RELEASED: May 15, 2008
Developing over Lecturing
Instead of lecturing to a classroom of closed eyes at 8 A.M. three days a week, professor of sociology Beau Weston lets his subject and teaching style awaken his students.
The class structure alternates between Weston discussing a chapter from books such as Evolution of Desire, hearing a newlywed couple talk about their life and occasionally students sharing personal details that relate to the class material of divorce, relationships and growing up as the middle child.
Over the course of his 18 years at Centre College, Weston has developed wide appeal throughout the student body. Everyone from sorority sisters, fraternity brothers, science majors and curious sophomores sign up for his Family Life class. And many of the hundreds of students he taught stay in contact with him through Facebook, e-mail or over a cup of coffee when he passes through their town.
At the heart of his long, popular tenure at Centre is the very personal relationship Weston cultivates with his students. Everything he does - from holding pizza parties at his house, to asking the students to write personal journals - is aimed at building a level of trust and communication. While Centre College stresses the close bond and trust that forms between the right professor for each student, Weston attempts a similar situation across more than thirty students in the Family Life class alone.
“Getting to know students well enough to help them form their characters is what I am teaching for. In that [Family Life] class, I want to help them make families that will well serve them and society,” he said.
“Students open up in his classes. Beau artfully weaves various perspectives together with the academic content,” says Kevin Jones who returned to his class six months after he married his wife Amy and returned as a guest couple. They were both sociology majors at Centre and took classes from Weston.
On Fridays in Family Life Weston yields the floor to guest speakers. The weekly speakers range in age from married couples giving real life advice to a local Judge discussing the social issues he faces in his courtroom.
Rather than teach out of a textbook Weston uses the participatory environment to evolve and shape the class. Students make personal confessions relating to the material. “Active-learning classes have such a high student component that they make each iteration different,” he said. It is not uncommon for the class to become sidetracked by an issue in the daily news.
Outside the classroom students are assigned readings from various texts and can submit Internet videos and articles at their leisure. The material is meant provoke ideas that they will relate in reflective weekly writings. Journals typically revolve around personal experiences, family reflections and popular culture.
Kerri Howard, a senior who has been to Weston’s house numerous times, said, “I think the thing I really like about Beau is that I have learned how to learn from him, and learned how to come up with my own ideas. He’s okay if my ideas don’t jibe with his – but he’ll push me to explain them better, so that I come to better understand them myself.”
Mornings after class Weston walks roughly half a mile in his Birkenstock sandals – socks sometimes included – with his satchel bag to the Hub Coffee House & Café. For a few hours before lunch he holds open office hours among the other patrons, inviting students to discuss topics over his 20 ounce mocha, three shots espresso, no foam or whipped cream.
Other times students can be seen trekking to Weston’s home, where some will read the family’s 25th anniversary gift on the front of the house, a sign that says, “And they lived happily ever after.” Weston will hold class surrounded by one thousand books, near a fireplace with two couches, three armchairs, four reading lamps and the Weston wedding certificate. His pizza parties are almost a Centre tradition and occasionally involve throwing whatever is in the fridge onto the pizza.
Weston did not just evolve his class over time, however. In his nearly two decades as a professor he has refined his outlook on sociology. Combining two of his passions – religion and sociology – Weston seeks to perfect a species of moral education.
“The habits of virtue and vice that students learn, and the moral examples of the people they get to know, stick with them for life,” he said. Weston, like many professors at Centre, seeks to connect with students on more than an academic level and influence their thinking as much as their intelligence.
Weston grew up in an education-oriented household, motivating him to finish a year early from the Great Valley High School in Pennsylvania. In his free year he worked at a picture frame store during the day, but pursued classes at Villanova University and Lafayette College “just to learn stuff.”
After graduating from Swarthmore, Weston set his sights on becoming a professor at a small liberal arts institution. But during his sophomore year at Swarthmore, Weston found a new side of Christianity that would permanently influence his teaching style and personality.
“I had never heard a serious intellectual account of Christianity before, and I came to college a militant atheist.” The criticism of modernity from his professors continued his spiritual education. “Formation of Christian Doctrine class came to me as intellectual manna. From this intellectual grasp of Christianity, I went on to a deeper understanding and commitment.”
Weston also courted his wife as they argued the heresies of Christian Doctrine.
After Swarthmore, Beau Weston pursued degrees at Yale University’s Graduate School and Divinity School while his wife was in Yale’s Law School. He pursued and received four advanced degrees, an M.A., M. Phil., and Ph.D. in sociology from the Yale Graduate School and an M.A. in Religion.
The M.A.R. speaks to Weston’s religious side, the second half of his teaching influence. Raised a Quaker, he is currently a Presbyterian and a Ruling Elder of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
“I view moral education of students as the primary aim of education, and my service to them as the highest part of my vocation as a teacher,” he said. By combining his love of family life and religion, he developed a style of teaching that provides real life context and turmoil rather than just abstract theories and terminology.
After graduate school, Weston worked in the Department of Education in the Office of Research, where his brief was the educational role of families. “One of my big jobs was to run an annual ‘Field-Initiated Research’ grants project. Unlike the big research centers that we funded this small competition gave grants to individual researchers on any topic in education that they could convince the panel was worth funding,” he said.
After 3 years in the Department of Education, Weston finally fell into his planned career. In 1988 Centre College envisioned an Anthropology and Sociology program and hired anthropologist, Phyllis Passariello, and in 1990 they hired Weston as a sociologist. They built the program from scratch.
Passariello remembers working and planning with Weston from the beginning. “From day one, Beau and I worked very well together, putting in long hours and lots of personal devotion on both our parts. We both had a ‘vision’ and were willing to work for it. We shared the goal of the program becoming a strong and popular one.” They have succeeded, propelling the anthropology/sociology major into the top three at Centre during one year, and the top ten consistently.
Weston only became convinced by the sociobiological approach to sociology a decade ago, courtesy of David Buss. Weston described his outlook on sociobiology as holding the nature/nurture line at 50/50. He relates this view to his students, allowing them to discuss and debate with him with this knowledge. “I have a great appreciation of the biological foundations of sex differences,” he said.
Weston does not hide off campus at the Hub or his home, though. In a time when contacting a professor by e-mail is on the rise, he avails himself of as many opportunities as possible to stay in touch with his students. He adopts technology when it applies and is useful. He uses Facebook and receives updates from students and alumni, his blog is for himself but open to students for comments and viewing and WebCT allows Internet connectivity through quizzes, journals and papers.
Amy Jones provided insight into Weston’s teaching mentality. “He brought to class what I like to think of as his own personal curriculum for how to have a happy, fulfilling life. He was always reinforcing these ideas. For Weston, the classroom is not a defined space. Anytime we were with him, we were in class.”
Tricia McReynolds, an alumna of the class of 2005, took a handful of classes from professor Weston. “Family Life was the only class I could consistently wake up before 8 A.M. for,” she said.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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