Story posted August 08, 2002
It has been said that the Civil War began and ended in Brunswick, Maine. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote much of Uncle Tom's Cabin in her husband's office at Bowdoin College, and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a Bowdoin graduate (and later Bowdoin president and Maine governor) accepted the Confederacy's surrender at Appomattox Court House.
About 60 people gathered at Bowdoin July 28-August 2 to learn more about the war that ravaged the country and has strong ties to the College.
They came to participate in Alumni College, a program allowing alumni and friends to go back to school in the summer for several days of learning and fun. (Bowdoin hosted similar programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but this is the first Alumni College and the first event of its type in decades.)
More and more colleges and universities are offering alumni college programs. Some offer non-credit evening courses; some offer daylong classes in conjunction with homecoming. Others, like Bowdoin, invite alumni back to immerse themselves in the study of a particular subject and reconnect with classmates and faculty.
Kevin Wesley, Bowdoin's director of alumni relations, says that Alumni College is a logical extension of the work of a liberal arts college. "What do we say we do here? We produce a person who is intellectually curious...and who has the tools to be a lifelong learner."
Alumni College participant Bill Chapman '63 said, "It was beyond my expectations -- which were high to start. Bowdoin students are very fortunate to be taught by this faculty."
Gretchen Scharfe '99, who now teaches American Studies, came to Alumni College hoping to be inspired with new ideas for work with her own students. She found much more.
"Besides the classes, which were motivating and enlightening, it was the interaction with other Bowdoin graduates that was also very special," she said. "Our perspectives on Bowdoin were varied, but there is a common feeling of affection for this small college in Maine that seems to be true for every generation of Bowdoin graduates. The whole week just made me love Bowdoin even more!"
Scharfe said that Patrick Rael had been one of her favorite professors, so his involvement made Alumni College especially appealing. Rael, an associate professor of history at Bowdoin, served as director of the Alumni College. He was in charge of recruiting faculty members and helping develop the curriculum.
The alumni explored the Civil War by talking about its presence in art, film and literature. They learned about Brunswick and Bowdoin during the War, and about the African American experience. Rael gave the opening address "Civil War Memory and the Popular Imagination," and taught a class on "How the Minié Ball Led to Emancipation."
"Alumni College was an incredibly rewarding experience for me....Our participants were incredibly engaged and enthusiastic, which made the class sessions as fun as teaching can get," Rael said. "It was great that we could share what we do on a daily basis with Bowdoin alums, and even better that they so clearly appreciate the effort we put in."
Participants in Alumni College were also treated to an address by Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar James M. McPherson. They had a dinner consisting of Civil War-era dishes, visited local museums and watched a Civil War Arms Demonstration.
Peter Coviello, an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin, taught a course on Walt Whitman and the Civil War.
"It was above all else great fun. It's a pleasure to teach people who are engaged, enthusiastic, interested without being credulous, and who don't need to be persuaded that learning is actually very much worth their while," Coviello said. "Also, they throw a mean cocktail party. If the alumni had as much fun as I did, then the whole thing was a big success."
Rael added, "I can't thank enough the folks in Events, Dining Services, and Alumni Relations for providing the support (always reliable and very professional) necessary to make a program like Alumni College successful."