At St. Edward’s, students (and alumni) regularly tout how well they know their professors. Perhaps every student remembers a conversation during office hours that demystified a challenging concept, led to an opportunity, or turned into a long, philosophical debate. But what happens when professors gather for an hour’s conversation — sans students — about academic life and the merits of a liberal arts education?
We invited three faculty members to nearby TOMS Roasting Co., where drink purchases help provide clean water in coffee-producing nations. The cups had barely been filled when the professors began hashing out the challenges of balancing teaching and research, the importance of doing what you love, and the best way to encourage students to relish their relative freedom. Join them in this edited excerpt.
Rodrigo Nunes, Associate Professor of Global Studies: I wanted to be a college professor because I liked the lifestyle, but in the graduate school environment, you’re encouraged to be a researcher and focus less on teaching. When I came to St. Edward’s, I realized this job is actually more aligned with what I originally wanted to do.
Lisa Goering, Associate Professor of Biology: I have a freshman this year who’s telling me, “Oh, you should read this book by Kafka, and you should listen to the Clash.” And she was a Behavioral Neuroscience major, and then a Computer Science major, and now she’s leaning toward Philosophy. She’s clearly a Renaissance woman, and I’m thinking she’s probably going to be a college professor.
Nunes: Let me ask you this, though: You say you have this Renaissance student, which is what a liberal arts education is all about. But we live in this environment where everybody’s pushing for the skills, and the job. Do you guys get that a lot? “Why is this going to work for me?”
Goering: “What can I do with this Biology degree?” I think that’s one way our students have changed. When I started teaching at St. Edward’s in 2007, the vast majority of incoming Biology majors wanted to be doctors, vets, nurses — something in the health professions. A large percentage of them still say that, but now, more students arrive already interested in graduate school and research.
Mary Dunn, Assistant Professor of Management: On a lot of campuses, there’s debate about this evolution toward being more vocational or more outcome oriented at the expense of the liberal arts and sciences, but I think that can go hand in hand with the liberal arts experience. English majors could benefit from knowing their writing and critical-thinking skills could be of great use at, say, Microsoft.
Nunes: The current job market is so fluid and unpredictable. To live in this uncertain environment, you need to be able to put on different hats and adapt, and that’s what you get here. I tell my students this education is about giving you the tools to be able to thrive in any number of things that you may choose to do.
Dunn: When I was an undergraduate there wasn’t this rhetoric in the broader society about, “If you take printmaking, what’s the return on investment?” But if you think about Steve Jobs, who dropped out of Reed College after one semester, he credits the calligraphy class he took there with helping him develop the Mac’s typography years later.
Nunes: But I hate that — the whole, “Oh, look at Steve Jobs; he didn’t have to go to college. Look at Mark Zuckerberg; he dropped out of Harvard.” You’re talking about a few individuals who dropped out and made it, but then the masses out there are like, “What is college good for? You don’t need college to make it big.” But most of us are not Steve Jobs. And a fulfilling life entails more than just knowing how to code. It’s about being culturally attuned and having broad knowledge about lots of things.
Dunn: That’s true. And Peter Thiel —
Nunes: That guy is the worst!
Dunn: But these are the people who are reinforcing the sense that the parts of college that don’t directly pertain to getting a job aren’t important. Peter Thiel founded PayPal, and he’s giving young people $100,000 over two years if they work on their business idea instead of going to college. Some of that trickles down to parents and students, who are saying, “If I’m going to send my child to this school, what’s the return on investment?” And yet Peter Thiel did his undergrad and law school at Stanford, and presumably, he benefitted from that.
Goering: One thing I try to get across to my students is that whatever you do, you have to love it. If you think being a doctor is noble and going to get you money one day but you don’t love it, you’re not going to make it. The cool thing about a liberal arts education is that you get to sample different subjects, and sometimes, you’re surprised at what you love.
Nunes: Sometimes it’s hard to “do what you love.” But at least during college, you have the opportunity to choose what you study. If I could go back to college, I would take more literature courses, because I don’t have time to read that kind of thing now.
Goering: I took a number of art classes, printmaking and photography, and those were some of the best experiences.
Goering: I try to remind students: You’re at a time in your life when you don’t have children, you don’t have dogs, you don’t have a mortgage. You’re free! Go do things! Travel, even if it’s just to the Texas coast. Study abroad. Go to the symphony. Volunteer. Do whatever you can to take advantage of this time.
Dunn: Because I study developmental relationships and mentoring networks, I encourage students to seek out multiple mentors. And they don’t have to use the label “mentor.” They can learn from peers, too.
Nunes: We have to remind students, “You know some of the issues you’re having with managing time and energy? We’re still trying to figure it out, too.”
Dunn: I read a really great article about managing your energy rather than your time, and that applies to research. When you’re inspired and you want to work on it, that’s when you need to grab it. But it’s hard when you have to teach the next morning.
Goering: This semester I’m in a group of faculty members with goals for writing projects, and we meet every other week. That accountability helps.
Dunn: I got a “revise and resubmit” on an article I sent to a top management journal, and it’s due soon, and I can feel the days ticking down. I have two other projects I’m working on that really energize me and excite me, but I don’t have time to work on them until the summer.
Goering: We’re fortunate in biology because students work in the lab with us, which means that I can pretty easily blend the teaching and research. The research I do now is keyed to things that undergraduates can do in a shorter time period.
Nunes: The research I’m working on has to do with criminal justice reform in Brazil. I try to bring some of those issues up in class: rule of law, equality under the law, police violence, which are also things that we talk about in the United States. You can’t bring your current research into every class you teach, but I do that when I can because it keeps me excited about it. I think the students notice, too, when I talk about my research.
Dunn: Because you exude passion.
Goering: At a larger university you might only teach courses directly related to your area of expertise, but at St. Edward’s you have to be able to teach multiple courses in your field. That’s part of the fun because we all like learning. But it also means I have to do my homework.
Dunn: That’s true even if you’re teaching a class for the second, third or fourth time.
Nunes: Because we’re prepared for class, students just assume, “Oh, this person studies this. They know everything.” I just assumed that when I was in college. But it takes a lot of work.
Dunn: I showed my students one of the peer reviews on an article I’d submitted to a journal. I said, “You know how you guys complain about what I write on your papers? Check this out: There’s one paragraph about the strengths. And then the rest is ‘This is what you can do differently,’ or ‘This is what I want you to do so that it will pass my review.’”
Goering: It helps them realize that the learning process never ends. I don’t have it all figured out, and people critique my writing. My job is to teach them to improve; people are still teaching me to improve. One of the most fun things about this job is watching students go from freshmen to seniors, and watching them change and grow up. That’s a privilege we get at St. Edward’s because it’s small enough that you can watch that growth.
Dunn: It’s especially fun — and humbling — to hear from former students who come back and tell me how they use concepts from my class in their workplaces or in their lives. I just had a student from several years ago reach out to me and ask for my suggestions for recent management books and readings.
Goering: I feel successful if students are getting to where they want to go, whether that’s grad school, med school, a job. When they come back and say, “Hey, I got into that program,” that’s how I measure my success.
Nunes: If students come back to my classes, I think that’s pretty successful.
Goering: The next day?
Nunes: No, if they take another class with me the next semester, especially when it’s not required.
Goering: One of the biggest compliments I got was when a student told me a friend of hers had recommended she take my class because I was a great teacher. But the friend had done horribly in my class! I thought, there’s no way that student likes me — but she recommended me to this other student. It was a huge compliment.
Interview by Robyn Ross
Photography by Whitney Devin ’10