Ephs turned profs. return to Purple Valley

While most students live in Williamstown for four years, some end up staying on campus for much longer – some, in fact, do so for decades. Professor of History Charles Dew ’58, for example, has spent 41 years at the College: four as a student and 37 as a professor. According to Dew, teaching here after attending as an undergraduate is not uncommon.

“I would guess that the number [of alumni professors] may be a little higher here than other places because most Williams undergraduates develop a real affection for the school and really appreciate the school’s mission, as students and as faculty,” he said. “We have a very high quality faculty here, and some of our best people have Williams degrees.”

Gaius Charles Bolin Fellow in Anthropology and Environmental Studies Natalie Vena ’04, who begins teaching classes this spring as part of a fellowship program, agreed. “I think that Williams has a reputation for hiring a lot of alums,” she said. “Even in my class, there are several people I know who are now teaching here.” For Vena, the opportunities provided by the Gaius Charles Bolin Fellowship largely motivated her decision to return to Williams after 10 years.

Her decision was also tied to her undergraduate experience. “I think I just have a strong desire to be of service to Williams students because I think that it’s not the easiest place to be – or at least that was my experience and the experience of a lot of my friends,” she said. According to Vena, students – especially at such a rigorous school – can sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. “There’s a lot of pressure that I think people put on themselves, and if there’s any way that I can give people perspective on that and create a safe learning and advising environment, that’s what I want to do.”

Alumni professors also cite the benefits of teaching at a small liberal arts college, especially after teaching at larger schools, as incentives to return. Dew, who taught at state universities for a little over a decade in between college graduation and returning to the College, said that teaching at smaller colleges differs greatly from teaching at larger universities.

“I had never known the names of all the students in class until my first semester of teaching here,” Dew said. “If you teach at a big university, you lecture in halls that hold hundreds of students. I just like the interaction that we have at Williams just by getting to know each other.”

For Dew, teaching at Williams was a no-brainer. “Honestly, if you like teaching undergraduates, this is the best place in the country,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a better place.”

Like Dew, Professor of Art EJ Johnson ’59 taught at a large state university in between studying at Williams and teaching at Williams. Entering his 49th year at the College, Johnson said that he never predicted he would spend so much time here. “I chose to come back because this place seemed like a much better place to teach than the University of Tennessee,” he said. “Even though one can more easily do scholarly work outside of the classroom and there is more assistance from graduate students at a larger school, the relationship with students here is wonderful.” 

According to Assistant Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03, his undergraduate experience played a large role in his choice to return to his alma mater. “Even though I had a great job at Pomona and would have been happy, Williams is home,” he said. “It’s where I decided that this is what I want to do, it’s where I became myself, and it provided me with such a formative intellectual experience.”

Senior Lecturer in English Karen Shepard ’87 had a similar thought process. “I’m a fiction writer, and this is where I first started writing fiction seriously,” she said. “I’m sure the quality of the teaching I received here had a lot to do with why I want to be a teacher.”

The transition from student to professor can sometimes be disorientating, according to Vena – especially after coming back to Williams so soon after being a student. “It’s strange to have a new role in an old place,” she said. “It was hard to call certain professors by their first names because many were here when I was a student.”

For others, however, coming back to the College represented a smoother transition than working at any other school. “It helps that I taught at other schools before coming to Williams,” Crowe said. “Having been a student here smoothed the transition because I understand things like the social structure, the dorms and the dining halls – if a student mentions an entry or a [Junior Advisor], I know what that is.”

Vena, who is just starting her teaching career, said that she wanted to be in a place that lends itself to interactive teaching. “I was also attracted to come back to a place where teaching is taken really seriously,” she said. “I thought that in this environment I would really learn how to be a good teacher and how to grow as a teacher, and I’m finding that is the case.”