A conversation with Director of Exeter Summer Russell Weatherspoon

Adam Loyd
January 13, 2020
Director of Exeter Summer Russell Weatherspoon

In his more than 30 years at the Academy, Russell Weatherspoon has contributed to Exeter in many ways. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, the director of Exeter Summer joined the faculty in 1987 in a hybrid role that allowed him to teach both English and religion courses as well as speechmaking in the drama department. Since then, Weatherspoon has been a dorm head, coach, department chair, dean of residential life and interim dean of multicultural affairs. We sat down with Weatherspoon to discuss what makes Exeter Summer a diverse, unique and enriching environment.

In addition to your decades of work in the regular session, you’ve had many roles within Exeter Summer — how did you get involved in the program?

“In the summer of 1988, I started teaching a couple of courses and have just simply done it every summer since. For me it has been very enjoyable. The students who come here for a brief period of time do show up with a great deal of excitement and they are amazed by the grounds. They are certainly struck by the Harkness pedagogy. It is an interesting challenge to try to introduce them to Harkness and give them confidence in it within a five-week course. Indeed, you have some sense of how successful you are being with that by the end of the second week, if you have broken down any anxiety they may have about being the principal movers of that discussion. If you can pull that off by the end the second week or halfway through the third week, you are doing something right.”

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What type of students thrive in Exeter Summer?

“I think the same kind of student that the regular session is looking for, kids who are self-starters, who are curious, who want to be in conversation. We are looking for kids who are not just simply academically able but also intellectually motivated. Who want to try new things, who want to meet the people who are curious about other people and how they live and how they think and want that kind of both classroom and living challenge, and who obviously are comfortable with not only diversity of thought but also with a very diverse student body.”

Exeter Summer accepts students from all over the country and around the world — is that something that’s done intentionally?

“We are looking for people who come from a very wide variety of places and also from a wide variety of circumstances both socially, ethnically, socioeconomically. With that mix, both in the dormitory, the classrooms or on the playing fields, students get a very strong opportunity to be able to hear the experience of people who are coming from places that are very different from their own.”

Do students maintain the relationships they’ve developed at Exeter Summer once the program is over?

“We are very direct in saying to the students five weeks is a short period of time. From the very beginning, what you want to be doing is not just making friends, but trying to build relationships. By the time you leave at the end of the session, you have an eye toward maintaining those relationships as you continue to your high school and college experience with the hope that you will visit some of these people or they will come to visit you. Even if right now you do not see any practical way that you would travel halfway around the earth to see someone. Life, relatively speaking, is long and you can never tell when you are going to get the opportunity to both see these people or who knows, work with them professionally.”

How is Exeter Summer different from other summer programs?

“The Harkness pedagogy is really quite important. It is a way of thinking about problems and collaboration which goes beyond just the confines of the class. We make that very clear in our literature. We are trying to develop these skills because they are skills of listening, they are skills of preparation, they are skills of collaboration and they are skills of linking thoughts that may have been expressed a week or two or three earlier but then have become relevant to today's conversation. That is certainly one of the chief unique things.”

You’ve been at it a long time, what does it mean to have former students who have grown and raised a family send their children to Exeter Summer?

“I think any teacher who wakes up and finds himself or herself staring into the eyes of a child of a former student has a moment of wonder at how much time has passed. Then there is also the pleasure of knowing that, given a choice, the parents are basically saying, 'I would like my child to be under your care or your class.' That is an indescribable feeling and kind of a stunning moment.”