Ellie Webber moves on after 25 years


Ellie Webber

Dr. Ellie Webber, long-serving professor of behavioral sciences, will retire at the end of this semester after 25 years of teaching. She came to Johnson State College in the fall of 1989 after living and working in Tennessee for a number of years. JSC caught her attention for a number of reasons, the primary one being the size of college.

“That’s what attracted me to this particular school: a small school means small classes,” said Webber.

The location factored into her decision as well.

“I really love the Appalachians. I also thought that with global warming it might get warm here,” she said with a smile.

Webber’s interest in psychology began while she was sorting through her own problems, and soon became interested in other people’s problems as well. Her original plan was to become a therapist, but teaching soon became a part of her life. She says that her dream job would include half therapy, and half teaching.

When she began her work here, Webber expected to only stay for a year or two. She eventually decided to stay, saying: “I didn’t find anything else I liked better, and after a while I decided ‘Hey, why look?’”

The fact that professors at JSC are not required to do research was a big influence on her decision to stay. Webber believes that when science is applied to the inorganic world, in areas such as physics, it can do amazing things. However, it does not make sense to apply the Newtonian principles of science to study people. Rather than being forced to look at psychology in that light, JSC allowed Webber the freedom to study and to think in her own way.

She also enjoys the academic advising part of the job, as she trained to be a psychologist, and advising is the closest a college professor can get to that. Advising is a way to help students figure out what they want to do with their lives, and to encourage students to take classes that, in the end, will make them better citizens.

“That is something that is special to me, being able to have that influence,” said Webber.

In the classroom, Webber would try to get students to see how the concepts explored in her courses could apply to their own experiences. This new understanding, she hopes, will allow her students to understand and to connect with those around them in a way that will lead to a happier life.

“You guys are inheriting a tough world and I hope that my students can use what they have learned to help out,” Webber said.

One of her colleagues, Professor of Behavioral Science Gina Mireault, says that Webber’s dedication to students goes far beyond the classroom.

“She plays a pivotal role that is behind the scenes to a lot of students,” said Mireault. “I think she is irreplaceable. She does a lot of the things that many faculty don’t want to be bothered with.”

This includes administrative work that focuses on the long term development of the psychology program to give students a well-rounded experience. Mireault, who has worked with Webber for as long as she has been here, also said Webber is a thoughtful and engaged colleague who always has a finger on the pulse of the curriculum. She has also advocated for particular courses within the curriculum, such as Cognitive Psychology and Biological Psychology.

Professor of Behavioral Science David Fink was hired the same year as Webber, and has worked with her extensively over the years. He said her “mindful shepherding of the curriculum” was a big part of department meetings.

“She very often made suggestions about courses that should be beefed up or new courses that ought to be added. She has just done a wonderful job with that,” Fink said. “She concentrated on the undergraduate psychology major and tirelessly put her time, thought, and effort into making sure that the major is a strong one”

When faculty disagreements arose, Fink said Webber could always be counted on to be respectful, thoughtful, and to consider other points of view.

Fink went on to say that Webber has been a pleasure to work with, and played an important role in faculty assembly, where she was always active in discussion. Fink also called attention to her work in the faculty union.

“That’s a big deal. That’s something that not everybody enjoys doing and Ellie has consistently been a leader in making sure faculty knows about union business,” he said.

Fink also said that one of Webber’s greatest strengths is her dedication to advising her students.

“She is just diligent and relentless in helping students plan their whole undergraduate experience here. That’s a huge gift.”

On a personal level, Fink says that Webber is very committed to environmental issues, and is a big supporter of local farms and food co-ops.

Another of Webber’s colleagues, Professor of Behavioral Science David Hutchinson, said in an email interview that “Ellie has been a stalwart defender of our psychology program, a strong voice which has helped to develop and support the rigorous and comprehensive major program we have today,”

Hutchinson went on to describe the sheer amount of effort Webber has put into the development of JSC’s psychology program. This includes managing the departmental budget, the hiring and supervision of part-time faculty, and program maintenance to further develop the psychology major.

“One thing that many may not know is that she has a veritable treasure trove, a truly vast array, of really terrible jokes,” continued Hutchinson. “She has managed to inflict at least one of these on us, her colleagues, at the beginning of each department meeting. We groan, we twitch, and we shudder at the thought of another joke coming our way… but it has become a tradition that will be sorely missed.”

Hutchinson ended the interview with these comments: “Dr. Webber drives a 1924 Toyota Corolla, a car held together with bailing wire and duct tape. How she manages to keep this thing on the road is beyond me. The bumper sticker which is affixed to the rear of the car (notice I didn’t say rear bumper – that came off decades ago) reads “Live simply, so that others may live.” This may be her credo. Her humility and unassuming stance in the world are lessons for us all…this is certainly some of the best of what I’ve learned from her.”

In her long career, Webber is particularly proud of her work developing different electives within the psychology major.

“Our electives offer students to explore career options, develop career skills, explore their own psychology, and prepare for graduate work,” she said.

She says her sabbatical was the most satisfying moment in her career. She used the time to write a paper on some ideas she has had from the start of her career in psychology. She feels psychology needs to change some of its approaches for studying people, and wants to put the field on a better path into the future.

Webber was one of the main forces behind the creation of a break at the beginning of October. For years there were disagreements about when a break should be. Year after year, she would push to have two breaks, each lasting a week, spaced as evenly as possible each semester. She found that people often got tired and sick without two breaks. These breaks now contribute to the health of the campus community.

“At some point, it just started becoming the norm. [It’s] something that I am really happy to have had some input on,” said Webber.

Webber once spent a year working on a career development program, and wrote a book on it. That book is currently available in the WLLC. She also is responsible for naming the web scheduling tool the faculty uses to organize classes. The registrar asked the faculty to suggest a name, so Webber suggested “Betty.” For one reason or another, Betty stuck.

“It’s a silly thing,” said Webber, “[but] a little piece of me will live on! I named that thing Betty!”

Webber says there are several things that she will miss about her work. The big one being discussions with students that show a different way of looking at things.

“I love it when they have a new perspective, and it gives me a new way of thinking about people,” she said.

Webber says she will miss the creativity she was allowed when presenting ideas in psychology. That is, finding examples in real life that can apply and add to her classes. She loves the variety that a teaching job provides.

In retirement, Webber plans to put a big focus on her health without the stress of work. She plans to continue reading and learning, but on a larger scale. She looks forward to doing some writing, and is considering working on a memoir.

Webber also wants to start fostering cats in her retirement. She has found that she is good at it, and finds it satisfying to socialize a cat so they can find a good home.