these groups seemed to be reaching out to others, and not just meeting in private. The Afro-Caribbean Club held a bake sale and sponsored a carnival-themed late-night party. A group sponsoring microfinancing brought an outside speaker to campus.
The Black Organization of Students held a “throwback” night – “throwback” meaning to a time period 20 years after I graduated. Conversely, there seemed to be a lot of enthusiasm among other students in attending each others’ activities – parties, performances, whatever.
I also sensed a greater degree of identification with Lawrence as an institution than I remember from my undergraduate days. In the early 1970s, we were “alienated from the establishment,” which meant we had to distance ourselves from any source of authority and in particular the University.
Again I wonder in retrospect how much of this was a pose. But I don’t remember anything like senior night, which seemed to be a major event for both students and faculty. In conversation, students talked about Lawrence as something they identified with, and not as an institution against whose oppression one had to be constantly on guard.
I see students today acting more like students than we did, and less like people ready to take over the world. It’s hard to put my finger on what I mean by this, but being cynical and suspicious of authority goes along with a certain amount of arrogance and humorlessness.
My generation took ourselves pretty seriously, perhaps too much so. The current generation isn’t lacking in ambition but seems to be more capable of having fun while the chance is there.
On another point entirely, international students have a much more visible presence today than I remember. I don’t know what the statistics say, but there seemed to be many more international students now and they were much more active in campus life.
When the government department organized a UN simulation, the participants were almost as diverse as in the real thing, and in most cases students represented countries other than their own.
International students were heavily represented on honors day, in almost all categories. And they didn’t isolate themselves – in fact, it seemed to me that international students were more likely than others to approach me in a friendly way, to the point that I began to wonder if people who can leave home and go halfway around the world for school are just inherently extroverted compared to those who, like me, got homesick after driving 200 miles.
A new perspective that I got as a visiting faculty member was the chance to see academia from the other side of the desk. It was a major revelation that a great deal goes into teaching other than organizing and presenting material.
All the faculty members I talked to thought a lot about their tactics – not just putting the information out there but creating the carrots and sticks that would increase the likelihood of it being absorbed by students.
Teaching turned out to be less like giving a speech than I expected, and more like putting on a play in which most of the participants don’t know their lines. Faculty members put a great deal of effort into finding ways of getting students actively engaged or getting them to think through problems rather than watching them solved by someone else.
I have generally thought of academics as subject-matter experts, often in arcane and obscure subjects, whose teaching subsidizes them to write articles and whose main professional interest lies in impressing a small coterie of other similar experts.
There is probably some truth to this, but I was really struck by how seriously the faculty I met took their teaching – certainly at the level of conveying knowledge but more fundamentally at the level of instilling skills and – much as one hesitates to say it – even character.
Finally, I have to mention one very marked change that I found particularly satisfying given my 20-year career with the Environmental Protection Agency: the dramatic difference in the role that the Fox River plays in the campus and the city. When I was at Lawrence the river was polluted and ugly, and we pretty much ignored it.
Today, as a result of steps taken in the 1970’s and ’80s to cut back on pollution from paper mills and sewage treatment plants, the river is an amenity. New campus buildings face the river, and take advantage of its scenic value. Old factories have been turned into condos and restaurants, and a path runs along the river. Birds of all kinds can be seen on and around it.
It’s a striking example of the quality of life benefits that can result from an environmental cleanup. There is more to be done – PCBs make it unsafe to eat more than a small number of fish from the river – but it is a dramatic change.
I’m afraid this comes across as something commissioned by the admissions department, and I don’t want to give an unrealistic impression. Even as a visitor I got to be privy to some of the gossip and internal politics. A college like any other workplace has friction, and there are going to be professional disappointments and resentments. As a short-timer, I probably was buffered from this to some extent and didn’t have to take sides on divisive issues.
Other changes weren’t for the better or the worse – just changes. When I was a student, the President was a very visible figure on campus; the current President seems to be more focused externally and not as present locally – perhaps reflecting changes over the past 40 years in what that job consists of.
In addition, Lawrence’s location still puts it off the beaten path, making it hard to ge
t first-rate speakers or other visitors. Needless to say, the Scarff Professorship is the shining exception to that.
The overall impression that I got in 10 weeks on campus was very positive. It’s tremendously satisfying to see people working hard – both faculty and students – because they are enthusiastic about what they are doing and think that it matters, not just because they need the money or have some other material reward. Lawrence today strikes me as healthy, energetic and forward-looking, and very much on the right path.