Alums Enjoy Getting Back to Class – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Alums Enjoy Getting Back to Class

Whether they graduated five or 50 years ago, many alums found themselves once again hurrying to class. On Saturday morning, reunion participants were welcomed back to class by a number of professors and fellow reunion attendees for mini courses on topics ranging from Pakistan’s economic policy, to childhood obesity, from discussions about best-selling novels to a look at how the media covers the Tea Party.

In one morning session, John D’Agata ’95 led a discussion of his latest book, “About a Mountain.” The book explores the plan by the U.S. federal government to fill Yucca Mountain, located 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, with nuclear waste. However, a question from Sharon Peckham Best ’62 P’84 about how D’Agata became interested in the topic revealed a much more complex understanding of the book’s subject matter. The author explained it was a combination of the increasing attention to the question of Yucca Mountain, coupled with the subsequent suicide of a 16-year-old boy that D’Agata talked to while volunteering for a suicide hotline that led him to write his book. He said it was a matter of “letting the subjects speak to each other.”

However, D’Agata went on to explain that the book was not really about Yucca Mountain or nuclear waste. Instead, the mountain was merely a metaphor for the limits of human understanding. The audience took the ideas raised in D’Agata’s book and applied them locally, beginning a discussion of the desire for natural gas companies to store their waste in the salt mine under Seneca Lake. The audience also discussed several divergent topics ranging from gas prices to coffee.

In another of the first sessions of the day, Joel Kerlan P’89, emeritus professor of biology and one of this year’s Distinguished Faculty Award recipients, stepped back into the classroom to present “Childhood Obesity in America.” He opened the class with a true/false quiz on facts of childhood obesity, asking about the severity and prevalence of childhood obesity, symptoms that arise as a result, and negative effects. Incorporating video clips and discussion, he touched upon the role of doctors, parents, schools and politics in the epidemic. The course also discussed the negative effects of obesity, including diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, polycystic ovarian syndrome, pediatric orthopedic problems, and the resulting high health care costs.

“As a practicing physician, I deal with this kind of work all the time, so I really connected with this talk,” says Dr. Emanuel Trabuco’90.

During the second session of courses, Distinguished Faculty Award recipient and former Professor of Religious Studies Mary Gearhart switched roles as she slipped into a class led by Dorothy Wickenden ’76. Executive Director of the New Yorker, Wickenden presented a discussion of her latest book, “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West.”

More than 20 people packed into the classroom to listen to the preview of Wickenden’s book that will be released later this month. Wickenden was the granddaughter of Dorothy Woodruff, one of the characters the book is based upon, and she recounted aspects of her grandmother’s life, supplementing the bare bones accounting with readings from the book. Audience members sat forward in their seats, as Wickenden read about her family’s relationship with two-term Senator William Seward.  After giving the audience a taste of the book, Wickenden opened the class to questions and many audience members discussed the Suffragist Movement in Upstate New York and the role that Auburn’s profitable past played in the development of that movement.

Iva Deutchman, professor of political science, led a class on “The Tea Party and American Politics,” with the discussion centering on media representations of politics. “We live in a media world that makes it so easy to decide what we want to view and read. The mindset of so many Americans has become: ‘I’m not going to read something that will challenge me.  I watch and read what I agree with,'” Deutchman said.

She explained that those who tend to vote Republican most often watch Fox News, and therefore are only hearing their own beliefs, while Democrats watch MSNBC and further entrench their own views as well. People rarely reach across the aisle to solve issues on a non-partisan level. The political discourse that has arisen out of the hostile environment, Deutchman noted, has only served to exacerbate hatred on both sides of the aisle, and this is most often triggered through media outlets.

“It is so easy in 2011 to construct a media environment that will not challenge you. However, it then only reinforces what you already believe,” said Deutchman.

Eric Hobson, husband of Carol Rieger Hobson ’61 from Australia, said “The Tea Party has always been a very mysterious yet menacing aspect of American politics. Because we have a similar polarization of politics in Australia, and because coverage of American politics is ubiquitous, I came to this talk to learn more about this issue, and how the two governments relate.” Because of the similar political structure, Deutchman has been invited to teach at the University of Melbourne in Australia on a number of occasions.

All eight class sessions were well attended and many discussions continued on beyond the classrooms. However, alums were thankful not to have homework this time around.

In the photo above, Professor of Political Science Iva Deutchman leads a discussion on the Tea Party and the media.

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