Faculty Profile: James Wetzel

Hanh Dao

Known across campus for his dynamic teaching style, Chair of the Philosophy and Religion department Professor James Wetzel has been at Colgate University for 17 years. Accepting his first full-time teaching job here in 1988, Wetzel had previously held visiting appointments at Notre Dame, his alma mater, Princeton and Brown. Wetzel has written extensively and is in his fourth year as the Series Editor of Reflection and Theory in the Study of Religion, a joint venture between the American Academy of Religion and Oxford University Press. Wetzel’s areas of expertise include the nature of philosophical piety and the Augustinian studies.Wetzel will be leaving Colgate this summer, however, as he has accepted a position as the Augustinian Chair in the Thought of St. Augustine at Villanova University. The responsibility of the chair holder is to put together philosophical studies in the spirit of St. Augustine. “The chair will allow me to develop the perspective I’ve been developing here,” Wetzel said. “I really will miss the students here a great deal; I have a special affection for these students. I have met other students elsewhere with comparable intellect, but few have the good heart that Colgate students do. I’ll miss my colleagues too.” As chair-holder at Villanova, Wetzel will have a chance to focus more on his own writing, and less on teaching. On a more personal level, moving to Villanova will also bring him closer to his mother and his wife’s family in New York City. As a Catholic University in the Augustinian tradition, Villanova will offer Professor Wetzel the opportunity to both shape his identity as a philosopher and a person, in addition to focusing more on family life. Wetzel’s daughter, Anna, celebrates her first birthday today.”I will not lose my connection to Colgate,” Wetzel said. “I will come back to lecture and visit, and convince students to do graduate work at Villanova.”Wetzel plans to design a new set of courses at Villanova that will focus on the history of philosophy in addition to determining what other contributions he can make once settled at Villanova. For the first year, Wetzel will be working on acclimating himself with the environment in addition to focusing on a few the writing projects. “Colgate University is a complicated place,” Wetzel said. “It’s a small place with a grand vision.” During his time at Colgate, he has seen the way the university struggles with its identity as a liberal arts institution. Wetzel explained that the sheer number of demands increases with professional lives. It is not clear when the institution gives people time to think about their own lives, both past and present. According to Wetzel, Colgate has developed a great deal over the past decades – gently moving, integrating men and women and now seeking a student body with increased cultural diversity. “Colgate is shifting into a sense of itself,” he said, “which gives people time to think about it and not think about the cash value of itself in terms of tuition.” Wetzel also believes that the future of Colgate is not written in stone. He feels that it is small enough of a community for people to think hard about what they want to do and what they want to shape upon graduation. Still, the role that Colgate plays in shaping education as a liberal arts institution, he believes, is not perfect. “We have too much to do,” Wetzel said. “The sense of idealism here is never forgotten. “In graduate school, you have to love the subject matter you’re working with … I am very fascinated and a little obsessed with philosophy.”When he came to Colgate, Wetzel viewed himself as was a naive graduate student with very little experience in teaching. “Through my time at Colgate, I have had a chance to learn the craft of teaching,” he said. “Over the years, I’ve learned different ways of paying attention to my students. I have developed as a reflective, philosophical human being largely due to my students. I’m going to miss this institution that’s become a part of [me] now.”Wetzel has paid particular attention to the notion that there is more of an emphasis on serving one’s community and society. There appears to be more of hope of making a better world upon graduation. “It’s something that I find hopeful,” he said. Speaking contentedly of his home life with wife Nathalie, daughter Anna and several pug dogs, Wetzel said, “These days I’ve become a devoted family man.” Outside of teaching, Wetzel is very much interested in gardening. “My hobbies are dull,” he said. “I read other kinds of things when not philosophy.”Wetzel is not afraid to talk about questions and spirit. He strongly believes that questions should not be talked about dogmatically. The 21st century raises all kinds of questions, which he views as a time of great conflict and crisis. This situation, in turn, presents people with an opportunity to reclaim things that had been important in past wars. “The freedom from normal work demands the chance to pursue the question of the good and the beautiful, so that you can return it to society,” Wetzel said. “I’m very much impressed with the spirit of faith on campus,” he added. “In the cultural act of faith, universities are places that allow people to pursue knowledge and not worry about the relevancies. Colgate takes it seriously. I feel very proud to be a faculty member here.”