Purdue professor's personal touch. For Larry Axel, teaching continues long after graduation

For most graduates, contact with their university in the years to come will be limited to alumni magazines, class reunions, and various pleas for donations. But a handful of graduates from Purdue University will receive letters this summer inviting them back to this small Indiana town, not to discuss old times, but to debate philosophy and revive the spirit of learning.

Larry Axel, a professor of religion and philosophy at Purdue, doesn't forget his students just because they complete his classes, graduate from his school, and move a thousand miles away. He writes letters to former students every day. Building relationships

Mr. Axel starts building this relationship with many of the students in his classes: He telephones them the night before exams to find out if they have questions. He conducts classes in his home during sessions that usually last well past midnight. And most summers, Axel invites graduates back for a weekend seminar in his home.

``When education is successful,'' he says, ``it probably serves to achieve some kind of awakening or blossoming forth of something inside people. To be a part of that, you've got to integrate yourself into their lives.''

Axel's approach to college-level teaching is similar to what he himself experienced when he was doing undergraduate work in the 1960s at Indiana Central University, then a 900-student college. But at a 32,000-student campus like Purdue's in West Lafayette, where engineering and sciences and math dominate, a professor who sits up half the night with his class is something out of the ordinary. His students are accustomed to large lecture halls, quantitative models, and the study of facts.

It's surely easier for Axel to operate under his style in a philosophy curriculum than it would be in an engineering lecture hall. His classes might have 30 students at the most, usually far fewer. He says he'd probably have more, ``if [I] didn't make them work so hard.''

A holder of three graduate degrees, Axel studied at Harvard and Yale and received his PhD from Temple University. He is editor of the ``American Journal of Theology and Philosophy'' and the author of numerous articles in his specialty. His enthusiasm motivates

William Rowe, head of Purdue's philosophy department, says that Axel ``communicates his own enthusiasm to [students], and that motivates them to do their best work. Some of his students intend for his course to be a `filler.' They're studying engineering or computer sciences and they find themselves working harder on his courses.''

Senior Laura Jakubee of Barrington, Ill., a communications student at Purdue, learned firsthand how far Axel will go to help students. ``I usually get A's. I got my first C on one of his tests. I really felt bad. . . . He called me that night and said `I thought you were feeling down. Do you want to come and talk about it?' '' The visit lasted three and a half hours, and she came away feeling ``like I got a lot off my chest.'' `A teacher first'

Carolyn Phillips, who graduated in 1978, lives in Chicago and works as a newspaper editor. She says Axel was ``without a doubt the most conscientious and dedicated teacher I ever had. There are a lot of brilliant people on campus, but he always struck me as a teacher first.'' She stops in to see Axel and his wife and their children whenever she's in West Lafayette. ``I get notes from him and newspaper and magazine clippings on subjects I might be interested in,'' she adds.

Axel teaches one course each year from his home, one evening a week. ``It's set up so people feel free to stay beyond the allotted time and continue the discussion,'' he says. ``There's something about people not sitting in the classroom watching the clock. . . . So many people in higher education regard something like this as a luxury or indulgence or just some sugar-coating. They think it doesn't make any difference to the educational process. But I am convinced that it does.''

Students clearly recognize something different is going on when Axel calls the night before a big essay exam, offering to probe their questions with them.

``Human nature being what it is . . . most students will think about the material much more seriously the night before the exam than they will have a month before,'' he says. ``I can probably have a much more useful discussion over the telephone in that kind of situation than I can early on. . . .''

Students, he says, need to have their thinking challenged and probed, and they need to probe and challenge the thinking of the society they're going to enter.

``In our culture there are two institutions which have acted to question, not simply to carbon, mainstream values,'' Axel says. ``One is the church and synagogue, and the other is the university. At some point along the way, that changed. The university began to see itself no longer as an institution which called into question the values of mainstream society and began to see itself instead as a servant of mainstream culture. Today, universities are asking IBM how many widgetmakers they'll need, and they're supplying them.

``I think it's a shame. T. S. Eliot says the four years a person spends in college are the one time in their life when they can disengage from the mainstream culture and examine it. I think we've lost that.''

Students who mistake Axel's interest in them for a soft touch are surprised at how strict he is in grading and meeting deadlines for papers. Mr. Rowe says: ``He's a rigorous grader. And the students seem to respond to that. They figure a `B' from him is an achievement. Their personal respect for him helps them do their best work.''

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