SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — Alison Davis of Dublin, Ohio, Wittenberg class of 2006, is still getting used to the bizarre feeling of being an alumna and all the “weirdness” that comes with it. But get her jogging the memory speedway and she bursts into laughter each time she mentions a certain professor, peer, activity or building at Wittenberg.
An English and philosophy double major and one of two 2006 recipients of the Remsberg-Klive Award, given annually to outstanding philosophy majors, Davis recently became part of a family legacy of four generations of Wittenberg alumni. For Davis, the Remsberg-Klive Award represents more than just academic excellence — it is “a family connection,” passed on from the times when her grandfather, Paul Coble, Wittenberg class of 1951, took his first class with Prof. Robert Remsberg, after whom the award was named.
The Wittenberg tradition began in Davis’ family when her paternal great-grandfather, Earl Coble, first arrived at the old Wittenberg Academy and then entered college as a 24-year-old shoe-clerk with an eighth grade education. In 1943, his son, Paul Coble, entered Wittenberg as an engineering student, but ended up as “an informal English and philosophy student.”
Paul Coble remarked about the seismic changes that came about with World War II straining every part of campus life. “We were just about getting serious and Wittenberg was a very different place from what it had been and would become after the war,” he said. “Most of the men were gone except for the pre-theological students and those with various exemptions. The fraternity houses were occupied by the Army Air Corps for the training of flight cadets. There were maybe 1,200 students and an approximate ratio of 3-to-1 of girls to guys.”
Five years ago, when Davis first arrived at Wittenberg with her grandfather as a prospective student, she was “strongly resistent to the idea of following the family line” and jumping on the bandwagon.
“My grandfather wanted me to come here so bad, and as it turns out, he was so right!” Davis laughed.
During a campus tour, her grandfather swapped roles with the admissions tour guide, and instead told them about “the times he spent jumping on mattresses with brothers at his fraternity house (in what is now Polis house), where my best friend lived last year, or about the times he did the late night shift at the local newspaper.”
Sold on Wittenberg after a campus visit that included an inspiring class session led by Bob Davis, professor of English and director of WittSems, Alison Davis (no relation) wound up sharing many of her grandfather’s campus experiences while carving a niche of her own.
“We all lived in Ferncliff Hall,” Davis said. They all also ended up taking similar philosophy courses, including Logic and Reasoning. Davis’ grandfather and uncle, Jeff Coble, class of 1975, both took classes with Remsberg at different points in their lives.
Paul Coble remembers Remsberg as someone who “moderated and led discussions which forced you out in the open. I knew him more as a helpful adviser and friend than a classroom professor.” Among his favorite memories of the professor were “the Sunday evenings spent in his living room with his wife, Molly, and their daughters. I remember him with coat, tie and vest. Avuncular could be a one-word description; friendly, lots of smiles and dedicated to helping students.”
This breadth of sentiment echoes in Davis’ own Wittenberg experience in philosophy classes.
“It’s such a small department you’re able to know everybody, know your strengths and weaknesses,” Davis said. “It’s something you can’t get in any bigger department.”
Davis arrived at Wittenberg not knowing what philosophy meant. “My grandfather had to explain to me the difference between religion and philosophy,” she said.
All it took to spike her interest was interaction with Nancy McHugh, associate professor of philosophy and director of women’s studies, who served as Davis’ adviser and common learning professor.
“I got interested in philosophy, and the more I got into it the more I was grateful that she was able to push me to take it.”
“I loved it so much that I took Logic and Reasoning from Assistant Professor of Philosophy Miguel Martinez-Saenz, too, and then freshman year itself, I declared my major,” Davis said.
She credits McHugh for her “consistent support.” In addition to spending time with each other in several classes, Davis and McHugh spent a summer doing research together.
Davis ’ reading habits and intellectual temperament changed during her college years.
“Looking at the way I thought and expressed myself as a senior in high school and how I express myself now — there is a difference in the books I read, the way I think,” she said. “Philosophy has encouraged me to engage my learning in the every day, across disciplines.”
Davis ’ grandparents have been elemental to her growth as a college student.
“I developed a newly conditioned curiosity that made conversations with my grandmother enter wide-ranging literary discourses and sound more informed and tasteful,” she said. “I’ve always shared my writing with them. They’ve been my editors and have given me suggestions on a lot of my projects.”
The digital revolution has brought them closer. Even though her grandparents live in Aiken, S.C., and she doesn’t see them “often enough,” phone calls and e-mails have bridged the long distance.
Coble, upon hearing that his granddaughter had earned the award named for his mentor, felt “a flood of warm memories of what I viewed as a special student-adviser relationship. Maybe we all have those memories because he was such a special professor. Wherever he is, maybe Bob Remsberg knows of our 60-year connection. If so, I think he would be pleased.”
At a graduation party at her campus apartment, Professor of Philosophy and Department Chair Don Reed presented Davis with a plaque and book for the award in the presence of family, teachers and friends.
“It was a huge moment for me to stand there and watch those very people who have molded my life in so many different ways,” Davis said. “I can’t really do much to express my gratitude in words, other than maybe to just recognize it for the moment.”
Next up for Davis is a scheduled interview for a teaching position in Chicago, the start of many post-graduation plans.
“I want to go abroad and be able to teach American literature to students in a college preparatory school in Slovakia but also be able to learn from my students a new culture,” Davis said.
Eventually, she plans to attend graduate school and then “come back to a place like a Wittenberg, a small liberal arts school, to teach. My time here has made me realize how much it meant having teachers not just in the classroom but also as mentors and caregivers who take personal interest in your life and learning.”
- Arundati Dandapani