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By Gerry Boyle '78
Cheshire Calhoun once considered studying biology, following in the scientific footsteps of her accomplished psychologist father, the late John B. Calhoun. Biology gave way to music, as the younger Calhoun, a serious musician, enrolled at Northwestern to study with a noted oboist. But while at Northwestern, Calhoun followed her academic muse once (and only once) more, this time into the realm of philosophy.
She still recalls calling home to Maryland with the news. "I remember feeling sort of embarrassed in telling them I was going to major in this impractical activity," Calhoun said.
As it turned out, she had her parents' blessing, including that of her pioneering-scientist father, who early on had encouraged her to think in terms of "big ideas." Calhoun went on to earn her doctorate in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin. That was more than 20 years and four faculty positions ago. The publications and presentations portion of her vita runs five single-spaced pages, with much of her work in the area of ethics and the areas of moral, feminist and lesbian and gay philosophy. When President William Adams addressed the Class of 2006 in September, he cited Calhoun and her work on civility.
Adams spoke of the need, at Colby and beyond, for respectful discussion and debate. Calhoun says any discussion of civility must begin with serious consideration of social norms for appropriate behavior. A civil society must have socially agreed upon standards for respect, tolerance and considerateness.
When Calhoun started exploring the idea of civility, she found a dearth of writers dealing with the topic. There was one, though, whose work on civility was read by millions of people every week. "Miss Manners [syndicated columnist and author Judith Martin] was one of my key sources," Calhoun said. "She's really very astute, I think."
Civility is a hotter topic in academe now, and at Colby it's often related to ongoing diversity initiatives, the discussion of proposed multicultural housing and other sometimes-controversial issues. Calhoun says social norms have changed considerably since she arrived on Mayflower Hill a decade ago, and she points to a speaker brought to campus in 1992. He described gays and lesbians as "emotional cripples," she said, people to be pitied but not to be given rights. Few "majority" (e.g., straight, white) students strenuously objected to his speech or his appearance on campus.
That wouldn't be the case today, when a variety of groups have joined to explore issues like multicultural housing, which can become the crucible for testing the community's shared sense of what is considered civil behavior. A coalition of queer students, students of color and other allies have called for some form of specialty housing, citing offensive behavior by other students in residence halls.
Discussion of the issue has brought the perspectives of minority members of the Colby community to the forefront. "There really has been a sea change," said Calhoun, who is working with Vice President for Administration Arnold Yasinski on strategic diversity initiatives for Colby.
Calhoun also has noted how independent-minded her Colby students are, that they have their own vision and are self-motivated enough to explore their ideas. "Sometimes you feel like you're struggling to keep up," she said.
Perhaps it's no surprise that students say the same of Calhoun, who is known for pushing students beyond what they thought were their intellectual limits. Dennis D'Angelo '99, now working for an education nonprofit in Newton, Mass., said he turned to Calhoun, Colby's "resident ethicist," when he was looking for an advisor for his thesis on "moral luck." For an entire year, D'Angelo's week ended with a meeting with Calhoun and discussion of his work, which explored the idea that people are judged not on moral decisions they make but on moral decisions that circumstances and good fortune allow them to make.
"It was always a mind-bending way to end the week," D'Angelo said.
As of last year, there was a good chance that opportunity would have been lost to Colby students.
In 2000, Calhoun met Carleen Mandolfo, then a visiting professor in religious studies at Colby. A romance blossomed, and, when Mandolfo left Colby, Calhoun did, too, looking for a college or university where they could both teach. Calhoun taught last year at the University of Louisville, where Mandolfo also was offered a position. Then Mandolfo applied for a tenure-track job at Colby and was hired.
They returned to Colby last fall, with three horses in tow, including one named Picasso "because he's a paint." Their house is also home to a multitude of cats and dogs. Most of the cats are expectant mothers taken in temporarily from the Waterville Humane Society so they can have kittens away from the confines of the animal shelter. "It's like a Home for Little Wanderers for kittens," Calhoun said.
She made sure to put in a plug for the shelter and its need for more homes for kittens and cats. Morally and ethically, Miss Manners would approve.
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