That Guy: Joe Kessler
February 5, 2010
__Despite the cold, dreary weather outside, Joe Kessler’s attitude is unmistakably positive. A Florida native, Joe’s perspective is sunny side up when it comes to academia, hanging around with monkeys, crypt crawling, even watching horrible movies. Our conversation allowed him to open up about his opinions of the College of William and Mary’s unique Greek life, his interest in theater and film and his desire to save the world’s endangered languages.__
*Where are you from?*
I grew up in Vero Beach, Fl., where most people haven’t even heard of William and Mary. Usually when I told people where I was going after high school they’d get either this blank look like, “Is that a private school?” As soon as I came here to visit, I just knew it was the right [school] for me.
*When did you first hear about the College?*
I feel like I’ve always heard of it. My family is a huge fan of the “1776” musical. Thomas Jefferson has a line in there where he’s bragging about being a William and Mary graduate. Little things like that. I always knew it was a good school and had a good reputation. When I was applying to colleges I didn’t know
where I wanted to go, so I just applied to six or seven schools that I thought sounded good.
*Once you got here, how did you decide what to major in?*
I’m a linguistics and anthropology double major. When I first came to school I was undeclared, and I just took classes that first semester that sounded interesting to me. One of them was Study of Language, the introductory linguistics course. And then the next semester I just still kept taking classes that sounded interesting. At one point I realized that most of these interesting classes I [was] taking [were] linguistics, so I thought, “All right. That’s great. I’ve got that figured out.” Anthropology snuck up on me as a second major, though. There’s a lot of overlap with that and linguistics, so that helped. And there was one class, professor Barbara King’s Ape Communication and Human Language course, that I wanted to take because it appealed to the linguistics major in me, but it was an anthropology-majors-only class, so I talked to professor King and I thought, “Well, I’ll declare anthropology as a second major so I can get in that class.” And then, as I was talking to her, I realized that I’m actually pretty close to fulfilling the anthropology major credit-wise.
*What kind of activities are you involved in?*
I’m involved in a lot less now than I used to be. When I first came to college, pretty much the only thing I was involved with was SKIFFY, the College’s science fiction and fantasy club. Around sophomore and junior years, I just started joining a whole bunch more things. I pledged my fraternity, [Theta Delta Chi], sophomore year; I was part of the Information Technology student advisory committee for a while; I did some stuff with internal affairs for the Student Assembly, some Mystic Theatre things. It just kind of hit an overload at one point. Last spring I was taking an academic overload of 20 credits, and with all the other things I was doing, too, and it just got to be a bit too much. I sort of had to step back and realize I like all these different activities but maybe it was time to focus on just a few of them.
I’m also a tour guide with the Spotswood Society, so I give tours of the Wren Building once a week. I heard they were accepting applicants, and I had heard of the crypt crawl where only those kids in Spotswood Society are allowed into the crypt underneath the Wren Chapel, and that sounded like fun. You have to put in a full year of being in Spotswood Society before you’re allowed to go down in there, so I did that the first time last spring.
*What kind of activities does SKIFFY engage in?*
SKIFFY tends to be composed of bad movie fanatics. Like “Mystery Science Theatre 3000,” we watch a lot of that. My freshman year we got a group of people together to go out to the theaters to go see “Snakes on a Plane.” Earlier this year we watched this terrible, terrible movie called “Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus,” which is every bit as bad as it sounds. I love terrible movies like that, so it’s a lot of fun to just sit there and make fun of it with your friends. That’s what the club is all about.
*What kind of post-grad options are you looking into?*
I’m applying to a couple different programs, all for a linguistics Ph.D. Actually, yesterday I heard back from the first one. Buffalo in New York said yes, so I’m excited about that. That was one of my top two choices. Back when I was applying to colleges I applied to a few different schools; at least this time I have the advantage that I actually know what I want to do, whereas I definitely was completely clueless when I was applying to undergrad.
*Do you have a focus that you’re looking at for your Ph.D.?*
What I really want to do for a living is work on endangered languages, language preservation and revitalization. I did work like that this past summer with professor Jack Martin. I went with him and a few other William and Mary students down to Elton, La. to help the Koasati Indians there. We worked with the native speakers and developed a sixth grade textbook for their language, because the situation there is basically that the youngest speaker is about 18. Most of the speakers are actually much older, in their 50s, 60s and 70s. So they’ve only recently realized within the past few years that this is a problem — that kids are just not learning the language in their houses anymore. It was a very rewarding experience, and it sort of made up my mind that that’s what I think I want to do.
*What was the biggest surprise you encountered at the College?*
The weather surprised me. Coming from Florida, I’m used to warm weather year-round. This winter, when I was home, we had a cold snap where it actually got down into the 40s, and everyone was freaking out. No one had proper heating in their houses. Also, I found with Williamsburg weather that it can really fluctuate. You’ll have 70 degrees one day and 35 the next, so I’ve sort of learned to check the Weather Channel every morning when I get dressed, just so I know how hot it’s going to be. Some people think I’m crazy; my friends back home in Florida think, “Why on Earth would you go to Virginia? It’s snowing.” And people here are telling me, “Two of the schools you applied to for grad school, those are up in upstate New York, so what are you thinking?”
*You’re also a Monroe Scholar. What was your project?*
The work I did with professor Martin this past summer, that was my upperclass Monroe project. Freshman year, professor King in the anthropology department was my adviser. Through her class I found out about this chimpanzee sanctuary that’s only about a half hour from where I live back home in Florida, which I had never heard about growing up because it’s a pretty private place. I wrote to them and I asked them if they were taking any volunteers that summer, and eventually I was able to go there and volunteer. Actually, I still go there when I’m home over breaks. It’s a lot of fun. The sanctuary’s called “Save the Chimps.” They’ve got about 200 chimpanzees on the site, and most of them are former biomedical subjects, and Save the Chimps is just a retirement home for them, basically. It’s a place for them to live out the rest of their lives without being tested and injected. Mostly I work there in the kitchens because chimpanzees, especially that many, go through a lot of food. There’s 10 or 12 smaller groups of chimpanzees and each one has its own island that they go out on. It’s tucked away, pretty much off the beaten path. The first time I went there I thought, “Hmmm, this is kind of sketchy,” because it’s in the middle of all this farmland in a very rural area. I love it to pieces now. It’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m back home.
*Have you had any notable changes over your time at the College?*
I feel like a lot for me has changed since I first came to school. When I first came to school, I had no idea what I was doing here; I pretty much came to college because I’ve always loved learning, and growing up my parents definitely strongly encouraged the university experience. I came to college wanting to learn but not really knowing what, and now I’m getting ready to go off to grad school and I have at least somewhat clearer vision of what the future holds. I definitely never thought I would join a fraternity when I first came to college, and I ended up doing that sophomore year. My friends back home still think that’s weird. I’m one of the last people they would have pegged to join a fraternity.
*What is one of your biggest mistakes since you came to college?*
There have definitely been times where I’ve worried that I’ve bitten off more than I can chew academically. I love learning, and getting good grades has always been important to me, and I’ve managed to do that for the most part, but there have definitely been a lot more all-nighters than I would have preferred. As a result of that, there have definitely been times when I couldn’t hang out with friends or do something fun because there was something huge due the next day. In general I try to arrange my schedule so that’s not an issue, and that’s something I’ve definitely gotten better with over the years. There are just so many fun classes offered at the College. I’ve taken so many classes here that haven’t helped me at all with GERs or major or minor requirements or anything like that.
*Do any classes that you’ve taken out outside of your major track stand out for you?*
I’m taking Shakespeare in Film this semester with Paula Blank and Colleen Kennedy. Last year I took professor Blank’s Shakespeare in Language course. Those were both 400-level English classes that didn’t help me at all toward graduation, but they just sounded fun and they have been really enjoyable. I took Arabic 101 last semester and, again, some people thought, “Why are you doing that?” But it was a fun time.
__Turning a potential negative into a positive seems to be one of Joe’s strong points as he remarks on his academic overloading and scheduling conflicts. Joe makes it clear that he enjoys learning, whether it be introductory Arabic or how to feed monkeys giant popsicles. Fortunately for Joe, the College offers tons of opportunities in education, which he seems to have taken full advantage of, both in and out of the classroom.__