In a scene that is played out hundreds of times over the
course of the academic year, a troubled student settles back into the weathered
couch among teetering piles of books and papers and looks across the room at
Linden "Doc" Summers, Jr. |
"Weathered" might fit Doc, too. Dressed in coveralls, a bristly fringe of gray hair framing an experienced face, he has become one with the doily-draped easy chair, illuminated by a cockeyed floor lamp, that sits amid still more piles of journals and notes that overflow from shelves of texts and audio tapes in his Conant House office.
As the student recounts drinking problems, or the strain of a relationship, or anxieties that have festered into depression, or the warning signs of an eating disorder, Doc draws on his full-bent pipe and his eyes slowly close. The student goes on, calmed by the environment and Doc's demeanor, but unsure whether Doc himself may have become so calm as to nod off.
Simply telling the story in these surroundings is itself a relief, though, so the student continues, and is rewarded in the end by one of Doc's insightful questions or observations. He was there all along.
Recruited to teach
While working as a clinical psychologist on the staff of Cooperstown's Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital in the 1950s, Summers was also an adjunct faculty member in Colgate's summer graduate program. He recalled a luncheon at the Colgate Inn in 1961 when George Schlesser offered him a full-time position on the faculty.
"George's style was to talk in incomplete sentences," says Summers, "he'd leave you hanging there. In the middle of our luncheon conversation, which I thought was about the upcoming summer session, George's associate looked at me and said, `You realize, don't you, that George is offering you a job?' And, no, I hadn't because none of those sentences fit together."
The decision was difficult. "I just didn't have much interest in college life," Summers remembers. But on the advice of an old friend and after long conversations with his wife Betty he responded to Schlesser a week later in typical understatement: "Okay, I'll come."
He never looked back. "Within six years I was surprised everyone in the world didn't want to be a college professor," Summers says. "It was just right for me." He thrived on the freedom of the academic life, once accusing Dean James Storing of deliberately providing "a kind of free atmosphere, the result of which was that you got a hell of a lot more out of people than you would have if you clamped down on them."
Summers' influence extended beyond the classroom. He was the first representative of school psychology to serve on the state's board of examiners in psychology. He established a program at the college for disadvantaged youth. He worked with area school administrators and his students to conduct classroom observations. And in 1971 a national organization cited him as one of America's Outstanding Educators.
Summers challenged his students with a teaching style that he describes as "rather free-handed." His Colgate students were bright and well prepared, he said, and he wanted them to take responsibility for their own education. "I was pulling all the rugs and props out from under them and putting them out on their own."
Students from Summers' classes in child and adolescent psychology will remember this strategy: having established a basis for discussion and assigned pertinent readings, Summers would show up at a class meeting and take a seat, remaining silent. "I would sit in class and wait for discussion to begin. Sometimes for as long as 20 minutes. Students would get increasingly restless and I would just sit there, smoking."
Sometimes the responses would be angry: "You're supposed to be teaching us, so go ahead and teach." To which Summers would answer, "What is it you want to learn?" Eventually, the students would always respond. "They had lots of experience in hearing lectures, but they hadn't had much experience in directing their own learning. It was a style that appealed to most of them."
On occasion, students turned the tables. Summers arrived one day for a student-led class, wearing his characteristic coveralls and carrying his usual apple and cup of coffee. "I looked around and realized that almost everyone in the room was dressed that way, and carrying a cup of coffee and an apple. It caught me completely by surprise."
The coveralls are a carryover from a 1968 sit-in at the Administration Building, during which some 400 students and 40 faculty protested discriminatory polices in the college's fraternities. That was a watershed moment for the college and a "stirring spring" for Summers, who was "changed permanently." A social conscience, which he says was "more or less inert" to that point, emerged and has been a greater influence on his personal and professional life ever since.
Summers recalls the confrontations and clear divisions between factions on campus that spring and in the several years that followed, but adds, "there was an air of civility about it all. The place was small enough that everyone knew somebody who was involved. So there was never the feeling that the campus was being invaded by strangers. I think that's what held the place together."
A return to counseling
In any given year, roughly one in seven Colgate students will call on counseling services, some for a single visit, others who will return as many as 20 times. Their problems are the issues that face college students on every campus.
Doc says he and his staff practice a blend of "humanistic psychology heavily influenced by psychoanalysis," but the students who have found help under his guidance at Conant House all these years will more likely tell you that it was his earthy wisdom that helped them get by. JL