By Liya Rechtman ’14

Volume XXXVII, Issue 1, February 21, 2014

Drawing of the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz, with a sign in front showing the words "Emerald City" crossed out and the words "Chapin Hall" underneath, and a person on the road singing "I'm off to see the Dean... the wonderful Dean of Faculty..."Recounting our first few weeks of classes, a friend of mine told a classic Amherst academic horror story that we have all experienced at one point or another. He was asked to write a one-page response essay on a seemingly simple question: “What is fascism?” He began to write the paper smugly, with the expectation that this 100-level history class would be an easy fourth to accompany his more difficult core class requirements for his major. But he was stunned to find himself spending hours over the next week or so, trying to spin out an answer. ‘What is fascism?’, as it turned out, was not so simple a question as he had expected. Fear stirred in him as the opportunity to drop classes slipped away. The second shoe fell when the class had their papers returned a week later; out of the approximately 25 students in the class, only two received anything above a B+, with most students significantly below that. The professor was Catherine Epstein, chair of the History Department and newly named Dean of Faculty.With this reputation in mind, I was apprehensive about the assignment of interviewing Professor Epstein on her new position as Dean of the Faculty. Former students had nothing but praise for her, but each recounted her classes with the hint of fear that comes with truly rigorous academic environments. I had been told that she ran a tight ship, and that she was simultaneously both bluntly straightforward and cordially elusive when it suited her. So I was pleasantly surprised and a bit caught off guard when, in an email exchange in preparation for our discussion, she identified herself as “very short with glasses and wearing a long, black parka.” Professor Epstein sounded, well, human.

Epstein has been a faculty member at Amherst since 2000, and in the intervening 14 years has published two books, with a textbook on Nazi Germany set for publication in the near future. Her academic focus is on Nazi Germany and European history, and her most recent research and published book Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland focuses in closely on the fiefdom-esque rule of the titular Nazi in his position as Gauleiter of Warsaw. This January, a committee composed of faculty members from a variety of departments concluded their internal search for a Dean of Faculty to replace Dean Call. After nominating and interviewing potential candidates they presented President Martin with a list of three unranked names and Martin selected Professor Epstein from this list. I wanted to know what that meant for us.

LR: How does the Dean of Faculty affect the life of the average student?

CE: Here’s what the Dean of Faculty does not do: The Dean doesn’t do student life. The position has shifted in part with the addition of the new Provost. The Provost is now working on the connections between curricular and co-curricular aspects of campus life. Most offices currently reporting to the Dean of the Faculty will continue to do so. There are ongoing conversations about just what should stay with the Dean of the Faculty and what should go to the Provost. But other things are not so clear. The Dean’s office is also responsible for making sure that faculty members are supported in their research. If faculty members are engaged with their work, they bring that into their teaching, they collaborate with students and bring students in on projects related to their research. Faculty research is really the driving force.

LR: I know a lot of your research is on Nazi Germany. Do you see any connections between your academic work and the new role of administrator?

CE: Are you asking if I’m going to have a dictator’s administration? Have you seen the Muck-Rake article about me? I thought that was hilarious!

LR: I think they’re one of the best publications on campus; they’re great.

CE: I agree, really funny, really astute. No, I don’t think there’s much of a connection. You know, it’s easy to study a dictatorship because you know who’s in charge. There’s one person making decisions. But I don’t think of my role as the role of a dictator at all, although I appreciated the Muck-Rake bit.

LR: I spoke to a couple people before talking to you about what kind issues are related to Dean of Faculty’s office. One of the things that came up was trigger warnings.

CE: I think we definitely need to have more training for the faculty on these issues. I remember when I first heard about trigger warnings and I didn’t know whom to ask about help with the issue. I talk a lot about unpleasant things in my courses. A lot of my material covers genocide and genocide often includes rape, which has more and more been used as a systematic weapon against people. More training needs to be available. I know there’s already an initiative going on.

LR: But you wouldn’t want it to be standardized?

CE: Again, I’m not a dictator. I don’t want to tell the faculty what to do. I also don’t think that’s a good way to go about it, to get people involved. I don’t want to standardize, I want to provide the option for people.

LR: There’s also the idea of a half credit course either over inter-term or during the first year. They would think through some of the big issues of community, respect, diversity, and consent. What do you think about that?

CE: I don’t want to dictate what people are teaching, that’s not Amherst, and we don’t have a curriculum like that.

LR: Are there other ways that you see any of those issues becoming more integrated with academics?

CE: I think they can become more integrated into academics through individual faculty members, faculty members being interested in those issues, as well they should be, and working on it. In terms of from the Dean of Faculty’s office I see it much more as workshops, education, making resources available to people, that sort of thing. But I don’t see required classes. Unless that’s what the faculty wants, but that would be a pretty radical change.

LR: Do you have any big goals in the office of Dean of Faculty?

CE: I would like to make the office more responsive, accessible, and helpful to faculty. That will involve some reorganization in the office so that we can answer faculty members’ concerns more quickly than has sometimes happened in the past. We have a great Dean of the Faculty right now, he’s done excellent things for the faculty, so you know, there’s not always a whole lot to improve. I would also like to do more with work-balance issues. Faculty members have pretty crazy lives and how can we make it so that they don’t feel so crazy. If you have a less stressed professor, you’re going to get a better teaching experience, a better discussion, he or she might turn around the papers a little more quickly. I’d like to look much more at what other schools do; every school in the country faces these kinds of issues. Those issues translate into the classroom experience. The college has done research into other colleges but I don’t know the results of that material yet. You’ve caught me at a time when I don’t know as much as I should! I will know but I don’t yet.

LR: That’s okay. That’s expected at this point, right?

CE: I used to spend every morning of the week working on my book and then I would teach and do office hours and class preparation afternoons and evenings. Now what I’m doing is that all the time I would previously do research I’m now going around campus. I do a lot more talking to people. Basically I’m learning about the college, it’s my new research project. The job doesn’t officially start until July 1.

LR: Are you still going to be teaching at all?

CE: No, there is too much work in the Dean of Faculty’s office, so no teaching. It’s a pretty demanding job. It’s a big change, but i t ’s nice to have a change, right? It’s not an expected change but I’m psyched.

LR: You didn’t expect it?

CE: I didn’t expect to be chosen as Dean of Faculty, but I’m happy to be chosen, precisely because it’s a new learning curve. It’s just a new way of being for a while. And what are you interests? What do you want to see change?

LR: I think that having more integration between student life and academics is important.

CE: That’s a lot of what strategic planning seems to be about and that’s a lot of what the new Provost position is about. He’s thought about these issues much more fully than I have.

LR: Historically, we’ve gotten pushback from faculty on the sexual respect issues, such as initiatives for trigger warnings on class material and integration of sexual respect and consent into the classroom. I understand the point that those measures may seem dictatorial, but I also feel like there are certain baseline issues of community respect that we have to keep in mind. I worry that when we offer optional courses we wind up preaching to the choir. Amrita Basu does not need to take the optional course on how to deal with sexual respect. Some other professors probably should.

CE: Right, but then again it’s my role to talk to those people and say: ‘Won’t you come along? Won’t you send someone from the department?’ This is not a culture where we dictate, and you don’t want a culture where we dictate, even though I understand this is an important issue. And you’re doing everything you can. Now this is on my radar screen. It wouldn’t have been if you hadn’t talked to me. And just what you’re doing is what I will be doing. For however time inefficient it is, that is a very effective way to communicate. I mean you just accomplished something in the past half hour. Who knows where that will go! And so it’s the same thing with someone in my position, talking to other people and making them aware. Is there something that we can do without this ‘everyone has to do this’ or ‘everyone must attend that’? Because that can be the easiest way to turn people off.

LR: Good point.

CE: But also there is a lot of stuff that’s changing, that’s in flux. A lot of it is in these one-on-one conversations. Sexual respect is not the only thing, there are a bunch of issues I need to have one-on-one conversations with people about, even reorganizing the Dean of Faculty’s office. But I think what you’re doing is very effective. It’s too bad that when you graduate, all that institutional memory goes away.

With that, Professor Epstein quickly zipped up her parka, explaining that she was late to a meeting with the Registrar’s Office to discuss the future of half-credit classes. I should feel lucky, I suppose, that I happened to be assigned to interview Epstein and that some of my questions led us to a topic crucial to the vitality of Amherst. But instead I am worried. Epstein’s laissez faire outlook and soft-power strategy on the future of sexual respect education for the faculty sounds like slow reversion to the pre-Biddy days, when survivors of assault silently struggled with a broadly uneducated faculty who included class materials without trigger warnings and stayed away from the acknowledgement of the complexities of consent or sexual misconduct in their classrooms. In trying to shy away from regimentation and dictator-leadership, I worry that the next few years will find us yet again with survivors failing to receive fair and equal access to education because the only structure supporting Epstein’s increased supply of materials will be Professor Epstein herself (and maybe the SWAGS department). In the intervening months and the coming years of her tenure as Dean of Faculty, I only hope that students continue to come to her with this and other issues, and lay consistent testimony to the importance of education for professors. I am left wondering if Epstein’s model is the only alternative to the dictator’s model that she fears, or if perhaps there is another way to ensure that the burden of progress does not fall solely on the four-year cycle of student activism.


NB: In the print edition of the Indicator, the last sentence of the second paragraph reads, “Professor Epstein sounded, well, fun,” due to an editing error. The article as it appears here, with the sentence, “Professor Epstein sounded, well, human,” is correct.