Dr. Bill Carpenter paced back and forth in front of hundreds of freshmen, a walking picture of energy.
He turned an auditorium into a classroom, and in a raised voice full of inflection and emphasis, he explained what he oversees at High Point University: The Common Experience.
The Common Experience started this year with reading Wes Moore’s “The Work: My Search for a Life That Matters.” But it’s more than that.
It’s about looking within yourselves, Carpenter told the students. It’s about wrestling with thorny questions about justice and equality and seeing personal adversity as a challenge to face rather than an obstacle to avoid.
It’s also about the brain. When you learn something new, Carpenter said, your brain will change in noticeable ways, and you’ll see college and your future through a whole different lens.
“You get to re-groove your life,” he told the freshmen inside HPU’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center.
Carpenter likes to see that happen. He is an English professor, and yes, he directs a program that acclimates freshmen to the intellectual rigors of college.
But Carpenter is also an intellectual explorer, and he implores them to travel what he calls a “fascinating path.”
He’s been there. He’s 43. But he remembers. He feels he followed the same path not too long ago.
Carpenter, the youngest of three, grew up in a blue-collar home in Edison, New Jersey.
His mom, Emily, worked as a secretary; his dad, William, ran an industrial printing press wearing an olive-green uniform speckled with ink stains. A uniform badge over his heart read “Bill.”
Carpenter became the first member of his family to attend a four-year college. In doing so, he blazed his own trail.
He started at Trenton State College, now the College of New Jersey. After graduation, he ventured west to Kansas State University and got a master’s in English and creative writing.
He then drove an hour east to continue his studies at the University of Kansas. He received his doctorate in English composition and rhetoric. He also discovered his future wife. In class.
In 2000, they got married, and the two embarked on an academic journey that took Carpenter to three universities where he taught English and ran a writing program.
In April 2009, Carpenter got a call from Dr. Matthew Schneider, a former colleague in California who at the time chaired HPU’s English department. Schneider asked Carpenter if he’d be interested in creating a new writing program at HPU.
Carpenter said yes. With the resources available and the opportunity to create a brand-new program, he felt the opportunity was too intriguing to pass up.
He had grown to love his spot in front of a classroom. As a professor, he saw instruction as a shared experience between him and his students, and he liked to challenge them to see literature – and their world – differently.
He did exactly that in North Carolina.
During his six years at HPU, Carpenter has gone from directing the Writing Program, to chairing the English Department to becoming the director of the school’s First-Year Programs.
In his job, he oversees the Common Experience and helps professors create and deliver First-Year Seminars, eclectic courses known by the acronym as FYS.
FYS courses introduce freshmen to the academic inquiry of everything. That includes musician Bob Dylan, who often defies categorization. But Carpenter tries. He teaches an FYS course called “Bob Dylan’s America.”
Carpenter became enamored with Dylan at age 12. He heard “Like a Rolling Stone” on his bedroom stereo and immediately bought a $7.99 cassette of Dylan’s greatest hits.
Since then, he has grown from fan to Dylan scholar.
“Bob Dylan’s America is a mash-up of narratives and symbols, of unified voices and disparate harmonies,” Carpenter wrote in the winter 2009 issue of Montague Street, a semi-annual print journal that examines Dylan and his music. “To traverse this land requires acknowledging the symbiotic relationships among people, places and times.”
Like his FYS course, Carpenter sees the Common Experience as a chance for students to stretch themselves intellectually in such a way that can help them become more nimble in the world’s ever-changing economy.
It’s not about parroting what they learned, but using what they learned to create a growth mindset. He wants them to question what’s around them and find ways to use their talents to build community and make their world more fair and just.
When he sees that happen in the classroom, he’ll jump and pump his fist because he believes students get what college can do. They become, as Carpenter likes to say, “thoughtful agents.”
His wife, Stephanie, a freelance textbook editor, has seen that happen often.
“He loves to see something click in their heads,” she says. “He gets theatrical about it and jumps around because he wants them to know it’s a big deal. He wants them to register that moment and understand that it is something.’’
He sees them begin to think for themselves. Their minds start to hum, and they open up to the world during an incredibly formative time when they’re wrestling with the big questions of who they are.
He knows that feeling. The same thing happened to him.
“The idea of college is more than getting credentials of a degree so you can go to the next level and get work,” Carpenter says today. “The work has to be personally challenging and satisfying and engage you in a way that gives you a thrill. College needs to help you figure that out.
“You’re going to be spending most of your life doing some kind of work, and often, a life has an inner beating, an inner working, so you don’t want to be soul-dead for eight or nine hours.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What are you doing to feed the other part of you?’”
Alex Fundora is 18, a freshman from Atlanta, Georgia. He also is a self-described deep thinker. He believes his generation spends too much time on technology and not enough time understanding what is around them.
That’s why he has dove into the Common Experience, a year’s worth of events that included reading Moore’s “The Work.” Fundora read the book and went to every Common Experience event so far.
He went because it made him think.
“You don’t want your humanity to focus on technology,” he says. “You need to learn how to focus on yourself and other people.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, inside the Hayworth Fine Arts Center’s auditorium, Fundora and Carpenter sat near the front during Moore’s question-and-answer session with HPU President Dr. Nido Qubein.
Fundora loved what he heard. Carpenter loved what Moore had to say.
“It challenges them to think about their work, not as a means to an end, but in the larger network of service and development,” Carpenter says.
He and Moore both spring from working-class roots: Carpenter from Edison; Moore from Baltimore, two men with a poet’s heart. They’re both born with the talent to teach young adults how to have passion and purpose in their lives.
Later Monday night at the Millis Athletic Center, Carpenter stepped onstage, talked about values central to HPU – generosity, curiosity and service – and introduced the author HPU had been talking about for months.
Carpenter then sat in front and listened. Moore talked about his book, “The Work.” But he also talked about what happened in his hometown following the death of a young black man at the hands of the police.
But Moore didn’t talk about riots TV cameras caught. Moore talked about the neighbors TV cameras missed. A day after the riots, the neighbors started cleaning up their community, fixing whatever they saw, and showing compassion to whomever they met.
Moore talked for nearly an hour. Students then asked questions via Twitter, and as Moore answered, Carpenter thought about what was unfolding all around him.
Students were engaged, talking to one another, talking to Moore and looking way beyond the classroom to see a broader world.
They’re getting it, Carpenter said to himself. What a great thing to see.