Faculty: They’re Just Like Us! (Only with PhDs)


Professor Chas McKhann and Elizabeth Phillips (class of 2018) looking at the blankets at the Pendleton Woolen Mills.

In September, the Whitman College Anthropology department, as they do every year, took the senior Anthropology majors to Pendleton, OR for a weekend to experience firsthand the “Pendleton Round-Up”, the “Happy Canyon Pageant”, and the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute. The weekend was geared towards providing the us seniors with a better grasp on rich moments of cultural intersection between Pendleton and the surrounding Native tribes, now understood as the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), who facilitate a lot of the Round-Up and Happy Canyon. Learning about the cultural footprint, past and present, of the CTUIR in and around Pendleton was fascinating and I am so happy to have been exposed to this kind of history especially seeing that here in Walla Walla, Pendleton is so close! But, what I want to share about this trip is how it is a perfect example of Whitman student/professor relationships not just in the Anthropology department, but school-wide.

Whitman is a small school: it takes one about 10 minutes walking to get anywhere, we have under 1,600 students, and our class sizes average out at 18. But one of the more important aspects of this small school vibe is our 9:1 student to faculty ratio. When you enter into your class that will be about 18 people big, you will come face to face with a professor who most likely holds a terminal degree in their field (usually a PhD). These professors are quite literally top experts in the field that that they all so passionately teach about and we, with our small classes sizes and 9:1 student to faculty ratio, get to learn directly from them.

Elizabeth Phillips (class of 2018) riding a mechanical bull in downtown Pendleton.

Once you have completed three years at Whitman, being a senior comes with knowing that all your professors, these very intelligent adults that seem so out of reach, know you pretty well. They know about your work ethic, they know where you excel and they know where you need some extra guidance. Also, they also begin to know you as a person outside of student life: they know where you’re from and about your hometown, they know about your family and they know about your hobbies and extracurriculars. Similarly, students begin to know professors as people outside of teaching life as well.

I feel as though my weekend spent in Pendleton perfectly sums up this kind of reciprocal relationship between students and faculty. As a department, we got to learn a lot about this fascinating sliver of American and Native history and its implications today, but we also got to get dinner, go shopping, and experience Pendleton’s nightlife alongside together. We spoke about the professor’s graduate school experiences and how their kids are doing (one of our professors just had a baby!!), we learned about their love of research and how they truly feel about laptops in the classroom, and we chatted about how nervous we were to write a thesis and they reassured us that everything will be okay. We were able to spend a time with a group of professors as professors but also as people.

When you first enter the college scene, everything is new and a little bit intimidating, especially getting to know professors. They are these new adult figures in your life that verge on genius who are totally separate from you and your life outside the classroom. However, as you get older and begin to settle into whatever major you decide on, you will begin to see that these professors, while still inspirational and worthy of respect, are also people. They are parents and they are pet owners, they go to the gym and binge Netflix series. But, they do this all while devoting their lives to students and to better our learning. So, while we can’t all spend a weekend in Pendleton watching the Round-Up with our professors, these kinds of relationships are everywhere, in every department and they are worth making time for. So get out there, go to office hours, and get to know you professors as professors, but also as people!

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