Being in academia, I measure time by semesters and summers. These last six years at Pepperdine have been a good run, but Fall 2015 was the best of all semesters. A terrific semester in itself—I wrote a post about it back then—Fall 2015 was best because it also led to much else.
That semester began with the American history survey class at 8:00 AM, which is the least favorite period among Pepperdine students. In this case, however, it was different because there were eighteen athletes among thirty students, including soccer player Courtney Assumma and golfers Tatiana Wijaya and Katherine Zhu. Trained to rise-and-shine, the athletes were ready by the time they got into the classroom. Then, among the non-athletes were two or three very energetic and morning-type students. They included a hilarious Taiwanese American student from the Bay Area that later transferred to NYU. At thirty-four double-spaced typewritten pages, his final exam is still the longest of all exams and papers in the classes I’ve taught in my life. I’d need a handful of such students to get things going for the rest of that class, and there were more than enough in this case. The combination led to a lot of animation and laughter amidst lectures and small groups. It even prompted me to invite the University president, a former attorney, to come as a judge of a debate and a skit competition. Were “delight in learning” the criterion of GE success, I think only the four-hour-long section two years later, whose roster included Lauren Anglin, Jalen Frantal, Paige Henson, Zach Nickles, and Conrad Parker, could rival the joy and delight from that 8:00 AM class.
Fall 2015 also saw a pair of Great Books I sections, whose population was eager and spirited as it is expected of new college students. During New Student Orientation I showed these students a video of the same class from the previous year. “They created their memories,” I said, “you’re going to create yours.” The next three and a half months produced learning, laughter, and, yes, memories.
Reflecting the demography of Pepperdine, the students came from all over America albeit with regional emphases. There were the Texan trio—Gabrielle Antolovic, Maria Lawler, and Victoria Steadman—who, as it has been the case in many first-year seminars, became fast and best friends. There were two from Colorado: Lilia Kerski, who penned the longest dedication (and perfect for Father’s Day) of a writing portfolio that I’ve ever seen; and Grace Kruse, who not only continued a family tradition of attending Pepperdine but, like a few of these students, ended up taking the entire GB sequence with me. Another two came from Florida: Ansley Rathgeber and Raja Gonzalez. Arizona was represented by Raquel Grove, whose high school curriculum was essentially Great Books. (Subsequently, one of the jokes was, “I’d bet that Raquel hasn’t read this book.”) There were at least three from the Midwest: Mollie Vandenberg, who grew up across the river from my college town; Quinn Hascall, whose mellowness led me to create a new category for the paper plate awards called “the Honorary Southern Californian”; and Paige Grittner, who felt enough awe by the grandeur of the Great Books room that she was determined to stay on with the class even if she failed, just so that she could claim to have taken a class in that room. For the record, she did quite well.
There were an aspiring film and creative writing student in Aidan Turner and a student-athlete in the person of Nick Heath. Nick was among many Californians: Maddie Benner, Tammy Hong, Madeleine Riddle, Cheyenne Heath-Warr, Jane Yi, and Mira Metry. Mira showed impressive organization by the fact that she used no fewer than four calendars. It was also a rare semester when I had as many young men in Great Books as I did young women. Most happened to be Miller men: Kyle Brooks, Nick Burdett, Jonathan Ditmore, Tyler Reed , Blake Tinney, Joshua Riley, Chris Toth, Charlie Wyffels, etc. A few, including Nathan Heard and Reilley Phillips, were already familiar with Pepperdine since their parents worked here. During the first class meeting, New Yorker and transplanted Texan Alex Grissom came to the noon section and Pennsylvanian Molly Adams to the 2pm section because they needed to change their schedules. They quickly became two of the biggest contributors to class discussion and to this day I can still recall the ways they spoke in that particular course.
The delight continued into the Spring Semester. Most students in Great Books I usually signed up with the same professor for Great Books II, but I “inherited” many students from a colleague who taught I but not II during that academic year. There were three more Arizonans in Madalyn “Sunshine” Roh, Claire Balkan, and Savannah Wix. There was southerner Daryn Sinclair, one of the biggest contributors during discussion. There was northern Californian Emma Stenz, possibly the best story-teller among all students I’ve had in my career. When I saw her last week, she reminded me that I gave her the “story teller” paper plate award, ha! (Google “David Spade” and “Ellen” to get a sense of Emma’s style.) Among the more quiet students were Sarah Etinas, Stephanie May, and Jerry Yang. (I was typing this in my office, and Jerry literally just walked in the office half a minute after I typed his name!) There were the bestest of friends in Gabby Pero and Sarah Spinelli. There were at least another Miller fellow in Austin Fagerberg; another filmmaker in Alex Bonelli; another super-organized student in Katie Semple; and another faculty child in Paul Cox (who, perhaps more than anyone else, came up with independent essay topics rather than suggestions in the prompt).
It did not stop after 2015-2016 because I continued to have many of these students during the next two years teaching III and IV, then some. More names were added to the list of memories from this period: Noah Archibald, Cate Chapman, Makenzie Daggett, Matthew Garcia, Steve Kerr, Omar Murphy, Grace Palmer, Rachel Simmons, Sydney Stanfield, Niki Tamashiro, Emma Ujifusa, etc. Indeed, the three-year run between Fall 2015 and Spring 2018 produced several sections of “stars and superstars.” The most memorable probably occurred during Spring 2017 that saw a combination of sophomores such as Alex, Daryn, Nick, and Paige along with returning juniors such as Sarah Barney, Asa Miller, Ginnie Ravanaugh, Emily Sedillo, Amanda Stark, Grace Vitek, and Rachel White. One reason for this great run was my growth as a teacher while another reason was the growth among the students. The fact that many of them took me for two, three, or four classes also meant that we grew together. Funny, but at least two students, Gabrielle Antolovic and Grace Kruse, had me in the same four semesters yet were never in a same section. Two others, Daryn and Sunshine, were similar for three semesters. These factoids, probably the result of scheduling, sound trivial. But they might also suggest a certain desire for consistency about teaching and learning, down to the schedule. Sunshine, for example, always took my 10am class while Daryn always the noon one.
Some of these students have since transferred to another university. A few had graduated a semester early or even a year early. Some will be here in the fall to finish up their studies. The rest will be graduating soon. In the last three weeks, I had a chance to visit or catch up with some of them, and memories of those semesters have begun to flood my mind. There were, for example, the family stories that Joshua told about with many humorous details and considerable depth. Or, the annual fall outing to the Getty Villa—the first photo in the video above—for a staging of Medea in which ancient Corinth became contemporary Los Angeles. Or, the Christmas party in the Great Books Room when Nick carried seven or eight pizzas up the stairs. Or, a meeting in my office when Molly and I discussed conceptualizing a paper on Bernabo’s wife in The Book of the City of Ladies. We had a hard time then stumbled upon something and laughed for ten or fifteen seconds straight. Or, another meeting in my office with Jerry Yang about Candide during election night 2016, after which he wrote a fine essay on Candide and Cacambo. (So absorbed that night that I didn’t know who was winning the election until getting home at 10pm.) Or, the fact I usually begin class by asking a student to read a short prayer or poem as a way to call attention to the sacredness of the discussion. I did it for I and II, but not III or IV. Two weeks into Fall 2017, however, two students in different sections (Tammy and Victoria) asked during the same week if we could resume the practice. Of course we did. And, of course, the many performances before and during finals, including those by Maddy and Nathan from Great Books III in Fall 2016.
My first two years at Pepperdine was a lovely and happy time in most respects. But I don’t think it was an accident that my happiness began to peak during Fall 2015. It led to one of the deepest and most sustained periods of achievement and contentment in my life. Reflecting my calling and mission, the initial delight in my students has grown gradually into affection over the last three and a half years. Typing this reflection is a way to appreciate the students for the memories that they created for me. Thank you, kids, and warmest congratulations to the graduates among you!
Postscript: Here is a video of photos taken at commencement on April 27, 2019.