By Lauren Khine and Charlotte Francoli, Summer Times Staff Writer
On Monday, July 22, 2019, Exeter Summer Journalism students interviewed Russell Weatherspoon, the Director of Exeter Summer. Mr. Weatherspoon has been a member of the Exeter community for thirty years and is serving his first year as Director of Exeter Summer. The interview is as follows [responses have been condensed for brevity]:
Question: Being a faculty member at Exeter for over 30 years, can you discuss the culture and community shifts as the political environment has evolved?
Answer: One thing about life, not only now, but always, is there is always change. If you imagine that things are going to stay the same, you are going to be bitterly disappointed. I got here in 1987, and by that time schools were already co-ed. I would imagine that at the time there were many people who were resistant to that. Schools and colleges were single-sex, for instance, Harvard and Yale. Those changes, as relates to coeducation, changes as related to issues around race; colleges began to recognize that the assumptions about who should be in places like this could not be sustained. They have become more diverse, and that is largely because of society and the world also changed. During the time that I have been here, for instance, sexual orientation has, in terms of attitudes about it in the nation at large and around the world, continued to change. But the changes that we’ve seen in the last fifteen years have been by comparison rather dramatic. Now they are sensing there is greater acceptance, at least in the United States. That doesn’t mean that there’s total acceptance by a long shot, but for instance one of the candidates on the Democratic side, Pete Buttigieg, is able to lead with the fact that he is homosexual. At the same time, you have the Presidential administration taking the position that they do not want transgender people serving in the military. You’ve got both of those things happening simultaneously. Young people are attuned to all of that. It’s part of the world they’re growing up in, so they’ve got lots of questions that they want to talk about, whatever position they may take. As a school, one of the things that we’re interested in is bringing students here who do want to talk about just about anything they think about. So we try to encourage that kind of discussion and debate. Obviously, human beings are not perfect, so there will be times when they’re talking about such things that they will forget that among their chief responsibilities is to listen carefully to other people, to try to understand where people are coming from, to remember that all of us together are fundamentally the same species. It’s to our collective advantage to work together. There are times they will forget that, there are times they will start to act like it’s more important to me to make my point than to make a friend. We at times will forget that you can make a point without making an enemy. Speaking specifically as Americans, there is a tendency in different quarters, on both sides of the political spectrum, to sometimes act as if people are not with me, they’re against me, that only my opinion and the opinion of people who are like me matters. As I say, change is inevitable. If it feels like things are static, that’s an illusion. On the other hand, old people, like you guys, have to realize you are part of that change. You are not watching it.
Q: What kind of responsibilities come with being the Director of Exeter Summer?
A: The summer school runs for five weeks, and the director plus the other people who work in my office are responsible to try to think through every single phase of everything that’s going to happen here. We’ve got to make sure that there’s a website that you can put [the newspaper] on. We have to pay for the website. There are just hundreds of details like that that we work on most of the year. We work on financial aid support, we work on transportation logistics. It’s a lot of behind-the-scenes details. And then you all arrive, and we do this for five weeks at a hectic pace, and then suddenly you’re gone, and we’re like, ‘Wow. What just happened?’ As a matter of fact, even now, this is the fourth week, we’re starting to think about 2020 summer school. So it’s planning that goes around the whole year.
Q: How is financial aid funded by the school?
A: Often actually, it is created in two different ways: one, is that built into the tuition, a portion of the regular tuition actually is set aside to help provide for financial aid. But it’s also true that we have a variety of organizations that give money, and individuals, that give money on a regular basis to help provide financial aid, not just the tuition for people to come, but also to help support the transportation that will get them here, and make sure that there are some funds on their Lion Cards. We would like the summer school student population to be diverse nationally; that is to say we don’t want them to all be Americans. So we want them to be Americans, and we want them to be international. We want them to be male and female, we want them to have a variety of sexual orientations, we want them to come from a variety of financial backgrounds. We also want students who would never consider coming to Exeter. When they think about Exeter they say to themselves, “Hey, Exeter’s not for me.” And we want to turn to them and say, “No, you’re bright, you’re able; you come too.” And then when we sit around a table, when we are in the Grill and people are talking, they realize they’re talking to people who live very different lives from the lives they live. We also hope that friendships will break out between people from very different circumstances and that after they leave the summer school, that they’ll stay in contact. And so that when they become adults, they’ll hopefully still be in contact and realize that they can reach out to each other and work together even as adults. This is a very Machiavellian plan.
Q: What is the difference between Phillips Exeter Academy and the Stony Brook High School, where you taught before?
A: The Stony Brook School started off as a boarding school, helping prepare boys to become men who would basically serve under the influence of Christianity. I was at that school for ten years and then came here; I liked that school very much because it was small and you knew everybody. I came here and it was a bit harder, but I worked very hard on it and having as much face-to-face contact as possible which is very important to me.
Q: What was the hardest thing for you to learn transitioning from a member of the faculty to director?
A: Most of the people that come to Exeter or anybody who comes to Exeter teach because they love that. I think that the vast majority of the people come here because the teaching method is so different from teaching methods at regular high schools. I have in this interview said more words than I would typically say when I am teaching a class. My goal when I come in to teach a class is to say as little as possible. Leaving the old school and coming here, the major change was learning how to do that, to not talk as much as I have talked in this class, to peer back and to cause the students to talk.
Q: Are you also here in the regular session and if so, what do you do?
A: In the regular session I no longer do what I have done for more than 30 years, which is conduct classes. In fact, taking on the work of the Director of Exeter Summer, I have lost the thing I love the most, which is to be able to be sitting at a table. Now you see me once a week standing on the assembly stage, but I am spending my time paying attention to what the deans are saying about student behavior. I listen to what Campus Safety has to say to me about other issues that have arisen. I also respond to emails from faculty members and others, I sit in meetings about what we are going to teach next year and how we are going to do it. All those things are important and necessary and I enjoy talking to the people that I talk with, but the thing that gives me the greatest pleasure is to be able to sit down and listen to the students talking.
Q: What did you teach during the regular session?
A: I taught in the religion department and there I tended to teach courses related to ethics, like the ethics of the marketplace or social ethics. I also taught Hebrew scripture, philosophy, and existentialism. When I was in the English department, I taught both literature and writing. Together I was in three departments; I was in the religion department, the English department and also the drama department because I also taught speech making. I spent a lot of my life giving talks.
Q: What made you want to teach those subjects?
I love all of those things. I love the science of trying to speak to an audience and move an audience from one place to another. I try to help them open their minds and consider something they weren’t considering before. It is not a science, although science can tell us something. It is an art. In college, I majored in English and I have always liked writing and literature. The kind of large philosophical questions that come up in religion is actually the stuff of everyday life. I mean if you are trying to talk about the Democratic process or whatnot, you are doing philosophy.
Q: A question about the dining hall: why are you using plastic dishes and utensils instead of reusable ones?
A: Over two months ago, the woman who is in charge of the dining hall came over to our office and we sat down to talk about things like budget. She said that since we don’t have the larger dining hall this summer, the one being used would be Wetherell. The suggestion then was that every now and then we would do a cookout, too. when I came by a saw that they were using plastic knives and forks. I didn’t turn to them and say, “Why are we using paper and plastic?” My guess is because they feel like they can recycle those things and not ask employees in the middle of the summer to work the dishwasher, which is a big machine down in the basement. The dishwasher gets incredibly hot and it is uncomfortable being around it.