By Victoria Gill-Gomez and Erica Quinones
In preparation for the digital semester ahead, new department chairs plan to implement a foundation of growth and familiarity in an ever-changing state of unrest.
Hodson Trust Professor of Economics Dr. Lisa Daniels became the chair of the Department of Economics.
Dr. Daniels is an experienced applicator and educator of economics whose interest in the subject grew during her time in the Peace Corps after completing her undergraduate education.
While she served with the Peace Corps in Cameroon, Dr. Daniels became curious about economic growth, poverty, and inequality.
Her questions about national wealth inequality led her to graduate school where she studied economics, and consequently began teaching it.
She not only taught at Indiana State University and the University of Zimbabwe, the latter for part of a semester as she researched her graduate school dissertation, but Dr. Daniels also worked hands-on in the field as a consultant for several African countries.
Dr. Daniels said her consultation work included “[designing] and [directing] national surveys on the private sector, [studying] agricultural marketing, [examining] issues of gender and equality in the small enterprise sector, and [analyzing] the impact of the United States’ cotton subsidies on poor farmers in West Africa.”
The work she completed across Africa earned her an invitation to testify at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on behalf of 14 countries.
“All of these experiences gave me a foundation that I could draw on to bring real-world examples into the classroom,” Dr. Daniels said.
She did just that after her year as a visiting professor at Indiana State University. According to Dr. Daniels, she fell in love with teaching at the University. However, her husband wanted to work in Washington, D.C.
When she began applying to colleges within the D.C. area, Washington College selected her as the Hodson Trust Professor of Economics. Dr. Daniels was not familiar with the College at first, but she said that she knew it would be “a great place to work given the warm and welcoming community and the wonderful students.”
As she moves into her new position of leadership, Dr. Daniels wants to create a welcoming and inclusive community for students. Likewise, she looks towards building a stronger community by establishing stronger ties with the Department of Economics’ alumni, expanding networking opportunities, and offering more internships. All of this she hopes to accompany along with an expansion of upper-level courses for economics majors.
Economics was not the only social sciences department to receive a new chair. Associate Professor of Sociology, Director of the Justice, Law & Society Minor, and Faculty Pre-Law Advisor Dr. Rachel Durso became the chair of the Department of Sociology this year.
Dr. Durso’s interest in sociology scholarship was sparked in her junior year of college when she was a history major and sociology minor. At the time, her professors encouraged her to consider graduate school, but she was unsure of pursuing a history program because she was interested in contemporary social issues.
However, during a research methods course with her professor, Debb Thorne, Dr. Durso was exposed to practical applications of research. The work her class completed, and Professor Thorne’s own research, helped Dr. Durso recognize what she wanted in her own career.
Professor Thorne’s research on bankruptcy was frequently cited, appeared in national media, and she worked as a fellow alongside current Senator Elizabeth Warren at Harvard University’s Consumer Bankruptcy Project, according to Dr. Durso. Professor Thorne was completing research with practical applications that advocated for institutional change. It was the same work Dr. Durso desired to pursue.
She decided to apply to sociology graduate programs.
Since joining the WC faculty six years ago, Dr. Durso has taught multiple courses related to specialized topics in criminology, such as victimology and juvenile delinquency. She also developed three new courses, “Sociology of Punishment”; “Women, Crime, and the Criminal Justice System”; and “Sociology of Gangs.”
Dr. Durso does not only develop coursework, but her teaching helped her develop leadership abilities that will assist her in the new leadership role.
Be it by helping students overcome writer’s block, cope with a failing grade, improve a research paper, or navigate their post-graduate future, Dr. Durso said that her teaching pushes her to think creatively, be open to new ideas, collaborate, communicate clearly, be flexible, and demonstrate empathy.
These skills are particularly vital as she enters leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Durso said a major area of focus regarding COVID-19 is combating students’ feelings of disconnection from the WC community, especially when the College environment typically promotes “unhurried conversation” between students and professors.
To cultivate that connection within the sociology department, Dr. Durso is turning towards communication tactics with monthly coffee/tea hours for students where they can speak with her casually, and usage of the messaging platform Slack for the faculty to encourage consistent communication.
That view of interconnectivity is not isolated to the sociology department, however, as Dr. Durso described the sociology department as one that “plays well with others.” Because sociology studies social problems and structures, patterns of social relationships, interactions, and cultures, it offers new insights to colleagues and students outside of the department. Sociology also contributes to many interdisciplinary programs and majors, and it is recommended for students on either the pre-medical or pre-nursing tracks.
As chair, Dr. Durso wants to strengthen those interdisciplinary ties, potentially expanding their course offerings.
But she turns once more to students as she begins her term as chair during a social enigma. Dr. Durso said that to learn effectively, students need their basic needs met. They must be supported, including emotionally. It is alright to feel grief about what the COVID-19 pandemic has taken, anxious over new responsibilities, it is alright to feel fear, disappointment, sadness, or even anger throughout this process.
“You can feel empathy for others while also navigating your own feelings of loss. This pandemic has created upheaval in many people’s security and support, and I hope students feel that they can reach out to faculty, now more than ever, for assistance,” Dr. Durso said.
Further changes occurred within the social sciences as Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion Dr. Peter J. Weigel took over as chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion.
Dr. Weigel aligns with the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas who observed that a deep love of something engenders a strong desire to import something of its goodness to others.
“I hope my working with students at the College, if only in a small way, does that,” said Dr. Weigel.
Dr. Weigel fell in love with philosophy within the first 10 minutes of his undergraduate introductory course.
Attending Marquette University, Dr. Weigel thought that law school — a family tradition — was the path for his future. It was only after conversing with his classmates in this philosophy class that he gained a sense of certainty for his career.
Dr. Weigel’s teaching career began at his alma mater, Yale University, where he earned his PhD. He later taught at Fairfield Jesuit University and Saint Joseph University.
The switch to WC was ironically large. Having previously studied and taught at large universities, Dr. Weigel was attracted to WC’s small, personalized scale. But when he was offered an interview by former Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion David Newell, Dr. Weigel said he had to “dig out a map to find where the place actually was.”
And just as his move to WC was a large change, he entered leadership during a moment of robust transformation.
With the challenges of COVID, the department faculty is working towards normal operations to maintain their usual high quality of instruction.
They are also developing a minor in ethics which will compliment other areas of study at the College, feeding into the liberal arts ethos.
This interdisciplinary possibility adds to the department’s desire to better convey the “profound advantages of having some training in philosophy and religious inquiry, particularly in an era where COVID has shuffled the deck on most everyone’s life and plans,” Dr. Weigel said.
Changes not only affected individual departments within the social sciences, but also in the division as Assistant Professor of Business Management Dr. Caddie Putnam Rankin steps into her new role as the Social Sciences Division Chair.
Dr. Putnam Rankin teaches mostly upper-level businesses courses as well as a First-Year Seminar, “Scandal: Sex, Lies, and Power in Modern Life.”
Her studies were always immersed in social sciences and the liberal arts as she studied sociology and international politics at Connecticut College before earning her Ph.D. in sociology from Emory University.
Dr. Putnam Rankin said her arrival at WC “felt like coming home” because of her connection to the liberal arts. She found her place in the College’s Business Management Department focusing on strategy and corporate social responsibility, a strong fit with her research centering around how organizations can create social and economic value.
As she enters this leadership position — which oversees and coordinates changes to the division’s curriculum, serves as the division’s representative on the Curriculum Committee, and convenes division meetings — Dr. Putnam Rankin brings her teaching experience to the forefront.
“The Business Management Department’s mission is: ‘We transform students into leaders to create better worlds.’In everything I teach…I challenge students to think critically about what it means to act with moral courage in business. I lead through example and believe that the primary purpose of leadership is to act with integrity and demand that your followers do the same,” Dr. Putnam Rankin said. “At Washington College this is easy. My colleagues walk the talk and shine with examples of integrity every day.”
This spirit of improvement and community is carried into her leadership as she works with the social sciences faculty, on whose shoulders Dr. Putnam Rankin said her leadership rests, and other divisions “to provide the teaching and curricular excellence expected of the WC faculty.”
Changes occurred in the humanities as Associate Professor of German Studies Dr. Nicole Grewling transitioned to the chair of the Department of World Language & Culture after three years as associate chair of the department and one year as interim chair.
Dr. Grewling always had an affinity for teaching. Growing up in Germany, she studied to become a high school teacher.
She was first drawn to German studies through literature and later composition. After several internships in both the United States and Germany, she attended a language immersion summer camp where she discovered an interest in cross-cultural examinations.
When she taught her first German course as an exchange student at an American university, Dr. Grewling realized how much of her identity she was sharing through teaching. She said this made the endeavor more personal and exciting.
“The students were curious, asked questions, questioned concepts from a different angle, and we helped each other in challenging, analyzing, and comprehending cultural practices,” Dr. Grewling said.
Dr. Grewling completed her Ph.D. and taught for a single academic year at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The small liberal arts college sparked her passion to teach in similar environments. She later spent three years at Shippensburg University.
Teaching in a variety of class sizes showed Dr. Grewling how to adapt to a diverse and ever-changing student population.
However, it was not just the environment that led her to understand this “dream job.” According to Dr. Grewling, it was “everything from teaching small classes of engaged students, having intellectually rigorous conversations, to getting to know my students really well, and working closely with colleagues from across campus on a shared curricular or administrative goal.”
When looking at the job market, Dr. Grewling saw a job posting for WC but did not think much of it. Shortly after, when she was at a conference in the Midwest, she met two WC alumni — and fellow German Studies professors — who praised the close-knit community.
“When it comes down to it, it was people who love WC who brought me here,” Dr. Grewling said.
Instead of implementing changes to the dynamic of the department, Dr. Grewling said she wishes that there was more awareness about its student opportunities. This includes intercultural learning opportunities and interdisciplinary programs. Regardless of individual interests, there is often crossover with the department.
She also wants to stress that students should “be less intimidated by the ‘language barrier’… you can participate in our co-curricular events and have fun, whether you conjugate your verbs correctly or not,” she said.
Another change occurred in the Gibson Center for the Arts as Associate Professor of Music, Music Theory, Composition, and Percussion Dr. John Leupold took over as chair of the Department of Music.
Each professor in their new position is looking towards the future, working towards stability and an improved learning environment for students, despite where they are learning.