Feature

When Work Doesn’t Work as Well as It Could or Should

If you’re like the majority of Americans, you’re probably not too thrilled with your 9-to-5 grind. (That may start with the fact that your 9-to-5 grind is actually closer to an 8-to-6 — or even 24/7 — grind.) 

According to a 2014 survey by the nonprofit research group Conference Board, a full 52.3 percent of us are unsatisfied with our jobs. 

And that dissatisfaction extends even to Grinnell alumni — smart and driven people who might otherwise seem to have every advantage in the workplace today.

So what’s going on, and how can we fix it? In this story, we talked to Grinnellians who are zeroing in on the problems of, and the solutions for, today’s working world. 

Cartoon showing two women in a cubicle trying to have a private conversation but several others are leaning over the cube walls to listen

Open office or closed doors?

Office design can help or hinder our work. Paula Briggs Fracasso ’89 shares ways to understand your office space’s strengths and overcome its weaknesses.

The freewheeling atmosphere of Silicon Valley startups hasn’t just led to billion-dollar behemoths like Uber and Airbnb; it’s also influenced office design from coast to coast.

These days, office designers everywhere are taking their cues from fast-growing tech companies. You’re probably familiar with the look, and you might spend your weekdays in something just like it: Such offices favor wide-open spaces over individual offices with actual doors, polished concrete over industrial-strength carpet, and incandescent bulbs over headache-inducing fluorescent lighting.

Unfortunately, the covetable look doesn’t necessarily translate to productivity or employee satisfaction, says Fracasso, an executive coach. “I’ve worked with people at Fortune 500 companies who make well over six figures a year who admit that the only place they can have private conversations is in the parking lot,” she says.

Yet buttoned-up workplaces where every office has a door, and maybe even a lock, might not be much better. After all, such layouts likely speak volumes about the office’s interest in collaboration and camaraderie.

In the end, Fracasso says, great design focuses on how people in the company actually work best — and translates that into spaces that work. In general, that means a more thoughtful mix between public and private spaces. “It never makes sense to design an office based solely on what looks cool in a magazine,” she says. 

Take action: Stuck in one office-design extreme or the other? There are always workarounds. Fracasso offers two:

  1. For open spaces, “library rules” for the first couple hours of the day can help people stay focused on deep work.
  2. Remote offices can get a boost with “virtual social hours” that promote interaction even among faraway colleagues. “Office design has a huge impact on company culture,” she says. “The goal is to inject a little bit of humanity in these environments.”

Cartoon of a stressed out guy staying late at work, eating junk food, and reading "How to Get an Edge at work"

When knowledge isn’t power

Our own terrible habits may be to blame for our bad attitude and poor performance at work, says Billy Strean ’86. What does it take to change them?

Speaker and performance coach Strean often works with high-level executives who are desperate to get an edge in their work — but all too often, he says, they’re looking in the wrong place. “People are willing to do so many sophisticated and expensive things to perform at a higher level, but they might not be doing the fundamental things that would help them: sleeping, eating well, drinking water, getting exercise,” he says. “They’re trying to build a house on a really shaky foundation.”

This might sound like old news. After all, most of us understand that we shouldn’t be binge-watching Orange Is the New Black until 2 a.m., and few of us feel great about the fast-food lunches we eat at our desks. Even Strean admits he’s guilty. “When I work in front of a 27-inch computer screen right before bed — I might as well be sitting in front of the sun. Should I really be surprised that I can’t go to sleep an hour later?” he jokes.

Your brain is sabotaging you: Intellectually understanding that we need more sleep and more exercise won’t make us change, and reading this article might not do much for you, either. 

One thing that might make you change a habit is an emotional gut punch. “Most people don’t analyze their way to change,” says Strean, echoing the ideas of Harvard professor and consultant John Kotter, who argues that when people see something that has them feel something, then they change.

In other words, reading one more fact-packed article about the benefits of sleep won’t lead you to a good night’s sleep that will help you on the job. But seeing how much better you feel and how much more effectively you work? That might cause you to see the potency of the issue — and lead you to set aside your late-night Netflix binges for good.

Is it time to toss the organizational chart?

Strict hierarchies may be dragging all of us down, says James Jennings ’87.

As one of the world’s first management consultants in the early 20th century, Frederick Winslow Taylor offered plenty of theories about how to make workers on the factory floor more efficient. One of his biggest ideas? Divide the work up so that managers do the thinking and planning while the workers perform the tasks.

In many cases, Taylor’s principles did lead to greater productivity and — perhaps more important to company owners — bigger profits. But as more companies adopted his approaches, including many firms that didn’t focus on manufacturing, their effectiveness dwindled. Even worse, the side effects were devastating, says Jennings, founder of @1, a company that helps individuals and companies build better systems to do better work. 

“People lost a sense of ownership in the work that they were doing when they were simply told what to do,” Jennings says. “The idea, in this economy, that there are a small number of people who know what the answer is and everyone else should just do what they say is obsolete.”

You’ve probably experienced a version of this in your worst jobs. You feel like you’re little more than a cog in a machine. In the end, it might not even be good for productivity, says Jennings. “The people who are assembling understand assembly better than the people who are watching it. There’s value to the experience of doing the work.” In other words, technicians in every field have plenty of insights that their managers would be wise to heed.

Illustration of a blue ribbon that says "Good Job!"So what’s the best way forward? Jennings argues that giving workers at every level more agency and discretion in their work can make a big difference not only in worker happiness but also in the progress of an organization.

Such approaches have already been proven in some organizations. Online retailer Zappos, for instance, famously tossed the word-for-word scripts that are typically used in customer service calls so that that employees could use their creativity and empathy to solve callers’ problems. 

Jennings, too, saw benefits to this approach. Years ago, while working as a manager at Keurig, he called meetings with his entire team — from sales to accounts receivable to delivery — and found that some profitable but unpleasant clients were bringing everyone in the division down. “When people on the team started talking to one another, they realized that certain clients were horrible to everyone — demanding discounts from sales people and leaving customer service reps in tears,” he says.

Together, they came up with the solution to drop the most disagreeable clients, even if it meant lost revenue. “And it turned out when people didn’t dread those parts of their job, they did better,” he says. “We ended up improving customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, and growth rate.”

The point, says Jennings, is that he wasn’t a hero. The collaboration his team did, and the authority they all had to make good decisions, drove the team to success in the way Jennings couldn’t have done on his own. “It’s important to build a culture that allows for more discretion in decision-making,” he says. “It’s time to start democratizing information and power.”

What to ask before you take that new job

The answers could determine how satisfied you’ll be in the new role.

Job interviews are a two-way street. Just as employers want to get a good sense of a candidate through good questions, candidates should be doing some tire-kicking of their own. Because companies are well-versed in putting their best foot forward as they describe the work, the perks, and the growth opportunities of a given position, candidates should be asking questions to uncover the deeper truths of an organization to see if it will truly be a good match.

Alison Hayes ’87, who has worked with James Jennings at @1 and has long been interested in what makes a company good for employees, suggests a few questions that can provide needed insight for a job candidate:

Q. How is great work recognized? 

A. A Starbucks gift card or a superficial “good job” from the boss? “Ask people to describe a time they did work they were really proud of and how that was recognized,” says Hayes. “‘It meant a lot to me when my boss …’ is a good sign.”

Q. What does feedback look like? 

A. It should go beyond annual reviews. “You don’t want someone who tells you once every 12 months if you get a thumbs up or thumbs down,” she says. “You want to know if you’re on the right track so you can proceed confidently or adjust in the moment — not six months after the fact.”

Q. How much time do employees spend using their best skills? 

A. Anyone who says 100 percent is lying — even the best jobs have crummy parts — but the ratio should be something you’re comfortable with. “If people say 80 percent of their work is administrative and they spend just 20 percent doing the work they’re excited about, that’s a red flag,” she says.

Q. Can employees safely challenge themselves? 

A. You’ll want to be confident not only that you’ll have a chance to take on projects that stretch your skills, but also that your boss and company will have your back even if your best efforts fail. “You want to know that if you push yourself hard and take risks, you won’t be cut loose if you occasionally fall down,” she says.

Why the “just a job” mindset can be devastating

Indifference about your work is likely to have consequences that spill into your off-hours.

Plenty of people are working for the weekend. Clocking in and clocking out is just a way to pay the bills, not part of a larger sense of identity. 

But could that “just a job” mentality have troubling consequences? Jim Asplund ’88, chief scientist of strengths development for Gallup, says that research done by his firm suggests that a job we don’t love could have a powerful effect on our stress levels and overall happiness. Here’s how:

Twenty-one percent of all Americans say they use their strengths to do what they do best for fewer than three hours per day. They are far more likely than those who use their strengths four or more hours per day to report that they are experiencing worry, stress, anger, sadness, and pain.

Asplund says, “We thrive when we’re doing things we’re inclined to do anyway. Even if we know we can do things that come a little less naturally to us, [this work is] less likely to energize us and allow us to do the kind of work that makes it feel like time is passing quickly.”

The more hours per day that adults believe they use their strengths, the more likely they are to report having ample energy, feeling well-rested, being happy, smiling or laughing a lot, learning something interesting, and being treated with respect. 

“Not only are you more productive when you’re working in your areas of strength,” Asplund says, “you’re happier, too.”

Cartoon of a big dude with flower tattoos working at a burger joint and gazing longingly out his window at a florist truck

Make your current job your dream job

We may all fantasize about a dream job where we know we’d flourish, but the reality is that many of us are tied to the one we’ve got. Maybe we’ve got loans to pay off or nearby family who’d be devastated if we left. Maybe the job we’ve got is actually pretty good, once we consider the alternatives.

Even if you’re not planning to jump ship to a new job, there are steps you can take today to feel happier and more purposeful in your work, says Mark Henry ’05, global talent development manager for Aon Corp. “Employees should be able to find new challenges and experiences at work that make them feel fulfilled,” he says, “especially Grinnellians, who are curious about the world and like to think a little bit bigger about things.”

1. Start with a positive attitude. 

Incompetent bosses and lazy co-workers are infuriating, but griping about every last detail of your day-to-day tasks won’t endear you to the people who can help you most. “You can’t let your inner kindergartner come out,” says Henry. 

2. Find ways to eliminate the tasks that bog you down. 

Start with an accounting of your daily activities, tiny details included. If there are projects that you find particularly draining, think creatively about how you might get them off your plate. “You might find that there are ways to streamline certain processes, hand them off to people who like them or are more equipped to deal with them, or remove processes altogether,” says Henry. With the right positioning, you can show how replacing the tasks you loathe with ones you love will lead you to do better, more high-value work that will benefit your organization. 

3. Dig deep on your interests.

There are an almost infinite number of self-assessments that you can take, but you can start simply by paying attention: When do you find yourself so engaged that you lose track of time? If you feel those moments don’t exist for you in your current job, a co-worker or friend can help. “Ask people around you when they have observed you at your best, or when they see you truly light up,” says Henry. “They can often see things about you that you can’t see yourself.”

4. Connect your interests to the company’s or boss’s goals.

Does your list of strengths connect up with some larger company objective? Can you make the case that the things you want to pursue in greater depth will lead to higher profits, improved product quality, or faster response times? Such results will likely be music to your boss’s ears. “Move away from simply saying ‘I want this, I want that,’” says Henry. “Figure out a way to make your passion something that your company can’t afford to be without.”

5. Find your own vision. 

On a day-to-day level, it can feel like all you’re doing is sending out emails or creating PowerPoint slides, but if you can connect the daily work to something larger — whether it’s the mission of the organization or just making the lives of co-workers a little bit easier — it can lead to a sense of purpose. Just as a bricklayer who sees her work as building cathedrals instead of stacking bricks is more likely to be satisfied, finding your own purpose is likely to lead to greater work happiness. “Find your cathedral,” says Henry.

 

Improving Accessibility for People with Hearing Loss

Until Grinnell College installed a hearing loop in Herrick Chapel, Linda Bryant, the College’s organist, used her smartphone to turn off her hearing aids before performing so that the overtones from the organ didn’t cause unpleasant sensations in her ears. 

“I then used the phone to turn them on when people were speaking, but I heard mumbling and only understood a word here or there. That meant I was always guessing when it was time for me to play at the end of a ceremony or worship service, and hoping I got it right,” she says. “When people were speaking at the pulpit or anywhere in front of me, I could not understand what they were saying. I thought it was the way things were.”

Thanks to the work of Juliette Sterkens and the College Accessibility Committee, things aren’t that way anymore. Sterkens, a Wisconsin audiologist and the Hearing Loss Association of America’s hearing loop advocate, visited campus in the fall of 2015. She delivered a lecture on hearing loop technology and advised on where hearing loops might be installed on campus.

A hearing loop is a wire, or an array of wires, that encircles a space and connects to the sound system. The loop transmits the sound electromagnetically to the telecoil (T-coil) in a person’s hearing aid or cochlear implant. If a hearing device does not contain a T-coil, there is an option to wear earbuds connected to a “loop listener” device. Portable loops also exist, allowing the benefits of a looped room within a few feet of the box.

Installation of hearing loops is complete in parts of the Charles Benson Bear ’39 Center for Recreation and Athletics, Burling Library, Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center, Harris Center cinema, and Herrick Chapel. Countertop hearing loops have been installed at the P-Card office, the entrance to the Marketplace, Pioneer Bookshop, conference operations, and the Bear Center information desk.  

The College also uses portable loops for Commencement and Faulconer Gallery talks and has small ones available for checking out from the Office of Accessibility and Disability Resources and the Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice.  

Sterkens notes that people who use hearing aids hear best when they are close to the source of the speech signal, when there is minimal background sound, and when they are able to see the person speaking. When the conditions are less than ideal, the user’s ability to hear is compomrised. More technologically advanced hearing aids do not improve these conditions, since all microphones inside the aids have a limited effective range. When a user turns up the volume on the hearing instruments, the background noise will become louder. Hearing loops deliver sound directly to the hearing aid without the deleterious effects of distance and background noise, and the user enjoys hearing speech with great clarity. 

With a hearing loop, Sterkens says that in effect, “The microphone on the lectern becomes the microphone for the hearing aid.” Other common types of hearing technology, FM and infrared, are essentially unusable for a person with hearing aids, since they require the wearing of earbuds. Because a hearing loop connects with the telecoil in a person’s hearing aid, cochlear implant, or “loop listener” (a box with earbuds that pick up the electromagnetic waves clearly), the delivered sounds are perfectly customized to a person’s specific hearing loss every time. 

Linda Bryant sitting at the organ in Herrick Chapel

As Bryant prepared to play at a ceremony in Herrick Chapel in the fall of 2016, she removed her hearing aids, replaced them with the earbuds, and activated the loop listener box to pick up the hearing loop. The results blew her away.

“For the first time, I understood President [Raynard S.] Kington. I understood everything. The difference was magnificent. It took the uncertainty out of the situation.” She was also relieved the organ kept her out of view. “I was sitting there with tears running down my face. It was just really exciting.”

Grinnell resident J.R. Paulson shares in the excitement. A physician of 35 years, Paulson is a hearing aid user himself and attended Sterkens’ lecture on campus. “I learned a number of things that I didn’t know as a physician and had never learned in medical school.”

He is able to determine a major difference in sound quality if a room is looped or if it is not. He encourages his patients to try it for themselves. “Whether it’s our schools, churches, or business venues, every place it’s happened, it’s been remarkable.”

Advocates on campus hope that hearing loops will be installed in more locations in the future.

Hearing loops provide easy listening that is dignified and free of fuss, and are not just for those with hearing loss. A study conducted at the University of Northern Illinois revealed students who did not have hearing loss enjoyed wearing the earbuds and loop box — which can be controlled using a smartphone — to achieve better comprehension in lectures.

Sterkens believes if all people realized how much better they could hear in a loop, everyone would use it. The technology has existed for more than 40 years, but has yet to go mainstream in the United States. “I’m absolutely convinced that this is the way to go for people who are hard of hearing, and the stories that come out prove me right,” she says. “When Grinnell does this, they raise the bar for other colleges.”

As for Bryant, she’s looking forward to her next performance. “When you live with hearing loss, you don’t know what you’re missing,” she remarks. “You don’t know there’s something that can fix it, so you learn to live with it. In this case, it was fixable. I’m very grateful the College chose to fix it.”

What’s Important (or not) About College Rankings

U.S. News & World Report first published its list of “Best Colleges” in 1983. Today, a profusion of commercially published rankings enthrall and mystify consumers every fall. For high school students and their parents, rankings by venerable sources like U.S. News, Money, and Forbes ostensibly provide objective guidance about academic reputation, affordability, and other supposed measures of college quality and accessibility.

For the colleges themselves, rankings can be both a headache and a useful measuring stick. Some institutions have noisily boycotted the annual ritual of lobbying for positive peer assessments, which play a big part in reputation ratings. An infamous handful have been caught trying to game the system by cherry-picking data or just plain lying. 

The great majority — Grinnell included — take a more reasoned approach, because even though the data are sometimes questionable and the methodologies imperfect, the lists are not going away. “Like it or not, rankings matter,” says Randy Stiles, Grinnell’s associate vice president for analytic support and institutional research. 

How students perceive rankings

Stiles points to research by the Art and Science Group that says 72 percent of traditional students pay at least some attention to rankings. Seven out of 10 students report that they discuss rankings in person or on social media, mostly with parents and friends. 

What’s more, college test scores are predictive of students’ attitudes and behaviors with respect to rankings. The 2016 poll reveals that students with ACT test scores of 28 and higher are apt to care more about the prestige associated with higher rankings. But students whose scores are 21 and lower are likely to give rankings more weight in choosing a college. 

Incoming Grinnell students seem to bear out that research. While their average ACT score of 30 may indicate awareness of the status that a lofty ranking commands, it also appears to signal greater discernment with respect to the importance of rankings in relation to other factors. Stiles says annual surveys of first-year students show that rankings in national magazines show up about halfway down the list of their top 20 reasons for enrollment. 

“Year after year students report the main reason for coming to Grinnell is the College’s academic reputation,” Stiles says. “Number two on the list is financial aid, which is not surprising because there is very generous aid given here.” 

Rounding out the top five reasons are the size of the College, the ability of graduates to gain admission to top graduate programs, and graduates’ prospects for getting good jobs. 

illustration showing a huge bar chart with tiny people on platforms and a spiral staircase examining its details

Perception versus reality

It could be that student perceptions are formed at least in part from rankings, and Stiles emphasizes that Grinnell does exceptionally well in systems that give considerable weight to academic quality and reputation. The challenge for data analysts is to balance those perceptions with what rankings are really saying about college quality, given that each system calculates performance differently.

Stiles says Grinnell’s approach to making sense of the complexities of college quality is to use “multiple lenses” in comparing and benchmarking performance against similar institutions, or what are referred to as the “peer 16.” That includes a review and in-depth analysis of seven different systems plus Princeton Review every year. 

“Our philosophy is not to manage to these systems,” Stiles says, “but to be informed by them, to be able to answer questions about them, and educate anybody who has an interest in what rankings have to do with the whole world of higher education.”

Stiles’ team studies not only Grinnell’s rankings within each of those systems but also the rankings of those peer liberal arts colleges in the Midwest and on the East and West Coasts. A daunting task, it requires knowing how each system works and what makes some more meaningful than others. 

How rankings actually work

“What these ranking systems all do in one way or another,” Stiles says, “is put together some collection of schools — liberal arts colleges, research universities, publics, privates — and rank them all on one long list. Then there is some collection of measures that are given some collection of weights. All of that gets added up into an overall score, from which is produced an ordered list.”

What makes one set of rankings more influential than another depends to a large extent on commercial reach. “Readership matters a lot,” Stiles says. “Some of these things have a lot of readership, and people give greater credibility to them. Others, not so much.” 

Making sense of college rankings would be easier if all of the rankings systems produced similar results. In many cases they don’t, and Grinnell is a perfect case in point. Last year, Grinnell was No. 19 among national liberal arts colleges in U.S. News rankings. In the other systems that Stiles tracks, the College came in at No. 19 also on Washington Monthly, but at Nos. 73, 9, 156, 31, and 54 on other lists. 

 “U.S. News puts a big emphasis on reputation and resources,” Stiles explains. “Forbes claims to emphasize outcomes or ‘output over input.’ Kiplinger’s is about best value. Money, not surprisingly, is about affordability and the salaries of graduates. The New York Times Access Index emphasizes the percentage of Pell students and the economic diversity. College Factual is outcomes-focused. 

“These days, there is more and more talk about outcomes,” Stiles continues, “and when people say outcomes in these systems, they’re talking about graduation rates and salaries more than anything else.” That’s an important distinction, he says, because rankings that weigh earnings heavily can skew data unfavorably for graduate students whose higher incomes materialize on a longer timeline. 

Also, not all systems are equal in terms of their own development. Stiles says Forbes’ ranking of Grinnell since 2008 has fluctuated by “an incredible variation” of 80 points. “I can guarantee you Grinnell didn’t change that much between 2008 and 2012. But the system changed, as did the way people were using it and the way it was managed. So it’s important to remember that the systems themselves need time to mature and achieve stability.” 

illustration of several people reading over the shoulder of another reading a newspaper called College Rankings

Rankings that resonate

Among all of the annual rankings, U.S. News’ “Best Colleges” remains the source that students use most widely to compare academic quality among 1,800 U.S.-based schools. “People pay most attention to U.S. News,” Stiles says. “It gets a lot of readership.”

In the U.S. News system, the categories given the most weight are reputational assessments by counselors and peers (22.5 percent), graduation/retention rate (22.5 percent), and faculty resources (20 percent). Student selectivity rank is next (12.5 percent), followed by financial resources (10 percent), graduation rate performance (7.5 percent), and alumni giving rank (5 percent).

Stiles says the key take-away from the 2017 U.S. News rankings (released in 2016) is that Grinnell’s overall rank of 19th is stable. “In fact we’re improving lately in overall rank. We have a great academic reputation,” Stiles says. 

“We’ve also become much more selective,” he says. “Just a few years ago Grinnell was 38th among liberal arts colleges for selectivity. Now we’re ninth in that category.”

To illustrate the seven-year data lag that can occur in published rankings, Stiles points to a blip in attrition among the student group that came to Grinnell in the fall of 2012. “That cohort will have a negative impact in our graduation rate when U.S. News rankings are published in 2019,” Stiles says. “We know that’s going to happen, and we’re working hard on graduation/retention as part of the quality initiative that’s connected to the upcoming accreditation review.”

Still, all ranking systems do not use the same measures, and a large readership for U.S. News does not necessarily make it the last word in college quality. Stiles says one of the more discriminating ways to view rankings is in how a system resonates with a college’s core values. One that gives particular weight to criteria consistent with Grinnell’s values is Washington Monthly’s ranking of “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” 

Washington Monthly’s primary factors are social mobility, research, and service, each of which counts for one third,” Stiles says. “There are lots of details beneath those major categories, but the point is that different systems attribute different weights to measures that are relevant for what’s going on at a college.”

Breaking into the top 10

Everybody wants to be No. 1, or close to it. Human nature dictates that college graduates who encounter a list of best colleges will almost certainly want to know how their own alma mater stacks up. The question is, should Grinnell be content with being No. 19? What exactly would it take to be No. 15, or No. 12, or even third? Stiles explains:

“When you add everything up in the U.S. News system, schools will score numbers in their overall tally of about 70 to 100. The top 10 schools — and there is a lot of variation in the top 10 — go from a score of 100 down to about 87. Among the next 10, there’s a variation of only two points.” Grinnell’s overall score in last year’s U.S. News rankings was 85, tied with the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

“If this were a road race, you would see the first 10 runners spread out,” Stiles says. “Right behind them would be another 10 in a clump, which is where Grinnell is. In the one-to-10 range it takes a big change to make a move, but even a small move in the overall score in the 10-20 range could move us six or seven places.” 

It’s about culture

While Stiles’ job is to analyze rankings from an institutional perspective, his insights are just as valuable for parents and prospective students who are staying up nights trying to decode the latest list of “best colleges.”

Stiles prefaces his advice with sociologist William Cameron’s famous quote, which he says is applicable to any consideration of college rankings: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” 

“Remember that the data lags,” Stiles says. “Also, cumulative earnings matter; rankings based on graduate salaries five years out do not tell the full story for a college like Grinnell that produces a lot of graduate-degree candidates. 

 “Look at a variety of rankings as a first filter in choosing a school,” Stiles says. “Culture and fit are so important that you’ve got to do a campus visit and check out several institutions to really know. The peer 16 are all fine colleges, and Grinnell is very highly regarded in that mix. You almost can’t go wrong with a liberal arts education at any one of these schools, but it is culture and context that really matter.”

Ridiculous Day Sale on Saturday, July 15 at 8am

The Pioneer Bookshop, at 933 Main Street, will join with other Grinnell merchants for the summer sale of the year, Ridiculous Day. Starting at 8am on Saturday, July 15, Main Street will be closed and filled with tables of deals. The Pioneer Bookshop will  have items 50% off and more. We'll have tables with $3.00 hardcover books and $2.00 paperback books as well as toys, apparel, office supplies and the like. We will be sharing Main Street with several home based businesses and non-profit organizations such as Tupperware, Origami Owl Jewelry, Puppy Jake service dogs, and donuts by the Grinnell Area Christian School. Don't miss it!

Alumnus creates long-term ties mentoring Grinnell interns at TIAA-CREF

In the globally competitive job market, quality summer internships markedly differentiate college graduates. Résumés that include student experiences at top companies tend to get the attention of talent acquisition specialists faced with evaluating otherwise similarly qualified candidates.

For Grinnell students, summer internships at TIAA-CREF Financial Services are the gold standard for superior learning opportunities. Since 2000, several Grinnell students have been fortunate to be accepted there each year. Not only do students discover an opportunity to develop their skills and career paths in meaningful ways, they find that much about the experience is distinctly Grinnellian. 

Values that resonate

Michael Kahn ’76 is senior managing director of corporate strategy and development at TIAA-CREF in New York City. He sponsors, mentors, and works closely with the majority of Grinnell interns, whether their student experiences are in midtown Manhattan or at another major TIAA-CREF campus, such as Charlotte, N.C.

 “TIAA-CREF is a particularly great environment for Grinnell students,” says Kahn, who was elected to the Grinnell College Board of Trustees in May. “We’re a mission-driven organization. We exist to serve those who serve the greater good, which aligns well with how Grinnellians think about what their role in the world will be. 

“We are really good at what we do, whether it’s broad financial services or sophisticated asset management,” Kahn says. “We’re aligned with the interests of all our clients and we produce great outcomes, so TIAA-CREF is a company that has values and capabilities that resonate with Grinnellians.”

Challenging opportunities

Most important for students is that internships offer real substance, and Kahn says TIAA-CREF interns regularly work on assignments that not only are important to the company, but that constitute challenging student learning opportunities. 

“Internships at TIAA-CREF typically involve working with senior level staff,” Kahn says. “Students are not buried deep in the organization. They actually get to work with people from whom they can learn a lot and who are really accomplished. I’ve even had students working on launches of new lines of business, which is something that interns would almost never get to do anywhere else.”

Success stories

David Jutrsa ’15 was a Grinnellink summer intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. “David worked on a potential major acquisition,” Kahn says. “It was a big deal, and it was complicated. As an intern you’d think you would never get near something that interesting, but he got to work with the core team and was in meetings with our most senior staff.”

Jutrsa recently accepted a research assistant position with the International Monetary Fund. “The TIAA-CREF internship exposed me to the world of business and really solidified my interest in finance,” Jutrsa says. “I would definitely recommend any Grinnellink internship with TIAA-CREF to students looking to break into these fields and connect what they learn in classes to the professional world.”  

Natalie Duncombe ’15 also was a Grinnellink intern at TIAA-CREF in 2013. She says building a mentor relationship with Kahn was the most valuable aspect of her internship.

“His advice throughout the summer helped me get the most out of my time at TIAA-CREF, and he continued to help me with recommendation letters, as well as career, résumé, and interview advice,” Duncombe says. “Without him and my time at TIAA-CREF, I don’t know if I would have been as successful in securing my economic research assistant position at the Federal Reserve Board of Governors in Washington, D.C.”

Defining mentorship 

Megan Goering ’08, who interned at TIAA-CREF in 2006, says, “Interning with Michael defined the role and value of a mentor for me. At the time, I was really opening to discovery and my own personal capacity in a new way, and Michael’s example seeded lessons for me that continue to unfold nine years later.

“The consciousness, creativity, teacher and learner’s spirit, and deep dignity and value Michael has for people shown through his work in a way that continues to light my path,” Goering says. “Michael’s way is soulful, honest, connective, endlessly creative, accountable for human principles, and just. There are good people in finance, and because of Michael’s extension of his work through mentorship, perhaps there will continue to be more.”

Dolan Talukdar ’05 was a student intern at TIAA-CREF for two summers, in 2003 and 2004. She says she watched the program evolve into one tailored to develop students’ skills for a job in finance. “Having witnessed the partnership’s initial progression under Michael, I am not surprised to see that it has become a mainstay at Grinnell,”  Talukdar says.

“From day one Michael came across as warm, quietly intelligent, and genuine,” Talukdar says. “His management style convinced me that it was indeed possible to be an empathetic yet successful leader in finance, and I have tried to emulate his approach in my own career.”

Talukdar says she still considers Kahn her “go-to mentor” and tries to renew the connection whenever Kahn’s work brings him to London, where she currently lives and works. “We have wonderful conversations about Grinnell and TIAA-CREF’s consistent collaboration with the school,” she says. 

Alums make the difference

Kahn says he firmly believes that having engaged alumni involved in the internship process makes a big difference in the quality of student work experiences. He typically maintains close contact with students at TIAA-CREF, talking with them about their assignment and helping them think about how the internship can prepare them for a career. 

“Having a Grinnell alum as an advocate in an internship situation brings additional value beyond the work assignment itself,” Kahn says. “The College already does so much to prepare students for great things in life, and our internships are an excellent example of how Grinnell extends the community beyond the prairie to places like midtown Manhattan.

“I’m passionate about Grinnell, and I’m passionate about giving back to Grinnell in any way I can,” Kahn says. “One of the best ways I believe I can do that is by being a resource to current students, as well as to younger alumni who may be early in their careers and looking for that type of guidance.” 

 

Meals from Global Learning Program trip to China

A small collection of images captured by Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer during the recent Global Learning Program trip to China. 

Family style meal in ChinaNoodles with fried eelChina DishesChina dish with shrimpDuck Tongue

 

 

 

 

 

Chicken soup with head and feetBeef with peppers

Squirrel Fish

Vegetarian dish with tofu, mushroom, and noodles

Dish of baby octopus Lotus Root and Bamboo Shoots

How the Drakes Met

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, a native Minnesotan, graduated from a high school class of nearly 450 students. She didn’t know half her classmates, so she wanted something smaller. She applied to Grinnell because it was more intimate than the University of Minnesota. 

“I didn't visit ahead,” she says, “I just applied, and in those days they took anybody, because I have to admit, I'm not the greatest student. I have fun. I had to work hard for my grades but enjoyed knowing everyone and participating in the special activities. 

 “I knew of George Drake because he was a big deal on campus,” she says. He was a runner and made a bid for Student Council president.

“In those days,” Sue says, “you dated a lot of different people. I dated his roommates.”

But she never even said hello to George.

In the fall of 1959, Sue was teaching second grade in Hinsdale, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago. She persuaded her roommate, Nancy, to drive to Grinnell with her to go to homecoming. They met one of George’s college roommates on campus, and he invited Sue to the homecoming dance.

“I said, ‘Sure, but I've got my friend here.’ And he said, ‘Well, George Drake is here. We'll just double.”

During the dance, George learned that Sue had driven from Chicago in her ’51 Plymouth. He had taken the train, so he asked if he could get a ride back with them.

“About two weeks later,” Sue says, “he called me up and asked me out. So, that's how I met George. That was in October. By February we were engaged, and in June we were married.”

Around the World, Around the Table

Seven thousand miles from Iowa, I sit around a table of Grinnellians and stare down at the bowl that has just been placed beside our bubbling hotpot. Inside it is an intact organ that looks awfully similar to a human brain, albeit a generously seasoned one.

What have I gotten myself into, I wonder, as I poke the pig brain with a single chopstick. At the next table over, Garrett Wang ’20, Karin Cho ’20, and Kaity Moore ’20 chow down on a plate of duck blood tofu. Meanwhile, Alex Johnson ’20 turns a bright shade of pink and begins to cough. I shout across the room to ask if he is okay.

“Yep,” he answers. “I didn’t realize Sichuan food was so spicy!”

Back at my table, Jackson Schulte ’20 takes an unceremonious bite of cerebrum and seems to emerge unfazed. So does Yanni Tsandilas ’20, who has family in Greece and likens the dish to lamb brain he has eaten there. 

A picky eater by normal standards, my habits are comically out of place among a group of foodies. But after four days in China (and a cold pint of beer), the idea of eating all parts of an animal is becoming slightly less aversive. Still, the thought of putting a piece of brain in my mouth feels more than a little unnerving. I am certain that I will not regret going through life without trying it. And yet —

“Justin,” I announce to Justin Hayworth, College photographer and videographer, “I’m going to do it.” 

This is the point of no return. With the whole group looking on, Hayworth points his camera at my face. I select the smallest morsel I can grasp with my chopsticks and swallow it whole. Snap. Snap. Gag. Snap. Relief.

After downing my drink and furiously scrubbing all traces of brain matter from my chopsticks, I can’t help but crack a smile. 

“Was it worth it?” asks Francess Dunbar ’20.

“As long as it makes it into The Grinnell Magazine,” I respond.

Katie Mehltretter ’20 tries baby octopus at a hotpot restaurant

Food for thought

Over spring break, 15 first-year students traveled to China as part of a Global Learning Program tutorial led by Jin Feng, professor of Chinese, and Todd Armstrong, professor of Russian. The class, Food, Culture, and Identity in China and Russia, explored foodways as a window into the history and culture of these two complex societies. 

Rather than simply reading about food (after all, that would be cruel), the students experienced Chinese culinary culture firsthand. Over two weeks, they ate their way through Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Between meals, they also visited cultural sites, bonded with classmates and professors, and explored beyond the itinerary. As this issue went to print, the class kicked off summer break with two more weeks of course-embedded travel to the Russian cities of St. Petersburg, Moscow, Irkutsk, and Vladivostok.

Hayworth and I were lucky enough to accompany the class for the first eight days of their trip to China. Undeniably the least adventurous eaters of the bunch, we nevertheless managed to get out of our comfort zones and sample a wide variety of Chinese cuisine. In the process, we explored a beautiful country and gained insight into one of Grinnell’s most exciting new academic initiatives.

Lazy Susans and eel noodles

On a warm Sunday evening in late March, our group arrives in China after nearly 30 hours of travel. We spend the night in Shanghai before boarding a bus to Hangzhou, a city that Marco Polo once described as “heaven on Earth.”

Our first stop is lunch at Kui Yuan Guan, a 150-year-old noodle restaurant of international acclaim. Feng leads the group into a private dining area, where two round tables await. Each is equipped with a Lazy Susan and topped with several cold dishes, served family-style. 

“Here you can see the fan-cai principle that we learned about in class,” says Feng. “Who can explain it to Justin and Katherine?”

Eric Kasprzyk ’20 and Audrey Enerson ’20 fill us in. “Chinese meals are all about balance,” Kasprzyk says. “Each meal includes fan, a base of starches and grains, and cai, meats and vegetables.”

“It’s also important to have a mix of heating and cooling elements,” Enerson adds. “And eating in season is essential.”

Feng looks pleased. “Many of the vegetables we see here don’t even have an English translation,” she says, pointing to a plate of what appears to be frosted greens. “But they are all spring vegetables, harvested from this region.”

From the moment we pick up our chopsticks until we take our last bites, the dishes don’t stop coming. The staff are like whirling dervishes: serving the lotus root, clearing the duck tongue, pouring the tea, on and on until nearly 30 plates — per table — have been consumed. 

In the midst of this orchestrated chaos, I try my first Chinese delicacy: noodles with fried eel. To my pleasant surprise, it tastes more like beef jerky than seafood. I try another nibble before determining that I have had enough eel for one day. 

EelsAfter lunch, we are invited to take a tour of the restaurant’s sprawling kitchens. The highlight is a room featuring seven large basins of live baby eels. Someone inquires about the unusual preparation, and the manager lights up. He launches into an explanation of the basins (the eels are kept for a week without food, which allows them to excrete any fishy-smelling substances) and shares Kui Yuan Guan’s secret method of cooking eel for maximum freshness.

We leave our first meal with a heightened appreciation for the regional pride, rich culture, and meticulous attention to detail that characterizes Chinese cuisine. I, for one, am also appreciative to have tried the famous eel noodles before viewing the lineup for next week’s dinner.

Exploring Chinese tea culture

On our next day in China, we venture outside the city and into the tea plantations of rural Hangzhou. As the bus winds its way through sloping mountains, our tour guide, Kai, prepares us for the next series of stops. 

“If you want to learn about Chinese foodways, it is essential that you learn about the culture of cha,” he says. “What have you been drinking at every meal?”

“TEA!” shouts everyone in unison. A former high school teacher, Kai is skilled in the art of coaxing responses from even the most reluctant of groups.

Our first stop is the China National Tea Museum, which manages to pack a dizzying array of information into a surrealistically beautiful setting. With six halls and an open plan — there are no external walls, only enclosures of vegetation — it is easy to forget that you are inside a museum.

Venturing into the exhibition halls, we learn about the complex cha culture that has unfolded over millennia in China, the birthplace of tea. Various displays document the historical origins of tea, methods for its growing and processing, and its central role in a wide variety of social contexts and customs.

Kohei Kotani ’20 is intrigued by the differences between tea culture in China and in his native Japan. “Japan is famous for green tea, and I’ve learned about it since elementary school,” he says. “But I never knew that Chinese tea culture is just as complex, if not more so.” 

When I ask him for examples, Kotani notes that Japanese people are less likely to use tea for medicinal purposes. “I also learned that there are three major ways of serving tea in China, and each utilizes different utensils and water temperatures,” he adds. “In Japan, I only know of one method.”

Later on, we head to the Meijiawu Tea Village. Outside a traditional teahouse, we are greeted by a statue of Lu Yu, an eighth-century scholar who is considered the most influential figure in Chinese tea culture. 

Inside, we sip cups of Dragon Well tea, a prized variety of green tea that is native to the region. A skillful saleswoman demonstrates its antioxidant properties by pouring iodine into a glass of rice. When rinsed with water, the rice remains stained, but when soaked in the tea, it regains its white color.

“This is no Lipton tea,” she tells us with a smile, already packing the pan-fried leaves into canisters for sale. “Because the nutrients in Dragon Well tea are intact, it detoxifies the body — dissolving fat cells, clearing your skin, and eliminating free radicals.”

By the time she pitches a student discount, everyone is hooked. A full 18 members of our 20-person group leave the teahouse with tins big and small. Perhaps the tea will fail to work miracles, but at least we will take home a piece of our trip. At any rate, this is what I tell myself as I amble out with a large tin, a small tin, and two bottles of tea-based supplements.

Sipping tea

Food meets art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

That evening, we head to the Hangzhou Cuisine Museum for a tour of Chinese food history. Like the class itself, the Cuisine Museum investigates and celebrates Chinese gastronomy — more specifically, the regional cuisine of Hangzhou over the past millennium — as a window into China’s history and culture.

As we explore the museum, audio guides direct us through a series of exquisite exhibits. One features silica replicas of every dish served — over 40 in total — at a 12th-century banquet for Emperor Zhao Gou. Another documents the rise of food culture during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127–1279 C.E.), when Silk Road migrants from the old capital of Kaifeng introduced Northern flavors into Hangzhou cuisine. 

By the time we have finished our tour, everyone’s stomachs are grumbling. Thankfully, dinner is not far away. A museum employee directs us to a private dining room, which has already been set to accommodate our group. 

Even the décor has been seemingly arranged to welcome the GLP class. “Hey, Professor Armstrong,” one student says, “check out that bookcase on the other side of the room.”

We turn and look to find a Russian cookbook prominently displayed on the uppermost shelf. Whether or not this was a purposeful choice on the part of the restaurant staff, everyone appreciates the reminder of adventures to come.

After filling our cups with Dragon Well tea, the waiters begin to deliver the dishes. From delicate melon to mandarin fish and pork belly prepared in Song Dynasty style, each plate is not only a rich slice of regional culture, but also a work of fine art.

When the 30-course meal is finally over, we are treated to a visit from the head chef. Nobody is surprised to learn that he cooked for last year’s G-20 summit in Hangzhou; the food is that impressive. Feng presents him with a GLP class T-shirt, and we burst into applause. 

art at Hangzhou Cuisine Museum

Snippets from the bus 

The next morning, we wake early for the three-hour trip to Nanjing, the former capital of the Republic of China. Although everyone is tired from a late night out, the professors ask the class to spend some time debriefing on the bus.

One group discusses the biggest differences between Chinese and American food culture. Schulte and Dunbar note that Chinese meals are less open to customization; unlike in America, there is no such thing as “having it your way.” Johnson, meanwhile, is surprised by the sheer volume of food at each meal.

“Yeah,” adds Ethan Huelskamp ’20, “it’s interesting how that stacks up to the stereotype of overweight Americans.”

We agree that this probably has something to do with nutritional value. Though fast food restaurants have multiplied across China in recent years, processed food remains far less common than it is in the United States. In China, most dishes are seasonal, regional, and generously spiced.

At the other end of the bus, Gabriela Gryc ’20 brings up the topic of American privilege. When she, Steffie Ochoa ’20, and Caryn Crittenden ’20 stopped for a late night snack — at a McDonald’s, no less — the staff delayed closing so that the group could finish their meal. 

Another student mentions the difference between “meals in competition” versus “meals in conversation.” Compared to Americans, Chinese people place less of an emphasis on which region or city produces the “best” cuisine. Instead, they take pride that distinct regional styles can coexist.

Finally, Katie Mehltretter ’20 shares that she is starting to get over her squeamishness. “It’s a lot easier to eat baby octopus outside of an American context,” she says. Thinking of the pig brain, I agree, but not without a slight shudder.

Exploring a rural village

The next morning, we leave the city and bus out to a rural village on the outskirts of Nanjing. The sky is still gray — thick with smog or rain, we cannot tell — but here, the streets are empty, and the rice paddies stretch for miles. There is a quiet beauty, but also an overwhelming feeling that this village has seen better days.

“In the last 20 years alone, the proportion of China’s population living in urban areas jumped from 26 percent to 56 percent,” says Kai. “With so many young people moving away in search of better jobs, these rural communities die out.”

“However,” he continues, “this village is one of the nicest in the country. It’s been maintained for tourists, so there’s not as much poverty here as in other regions.”

Though the village has emptied out over the years, several dozen families remain. Walking through the streets, we encounter an adorable toddler, her grandfather, and multiple unleashed dogs. One affectionate mutt decides to follow us through town, circling our feet and barking our arrival to animals that eye us from the side of the road.

The group converges at a home-style restaurant for lunch. We watch as the owner nets fresh fish from a basin, then motions to the river across the street. “Our lunch was caught fresh today,” Feng translates. Catching my eye, she adds, “And of course, there are vegetables too!”

The meal is simple, flavorful, and nutritious. In addition to the fish, there are spring greens, pork dumplings, and a hearty chicken soup, head and all. Gryc mentions that some plates remind her of her mother’s Polish cooking, and Kaspryzyk, who is also Polish, agrees. 

Johnson adds that he appreciates the ubiquity of farm-to-table food in China. “Unlike in the U.S., local food isn’t overpriced and overhyped,” he says. “It’s just a fact of life.” 

Culinary fusion and Grinnellian bonding

After a rainy visit to the mausoleum of Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China, we head back to Nanjing for dinner. In a nod to the city’s large Muslim population, the professors have selected a halal restaurant for tonight’s meal. We are joined by Karol Sadkowski ’16, who is teaching English on a Grinnell-sponsored fellowship in Nanjing. He also happens to be Armstrong’s godson.

At an ornate table, we indulge in a variety of familiar and unfamiliar dishes. Per halal strictures, there is no pork, but we are served generous portions of beef, lamb, fish, dumplings, and vegetables. One dish features spiced beef intestines, which Tsandilas declares to be the best he has ever had. I am less enamored and gladly pass my plate to the more enthusiastic eaters.

When the meal is over, the majority of the class follows Sadkowski back to his dorm. Several students remark that they could see themselves applying for the Nanjing English teaching fellowship after graduation, which prompts a grin from Sadkowski. “Do it,” he says, before leading us out of the building. 

Later on, we take a group trip to an American-themed bar and restaurant near Sadkowski’s dorm. Crowded around a table, we trade stories over plates of nachos, then sign our names and class years in a “Grinnell box” on the colorful wall. 

“It’s like Bob’s-in-China,” one student says, referring to the popular Grinnell campus hangout. Everyone agrees, and we are happy to be in the company of others who understand.

“This is why I love Grinnellians,” adds Ochoa. “I didn’t know anyone in this class before, let alone two young alums. But look at us now, here in China ...”

Across the table, I catch Sadkowski’s eye and smile.

Scorpion on a stick

Reunions and goodbyes

On Hayworth’s and my last day in China, we visit two universities. The first, Nanjing Normal University, was founded on the site of a women’s college that informed Feng’s early research. As we tour the grounds, Feng shares the illustrious history of the 100-year-old institution. In addition to being the first college to grant bachelor’s degrees to female students in China, Ginling Women’s College also sheltered 10,000 women and children during the Nanking Massacre of 1937–1938.

Next, we head to Nanjing University for a celebratory reunion lunch. Our class is joined by administrators and professors who have been involved with the Grinnell-Nanjing exchange, including many longtime friends of Feng and Armstrong.

When toasts have been made and gifts exchanged, everyone spreads out to mingle before saying goodbyes. While Kasprzyk, who is studying Russian, picks the brain of a Russian professor from Nanjing, Wang and another professor discuss living and learning abroad. All in all, the reunion is a fitting tribute to the 30-year-old partnership between the two institutions, rooted in shared history, invigorated by fresh faces and the promise of collaboration to come.

That evening, we dine at a restaurant in Nanjing’s Confucius Temple district. Like the rest of the city and China itself, Confucius Temple is a district of dualities. Though anchored by a historic Confucian temple, today the area is a bustling center of commerce, culture, and entertainment. Century-old medicine shops and cheap street food vendors abut underground markets, artisans selling crafts, and more than one Starbucks. New and old, rich and poor, modern and traditional — China is a dizzying blend of contradictions in flux. Most of all, it is a country that is growing, adapting, and very much alive.

Seated around the dinner table for our final meal, Kai asks me and Hayworth what we will take from the trip.

 “I think it would have to be the experience of eating together,” Hayworth says, and I agree. The simple act of sitting around a table, sharing plates of food, and trying adventurous new dishes creates a sense of community that can be hard to come by in Western society. Did we learn about Chinese culture by studying its food? Certainly, the answer is yes. But we also learned about human culture — how shared dishes and rituals can bridge divides, invite conversations, and create space for community at Grinnell and abroad.

In the end, perhaps Huelskamp sums it up best. “I’m definitely getting a Lazy Susan when I get home.” 

 

Excavating the Peace Rock

No one on campus had seen the granite boulder known as the Peace Rock in its entirety since April 25, 1914. That’s the day the rock was buried by students opposed to the abolition of the annual Class Scrap — a fight that pitted second-year men against first-year men. 

John Whittaker poses with the peace rockDuring the spring 2017 semester, students in John Whittaker’s Archaeological Field Methods class worked on excavating the Peace Rock with the help of other faculty members, anthropology majors, and local historian Byron Hueftle-Worley ’81, who has taught a class about the Peace Rock at the local library.

Whittaker and his students used ground-penetrating radar and other tests to locate the rock. They found what appeared to be the granite boulder about 75 yards east of Carnegie Hall, near the Humanities and Social Studies Complex (HSSC) construction site. 

But after 40 person-hours of digging with no sign of the Peace Rock, the students and Whittaker were ready to give up — until Hueftle-Worley began pushing a rod into the earth in the area surrounding the dig and eventually hit something hard. The class quickly excavated it, exposing the end of granite rock.

 “Despite there being some hiccups along the way,” says Rhett Lundy ’18, an anthropology major from Murfreesboro, Tenn., “it was surreal to unearth an object that was buried over a century ago and was a part of a distant, violent tradition, which differs from our current-day Grinnell College.”

Archive image of students with peace rock Class Scraps often resulted in black eyes and broken bones, Hueftle-Worley says. But in 1913, a student was killed in a Class Scrap in Wisconsin, prompting Grinnell College’s then-President John Main to proclaim the evils of the Class Scrap and call for its abolition. 

The Peace Rock first appeared on campus in 1913, when the planned Class Scrap was replaced by a gathering of first- and second-year men on a farm with a large granite boulder about 2.5 miles west of town. After a night of celebration, they pushed a large piece of the boulder into a cart and pulled the cart by hand back to campus. They unloaded the stone, declared the Class Scrap was dead, and announced that the Peace Rock symbolized the end of the fighting.

Upper-class students who didn’t want the Class Scrap tradition to end began to attack the Peace Rock in April 1914. First, they covered it with red paint. Then they tried to blow it up with dynamite from a local hardware store. 

The final assault came on April 25, 1914, when students dug a pit, rolled the Peace Rock into the hole and covered it with dirt. A page in the 1916 yearbook features a photo of two students posed near a sign that said, “Class Scrap Departs April 25 for Grinnell, China.”

The peace rock will be incorporated into the landscaping for the HSSC. 

Portrait of a Teacher:

George Drake ’56 has filled many roles at Grinnell: student, athlete, intern, sabbatical replacement, soccer coach (sort of), trustee, College president, and, perhaps most importantly, teacher. As a student, he dreamed of someday teaching at his alma mater. 

“I thought that would be the pinnacle of life,” he says during a conversation in his office in Harry Hopkins House. At age 83, Drake still teaches at Grinnell and his office shows it. Shelves overflow with books. His desk is not neat. 

His winding path to teaching at Grinnell

In 1960–61, after his first year at the University of Chicago Theological Seminary, Drake tasted the college teaching life. He organized an internship with Grinnell’s chaplain, Winston King, and taught two history courses for Homer Norton, the College’s British historian, who was on sabbatical. John Pfitsch, athletic director, drafted Drake for an additional duty. 

Pfitsch told him, “The president wants a soccer team. You were an athlete at Grinnell, and you’ve seen soccer played. Would you be the coach?”

Drake smiles at the memory. “So I agreed to do that, but fortunately we had an older Nigerian student named Joe Okumu [’62], who was a great soccer player. I organized the practices and Joe did the coaching. 

“So that year persuaded me that what I really should be doing, and wanted to do, was be a college teacher.”

Sue Ratcliff Drake ’58, who taught second grade that year at Cooper School (now a parking lot east of Quadrangle Hall), could see him being a professor. She points out that George was never ordained, though he’s given a number of sermons. “Not that I particularly wanted to marry a minister,” she says with a smile. 

George Drake returned to the University of Chicago and earned his doctorate in church history, though he wondered what good it would do him in his quest to teach in a liberal arts college. 

While the couple was in Colorado one summer, George learned more about Colorado College. “I wrote to the president and introduced myself and wondered if I could stop by and meet him,” George says. “I did and met some historians, and actually I got a job that way at Colorado College.” 

He started as director of the freshman honors program plus some teaching. The teaching responsibilities evolved and a few years later George found himself in the position of dean — without tenure. 

“This was the late ’60s,” George says. “The president thought a young guy might understand what these kids are doing. The student revolution and so on. So I did that for six years. Then went back to the classroom thinking I would never be an administrator again.”

By then George was serving on Grinnell’s Board of Trustees as an academic voice. Several years later the board offered him the job as Grinnell’s president.

Sue says, “He was well acquainted with the people that were in the administration at that time. He kept up with the professors that he knew already. I think that experience just made him feel really comfortable stepping right into [the presidency].”

George was on the board during A. Richard Turner’s presidency (1975–1979) and saw the problems he had with students and faculty. “When I got the job,” George says, “I thought, What have I done to myself? The word was Grinnell was a graveyard for presidents.

“I had some sense that I could maybe bring some healing to this place,” he says, “that it needed healing at that point and that my strengths might fit what was needed.”

Although being president was not exactly his dream job, he served 12 years, from 1979 to 1991. As he departed the presidency, the Grinnell College Board of Trustees honored him by creating the George Drake Professor of Religious Studies. “I didn’t mind being president,” he says with a smile. “Actually I liked it a lot better than I thought I would.” 

Tenure was the only thing he negotiated for when he was offered the presidency, which he left with about 10 years of full-time teaching ahead of him. “I wanted to make it worthwhile,” he says.

After George stepped down from the presidency, he and Sue joined the Peace Corps and served two years in Lesotho, a nation encircled by South Africa. George taught English at a girls’ high school and Sue demonstrated teaching techniques to area teachers. 

By the time Drake returned to Grinnell’s campus, most students didn’t know who he was. “I could make a fresh start,” he says.

Preparing to teach at Grinnell

While still in Africa, George was already thinking about what he would teach when he returned to campus for the fall 1994 semester. His scholarly background in early modern European history and British history — thanks to a year in Paris on a Fulbright scholarship followed by two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — overlapped that of two other professors. 

“But we didn’t have African history then,” he says, “so I realized I could develop a course in southern African history.

“I had almost no interest in Africa when we went to the Peace Corps, knew very little about it, so I did a lot of reading while we were there.”

But reading wasn’t the only source of ideas. “A lot of what I did in that course on southern Africa had to do with my understanding of rural African culture. I think those two years gave me that understanding, and teaching those girls gave me that understanding.” 

George also knew he’d be teaching a First-Year Tutorial and wanted to include Nelson Mandela. “Seeing him, after all those years in prison, reach out to his former captors and look forward with the truth and reconciliation process,” he says, “that just seemed so extraordinary.” 

He had a theme — crisis, liberation, justice, and leadership — but how could he put a course together that wasn’t only Mandela? Inspiration came from an introductory history course he was preparing, Europe to America.

“It was English antecedents to developments in American history, regionalism, religion, and constitutional history,” George says. “I had to do a lot of reading in American history and got really interested, particularly in the early national period. Because of that and because a tutorial on this subject ought to include Americans in it, I developed the idea of using Washington and Lincoln. 

“Going from Washington to Lincoln makes a lot of sense. A lot of coherence there,” George says. He included Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. too. 

“Gandhi and King are closely related. And Mandela as well. Mandela self-consciously rejects the Gandhian approach. [He] concludes that there are some regimes that are so awful that they have no conscience. You can’t use their conscience against them. So that made a nice package.” 

George taught Crisis, Liberation, Justice, and Leadership for the first time in the fall of 1995 and many times since. He smiles again. “It has worked, so I’m lazy enough to stay with it. Because it’s a lot of work to develop a new tutorial.”

George Drake in the classroom

On teaching writing

In 1997 John Aerni-Flessner ’01 took George’s tutorial, “randomly and luckily.” He says that George “really sets a tone in the classroom that all opinions are welcome and makes sure that all voices are heard. I remember some absolutely epic discussions in there where he didn’t have to say anything after his introductory framing remarks. He picked an interesting topic and interesting readings and made everyone feel comfortable.”

Aerni-Flessner, who earned his doctorate in African history and is an assistant professor at Michigan State University, describes George as a great mentor and role model. “I actually utilize some of the strategies from George’s tutorial still. He had us write one-page reflections on each of the books. It was one of the hardest writing assignments I ever had — to hold yourself to one page and say something meaningful.”

George doesn’t claim any originality with that assignment. He learned it from Monessa Cummins, associate professor of classics, during a summer seminar for faculty to learn more about teaching writing. 

“I’d always used shorter papers,” George says, “but I’d never used the one page and she convinced me of the advantages. It poses a huge challenge to the student — how can you say something meaningful in one page? Plus, it’s close to what you’ll be doing in life when you’re writing. 

“It’s manageable from the faculty point of view to move from craft to final paper with a meeting with every student. Those meetings last 10 or 15 minutes. They’re not very long. You can accomplish quite a bit. 

“Plus you can take sentences apart. You can take paragraphs apart, because it’s a short assignment. So you really can focus on structure and grammar and things like that, as well, obviously, as organization and argument. It’s the best thing I’ve ever found for the teaching of writing,” he says.

Students tend to agree. Ariel Keller ’17, a sociology major, chose the same tutorial topic as Aerni-Flessner. “Professor Drake really focused on allowing us to grow as students in his class,” she says. “He had us bring our first draft in to him and then we were given preliminary feedback. We were able to revise and the second draft is what was graded. So I think I wasn’t as consumed by the idea of letter grades but more of becoming someone who’s involved with academics.” 

Aerni-Flessner says he doesn’t recall grades except one — his last tutorial paper. “I’d been getting lots of B pluses on tutorial papers,” he says. “I thought I’d finally hit it with the last tutorial paper. I spent copious amounts of time at the library in front of my computer with all the books. I got it back and George had given me a B++.” He laughs and continues, “Because he was George, I didn’t hate him for this. I just said, ‘What does it take to get an A-?’

“Then a couple of years later,” Aerni-Flessner continues, “when I was a second-semester senior about to graduate and taking his Southern Africa history class, I remember writing a paper and getting a comment like, ‘This is the kind of paper I’ve been hoping to see from you for years.’ That’s the kind of teacher George was.”

The knight as stealth bomber

It’s not just students who appreciate his teaching abilities. Ellen Mease, associate professor of theatre and dance, team-taught Humanities 140: Medieval/Renaissance Culture 1100-1650 with George at least three different times. 

 “The advantage of team-teaching, I think,” she says, “is I get to hear how a professional historian goes about providing the sociopolitical and the cultural context for the close study of the selected text that we’re working with.

“He would describe, for instance, the development of the most sophisticated armed weapon of the period, the knight, in terms of the expense that it takes to develop and deploy a stealth bomber. He’d talk about all the equipment that you needed as a knight — the squire, the armorer, the guy who’s going to repair, the guy who’s going to shoe, the horse, the technological development of the stirrup. You can’t stay on your horse in heavy armor unless you have a stirrup that allows you to balance. That’s the kind of detail that students don’t forget.

 “So here’s the other advantage of team-teaching, especially with George,” Mease adds, “being able to, both of us, evaluate student papers and to look at the utter simplicity of George’s ‘This could be clearer’ written neatly in the margin. He’s not telling the student how to rewrite the sentence. 

“When we advertise the extraordinary value of a Grinnell education,” Mease says, “this is a serious component of it; it’s the quality of the feedback that they get on their papers. George will say, ‘This is not college-level writing. Take advantage of the Writing Lab. Read carefully; write carefully; revise early; use the Writing Lab.’ He was always, I think, proud — not just as a teacher, but as a longtime faculty member and president of the College — that we were able to take underachieving students, C students, and turn them into a solid B if not the occasional A- student.”

Another component of George’s approach to teaching writing is the use of tutorials. These stem from his two years at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship before he went to seminary. 

“The way it works best in the U.S. is for three or four students to come in,” he says. “They’ve all done the same topic. They read each other’s papers and discuss them for an hour.”

Mease appreciated this approach in Humanities 140. “George and I would sit in as flies on the wall. You learn more about your own writing, the clarity of expression, from phrase to phrase, the cultivation of appropriate vocabulary, the clear thesis, the more than perfunctory concluding paragraph,” she says. “It was the willingness of George just to sit back and let them critique each other and not wait until he wrote comments on the paper. They would do better by letting them critique each other.”

A teacher who loves to learn

George Drake“If you’re trying to empower students,” George says, “and trying to recognize where they are individually and collectively, I totally subscribe to where Grinnell has evolved. When I taught here in the early ’60s, I predominantly lectured. It was sort of what most were doing.”

But now? “You would be in trouble around here, unless you were just a superb lecturer, if that’s what you did in the course. Any course that doesn’t empower students in the classroom to be actively engaged in what’s going on is, at Grinnell, not as good a course as it should be.”

So George continues to learn about teaching. During the last faculty writing seminar he attended, he explained to his fellow participants why he was there. “When I was president, we instituted the SFS [senior faculty status] program as we wanted to phase people into retirement and then get them to retire, because we didn’t want a lot of 80-year-olds doddering around here trying to teach. Well, I’m 80 years old and I’m doddering around and I’m trying to teach, so I better do seminars and try and improve myself.” He smiles at the retelling.

Sue, his wife of 57 years, had a lot of influence on him as a teacher too. She taught grades two and three for several years, including some of the hardest teaching of all — substitute teaching. She served as a model for him. 

“She’s a superb teacher,” George says, “balances discipline and loving.”

“He’s a man of doing. And curious,” Sue says, “and that’s why he’s so good.”