The gift that is transforming the curriculum
Established in 1993 by Edwin T. '51 and Cynthia (Shearer) '52 Johnson, the Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair in the Humanities had what sounded like a remarkably modest purpose: "To recognize, reward, and extend the influence of outstanding undergraduate teaching."
What has followed, however, has been anything but modest. Results have been remarkable, with the Johnson Chair boosting enthusiasm for developing new courses and collaborating with colleagues from other disciplines. It has even led to significant changes in the humanities curriculum.
In the case of Charles "Buz" Myers, professor of religion, for example, the Johnson Chair produced far-reaching ripple effects that no one anticipated. Prof. Myers was the fourth faculty member to be appointed to the Chair. The award encourages the recipient to work with new faculty members, which prompted Myers to become involved with the College's First-Year Seminar program - an array of courses specially designed for and offered only to first-year students. "I ended up developing a First-Year Seminar titled Death and the Meaning of Life," he said. "The course has become my favorite to teach, and it's one that remains popular today."
The Johnson Chair also provided the religion department with some funding to compensate for the reduced teaching load that goes with the award. "Rather than just hire someone to replace the courses I wouldn't be teaching, then-Provost Dan DeNicola and I agreed to find a person who could offer something my department lacked," Myers said. "And we decided this was a real opportunity to hire someone to teach Judaic Studies. I was confident that if we found the right person, this appointment could then be turned into a tenure-track position after my three years as the Johnson Chair ended."
Myers was correct in his assumption. Prof. Stephen J. Stern accepted a three-year term appointment in Judaic Studies in the spring 2002; he also serves as director of Hillel. "And sure enough," Myers said, "after two years the Department of Religion was granted a tenure-track position. We conducted a national search and concluded that Prof. Stern was the best candidate, so we now have a professor of Judaic Studies as a direct result of the Johnson Chair. That's tangible evidence of how the Johnson Chair has had - and will continue to have - an impact on teaching at the College for years to come." And the Johnsons plan to continue their support of Judaic Studies.
The Johnson Chair had a second unanticipated result, which also affected the College's curriculum. In 1993 Prof. Lisa Portmess in the Department of Philosophy was named as the first recipient of the Chair. At the time she was the faculty director of First-Year Colloquy, a common course required for all incoming first-year students. Although Colloquy was taught by faculty from all disciplines, the readings concentrated more heavily on the humanities, rather than the sciences and social sciences. There was a general feeling among the faculty that the program could be stronger if these first-year classes drew more directly from the specialized expertise of those teaching.
When Portmess assumed the Johnson Chair in the fall 1993, she taught a new course on bioethics. At the same time she was spearheading a two-year experimental seminar program that was designed to be an alternative to Colloquy. Four new courses were to be offered to first-year students, focusing on special topics. With the help of the Johnson Chair, Portmess was able to add to the new course offerings by changing her Bioethics course - a team-taught course taught with biology Prof. Kay Etheridge - into a seminar for first-year students, which focused on philosophical questions of medicine and biotechnology, cross-cultural diversity in conceptions of health, the transformative power of illness, and the social and political context of medicine. It was these courses, supported in part by the Johnson Chair, that eventually led the faculty to adopt First-Year Seminars as a replacement for Colloquy.
Since then, the First-Year Seminars program has become an integral part of the First-Year Experience at Gettysburg College, with more than 40 offered each year. Topics are varied, ranging from Gender and Politics in Latin America to The Transformative Power of Music to The Joy of Science: Returning Discovery to Science Learning. And the Johnson Chair continues to make an impact on the development of the program.
The intent of the Johnson Chair, in recognizing distinguished teaching, was not to withdraw an excellent teacher from the classroom. Instead, the purpose is to "extend the influence of outstanding teaching." In part, this is achieved by having the selected professor provide leadership in the First-Year Seminar program. Distinguished Professors are expected to develop a new seminar in their first year and to teach that course the following two years.
For example, Elizabeth Lambert, professor (emerita) of English, who held the Johnson Chair from 2005 to 2008, was grateful for the opportunity it gave to develop a new First-Year Seminar, Writing the Rebellion: The Mother Country and Colonial America. The course examined the ways in which colonial writers of fiction, drama, poetry, and memoir reflected the growing estrangement between England and her colonies in North America.
In the Department of French, Elizabeth Richardson Viti, who was Johnson Chair from 1999 to 2002, developed a seminar titled You've Come A Long Way Baby. "I assumed the Chair around the same time that we were entering the twenty-first century and decided a seminar that examined the changes in women's lives over the previous 100 years would be appropriate," Viti said. "The course looked at U.S. women from a variety of perspectives. Students read and discussed everything from Charlotte Perkins Gillman's The Yellow Wallpaper to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. They examined the impact of Title IX on women and athletics, as well as the influence of the Gorilla Girls on women in the art world. The course opened young students' eyes to an environment for women that was very different from the one in which they had reached young adulthood, and many students went on to take courses in Women's Studies."
The current holder of the Johnson Chair, Christopher Fee in the Department of English, developed a First-Year Seminar, Poverty and Education in Rural America, which included a service-learning component.
"This course was wonderfully successful in Spring 2010, and I have even higher hopes for it in Spring 2011," he said. "Thanks to the resources devoted to the Johnson Chair, I have had the opportunity to work closely with Angela Collier '10, Kerilyn Foley '10, and Kathleen Clay '11, who have been crucial in coordinating our classroom efforts with the Center for Public Service and the Upper Adams School District."
Fee noted too that the Johnsons have stepped in with additional financial support to help with the service part of the class. "Ed and Cindy have leapt into the fray more than once when they discovered that further help might be of assistance," Fee said. "For example, when they learned that the tutoring program with which my class worked had lost all state and federal funding and would benefit greatly from additional support for transportation, they didn't hesitate to make such aid available."
"The originating idea of the Johnson Distinguished Teaching Chair was to recognize, spotlight, and encourage creative teaching in the humanities at a time when humanities courses were diminishing nationwide. It has more than succeeded in that intent. To me, one of the most distinctive features of this teaching chair is its emphasis on humanities education and its vitality at the heart of liberal arts teaching."
- Prof. Lisa Portmess '72
Edwin T. '51 and Cynthia (Shearer) '52 Johnson have been exemplary supporters of and passionate advocates for Gettysburg College over many decades. Ed joined the Board of Trustees in 1977 and subsequently served as vice-chair and chair of the board. He also chaired the Presidential Search Committee, which recruited Gordon Haaland as the 12th president of the College. In 1979 and 1980 he was the Annual Giving chair, and he served as chair of the Executive Committee for the Sharing a Distinctive Vision campaign for Gettysburg, which began in 1988 and raised over $75 million.
Together, Ed and Cynthia endowed the Distinguished Chair in the Humanities, which has had a major impact on teaching and the curriculum. In 2000 Ed received the College's Lavern H. Brenneman Award for Exemplary Service. At the fall 2010 Board of Trustees meeting, Ed was elected an honorary life trustee.
Cynthia has also been active with the College, serving on the National Major Gifts Committee for the Sharing a Distinctive Vision campaign and the College's Commission on the Future.
After graduating from Gettysburg College in 1951, Ed continued his education at the Wharton School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of the University of
Pennsylvania. In 1954 he founded the Johnson Companies, a benefits and compensation consulting firm. He is a recognized leader and innovator in the benefits industry.
His firm gained national recognition in 1980 for developing 401Ks, the nation's first savings plan that allowed employees to invest pretax income into a retirement fund. The Johnson Companies was sold in 1991, at which time it had offices from Boston to Washington, D.C. and 420 employees.
The Johnsons have been active in their community, and Ed was very active in the various industries in which the Johnson Companies was involved. Both Johnsons are Elders in the Presbyterian Church in Newtown, and Ed was a member of the Philadelphia Presbytery and the Presbyterian Church USA Foundation. At the Foundation he was an incorporator of the Covenant Bank, of which ownership was transferred to the Presbyterian Church - at the time, the only bank owned by a church organization.
Cynthia and Ed have two children, daughter Rebecca and son Tom '76. Tom's daughter graduated from Gettysburg in 2009.