October 25, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 2

Teaching and Advising: Inseparable

Note: Religious Studies professor and department chair Jed Wyrick delivered this Outstanding Academic Advisor lecture at the CELT luncheon on Oct. 17. Wyrick has focused intently on the recruitment and advising of majors and minors in religious studies and humanities. He has sole responsibility for advising humanities majors and minors and advises those in cinema studies, classical civilization, medieval studies, renaissance studies, and modern Jewish and Israel studies.

I come from a family of musicians; in our family, learning has always been a one-on-one enterprise. I remember my oldest brother’s violin teacher, Dorothy Delay, whom I came to know during our trips to the Juilliard School each Saturday. Miss Delay was larger than life, and I mean that literally. She taught some of the greatest violinists of our generation, including Itzhak Perlman, Cho-Liang Lin, Nigel Kennedy, Gil Shaham, and Midori. She was always kind to my parents, and I once remember her scouring our copper ashtrays in our Poughkeepsie, NY home—she wasn’t someone who put on airs. After a student played for her, Miss Delay always began her comments with, “That was nice, Sweetie.” And she meant it. Never a harsh word, but she always got her point across, and her students went on to achieve great things. It’s a tough point to remember—harsh criticism and stern direction often prevents engagement. You can never really tell students what to do; what you can do is honor where they are while you show them what is possible, and maybe poke fun of them and yourself for good measure. That last bit is my addition to the “Delay method.”

I don’t really separate advising from teaching, especially one-on-one teaching. Since I arrived in Chico, I’ve worked with students outside of class, teaching them ancient Greek and reading Plato and Herodotus with them in the original language. These students have gone on to work in Germany; to pursue advanced study of history, math, classical civilization, and computer graphics; to serve in the Chico Police force and the U.S. military; and to teach at the university level, including at Chico State. I have always appreciated our sessions and the relationships we have built. For my other Greek students, the members of Phi Delta Theta, I am grateful to be able to help them in some small way to practice leadership and to succeed in their studies and future careers. I admire their search for meaning through nourishing a social institution and using it to create long-lasting relationships, and will continue to urge them to help our local community and not just some impersonal national charity.

I would like to tell you a little about my experience as an advisor to our students majoring in the humanities.

Humanities students get to pick courses for their major from about eight different departments. It’s a lot of fun to help match each student with styles of instruction that complement and challenge them, and to point them in the direction of a completely new and unknown object of study.

I love telling students that studying abroad costs exactly as much as they are paying now for tuition, plus the cost of a plane trip.

I’ve learned that students often want to think about a job after graduation, but rarely have even considered putting in an application to intern in their dream organization. They don’t know what kind of businesses or non-profits they might like to work for and have not begun to think about what careers now exist or might exist in the future. I want to help them in this quest. We in the liberal arts can do more to forge links with practical and applied fields of study, even as we explore artistic and scientific disciplines in their pure form without any thought of their practical applications. In my view, Chico State has the potential to take a leading role in this kind of balancing act.

Through advising and my other roles at Chico State, I’ve also encountered some very real challenges faced by our University. From this vantage point, what is particularly and painfully apparent is the shrinking number of faculty in certain vital areas of inquiry.

  • Chico State has only one faculty member whose instruction and area of expertise covers the broad spectrum of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, with about three others with specific training in classical languages and cultures.
  • The University has two or possibly three permanent faculty members who regularly teach about China and who have training in Chinese language and culture. It has probably two or three experts in the study of Japan and one in the study of Russia.
  • The University has only two faculty members with expertise in the study of the Middle East and the larger Islamic world.
  • There is no one with the specific expertise in the study of modern day Israel at the University and only a couple with training in the study of Jewish civilization.
  • As far as I can tell, the University has only one faculty member who regularly teaches a course devoted to India (although there are others who have background in the study of the region). This same individual is also one of our few experts in Southeast Asia. In a pinch, he can also cover other subjects, but South and Southeast Asia shouldn’t be able to spare him.
  • The University has one permanent faculty member whose expertise is in Africa and a few others who teach about the region, but possibly as few as three courses that focus on the continent.
  • Even when we hire experts in these and other crucial areas of study, our University curriculum system and new GE pathways aren’t in my view nimble enough to accommodate fields of study that are currently absent. We don’t do well at fostering a culture that creates new courses and reinvigorates our curricula on a regular basis, because of the need to manage an ever-increasing workload and because our students don’t have any enticement to enroll in them. Further, we don’t pay nearly enough attention in my opinion to world cultures in our educational goals.

Some bright spots I have noticed: one can now study Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Russian, thanks the heroic efforts of Patricia Black and others. But students in the University GE program, as a result of the pathway reforms, now have less incentive to study a foreign language than before, and even fewer students are now taking advantage of courses in these particular languages, which have never been filled.

It is for this reason that I’m asking my colleagues in the College of Humanities and Fine Arts to consider requiring a foreign language for majors in our college. A semester or two of foreign language study does not result in fluency in a language, but it does open students’ eyes to the existence of language itself and gives them another avenue to begin to overcome what my friends in composition refer to as “surface errors” in their use of English. Our students need to learn to communicate in the kind of English that is spoken as a second language by a great portion of the globe—to adapt to sound changes and to remove difficult constructions and culturally specific metaphors from their speech. One or two semesters of Portuguese or Chinese, Arabic or Italian can lead to a fruitful study abroad experience in Brazil or Morocco, Viterbo or Aix-en-Provence. There, a student can do two or even four more semesters of language study in a semester or a year. This might lead to a minor in German or Italian, or a double major in Latin American Studies or Asian Studies upon returning to Chico. The student might later decide to teach English in that country after graduation, take an internship in a company doing business with this country, or go on to graduate school on the basis of this new expertise. The student might even get arrested, spend a couple years in an Italian jail, and learn Italian fluently while still an undergraduate.

As you can tell, I believe in the study of foreign language and in study abroad as something for all students in the University. I also believe that the study of religion and the history of arts and ideas are not only noble but also useful subjects for concentrated investigation on the part of those whose talents lie in this direction. I am grateful every day to be able to show students the possibilities these areas of study make available to them. But I’m not sure I would be as convinced of their importance if I hadn’t come to Chico State. It is our unusual predicament as an agricultural Western oasis (“Western” in both senses of the word) on the volatile and vast Pacific rim that makes the encounter of East and West uniquely significant here. It is our role as a center of technology and vocational learning staffed by monastic intellectuals and traditionalists that convinces me that we might be able to offer a mixture of old and new that is unusually empowering to our students.