Academic Life at Hampden-Sydneyby P. Campbell Robbins '09 • October 18, 2006
EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next few weeks the four Wabash men who visited Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia will be writing their personal observations about life at HSC. This first article concentrates on HSC academics, next week Brandon Stewart will write about student life and Sean Clerget will detail HSC athletics. Brock Johnson’s photos will be featured throughout the series.
My visit to Hampden-Sydney provided me with a plethora of topics to write about, and I will be doing so in subsequent issues of the Bachelor. I will stick specifically to sharing my observations of academic life at Hampden-Sydney this week.
The first class I visited was a Philosophy/Ethics course on Thursday, bright and early at 8:30 a.m. As soon as I walked into the room, I could already notice some striking similarities in the class set-up. The twelve or so students there sat around a long wooden table, with their instructor, Professor James Janowski, positioned at the head. The students were discussing David Hume’s “An Enquiry Concerning the Principle of Morals”, and comparing the views expressed in the work to those articulated by Thomas Hobbes, whom they had studied earlier in the semester. Professor Janowski, rather than dictate the direction of the discussion, sat back and took the role of moderator. It was clear that he wanted the students themselves to formulate and express their own opinions as opposed to him just lecturing on what he thought was important to note from the text.
I was immediately transported back a few years to my junior year of high school, where I spent a day visiting Wabash. One of the classes I sat in on then was a philosophy class taught by Professor William Placher, where I vividly remember the class discussing the Nietzsche’s theory of the Ubermenschen. The role Professor Placher played in this class was eerily similar to Professor Janowski’s. Like his Hampden-Sydney counterpart, Professor Placher could easily have filled up his students’ minds with his own opinions and doctrines (no doubt brilliant in their own right) related to the examined work, but he instead had the students themselves discuss their thoughts among one another. Rather than setting the direction the discussion would take, both professors preferred to sit back and chime in here and there when they deemed it necessary.
The late-morning and afternoon were largely spent walking around campus and talking to various students. In conversing with these HSC men, I found another similarity between our two institutions: professors have high academic expectations, and students take these very seriously. James, a junior from Richmond, told me, “Parties and students kicking-back are scarce sights on weekdays here. From Sunday night to Friday afternoon, the majority of us are hitting the books hard. We save letting loose for the weekends.” I found this to be the same here at Wabash, where one would have to look hard to find a bunch of students partying it up heavily.
A late afternoon interview with HSC history professor James Simms was one of the highlights of the trip. In this his 39th year at HSC, Professor Simms is one of college’s living legends, and he says he still loves educating young men even after all these years. I found this comparable to so much of our faculty, who also demonstrate a deep passion for teaching. Later meetings with two other HSC living legends, Professor of Classics and College Historian John Brinkley and former school president General Samuel Wilson (both of whom will certainly be mentioned frequently in later articles by my three students peers who were on the trip), only sharpened the comparisions between the passion for teaching that professors possess at both colleges.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of HSC academics was their rhetoric program, referred to by Dean of Students Fleck as “the crowned jewel of the Hampden-Sydney curriculum.” The emphasis the faculty place on the program is noticeable. At the least, students take two semesters of rhetoric, with most undertaking three. Passing the courses is a requirement for graduation. Through this program, students become more proficient in everything from grammar editing to writing a strong persuasive essay. The success of the program is evident: alums are frequently promoted to positions where strong writing skills and editing are key. Dean Fleck explains “at least 50 percent of outgoing seniors say that the rhetoric program is the best part of the academic program”, adding that 15-year alumni say that same thing.
The substantial academic expectations professors have for students at HSC are clearly visible to a visitor, and is very much comparable to the expectations placed upon Wabash students. I only had the opportunity to attend two classes in my short time at HSC, but the seriousness with which the students took their academic responsibilities was evident. Both schools demand much academically of their students, and in turn, the students strive to live up to these demands.