As a Stanley S. Kresge Professor and Chair of the Religious Studies Department, Instructor for the Holocaust Studies Service-Learning Project and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, one might think Dr. Jocelyn McWhirter values success or leadership most. But at the most recent What Matters to Me and Why Dinner in Upper Baldwin, McWhirter spoke to the approximately 50 students, staff and faculty in attendance about topics that are often underappreciated.
Before she got to what matters to her, McWhirter talked about the moments that influenced her growing up. Self-described as an introverted, third-culture child (“someone who spends a significant part of their childhood in a culture that is not the culture of their parents”), she lived many places, including Germany for her last three years of high school. While there, she attended a high school for Americans that students from a U.S. Army base attended, but since her parents did not work for the Army, she did not have access to the American TV stations or other resources other families did. She became observant, trying to figure out how to fit in as an American in Germany and being in a civilian family when the others around her were military families.
“I don’t have helicopter parents – you know those parents who hover over you, constantly checking on you and supporting you,” said McWhirter. “My parents were airplane parents, who’ll fly you up to 10,000 feet, open the cargo door and out you go, and they hope you know how to work your parachute. Actually, I wasn’t even sure I had a parachute.”
And so, despite her rootlessness, she learned to adapt. While this skill is important to McWhirter, one of the first thing that she said mattered to her was listening. To some, listening to others may seem obvious, but as McWhirter explained, she learned to value truly listening. Not just listening to what someone was saying so one can respond with their own experience, but so that one can learn more about the topic. Ask questions about what they were saying, not just continuing on.
Being a good listener lends itself to being a good friend, something McWhirter also finds important.
“I made time for people that I liked,” she said. “I listened to them; I got to know them. I tried to be honest and trustworthy – not faking it, not going back on my commitments or betraying their secrets. And then, whenever I would move, I would stay in touch with my friends because my friendships mattered to me and they still do.”
Additionally, McWhirter spoke about the value of “the life of the mind.” By this, she meant the importance of always asking questions and striving to learn more. In the beginning, this did not lead her down the path of becoming a professor. McWhirter thought being a professor wasn’t for her.
“I said, ‘No, I can’t do that. That job is for people who never want to leave school. It’s for people who are too chicken to live in the real world. I’m not going to be one of those people.’”
Of course, that changed and now as Albion’s Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning, she uses her passion to encourage other faculty to continue to grow.
Circling back to her time in Europe, McWhirter said that while writing her speech she realized some of the things she feels passionate about are habits she learned while living in Germany. This includes rebelling against driving, packaged food and screens. She makes it her goal to choose to walk places if it is somewhere she is capable walking; to shop the outer edge of the grocery stores where fresh produce can be found instead of the center aisles of packaged food; and to keep screens turned off unless it is helping her maintain friendships or learn more.
“I don’t want the attention economy to take over my time and my brain any more than I want the oil and gas industry to take over my legs or the packaged food industry to take over my gut,” said McWhirter.
The author of this piece serves on the What Matters to Me and Why Dinner planning committee with Jocelyn McWhirter.
Photo by Jenny Risner-Wade.