By Andrew Hunt, BA'90 PhD'97
Momentous, life-altering events often cause people to pause and reflect. I'm not necessarily referring to huge, cataclysmic events, such as famine or war, which also prompt the more contemplative souls to think in broader terms and be thankful for what they have. No, I'm talking about "big" changes that occur on a more personal level.
I'll give you an example. Three "big" things happened to me recently. In the span of two months, my son was born, I completed my Ph.D. work here at the University of Utah, and a university in Canada offered me a tenure-track position teaching U.S. history. As I write these words, all of my worldly possessions are crammed into boxes, awaiting an eighteen-hundred-mile journey.
Believe me, I've been doing my share of reflecting lately. Ever since I was a teenager, I knew that I wanted to be a college teacher. As the son of a University of Utah professor and the direct descendant of one of the founders of the University of Deseret (later the University of Utah), my roots in academia run deep. I grew up around universities. When I was a kid, the empty classroom contained the same allure that the empty baseball field offered my friends. The idea that the empty classroom would soon be full of young people, some from thousands of miles away, assembled for the common goal of learning, exercised a powerful hold on my imagination. Twenty years later, the very thought still excites me.
I idolized intellectuals the same way my buddies idolized the likes of Pete Rose and Luke Skywalker. I never understood why Jean Paul Sartre didn't get to be on a baseball card. But I also had an overly simplistic attitude about higher education. I thought everything came so easily to these women and men who somehow managed to captivate audiences with the sheer power of their words. I thought they just sat around reading and drinking coffee all the time, and when the time came to teach they sauntered into class and the words came out effortlessly.
I later learned that becoming an effective educator involves much hard work and preparation. You not only have to do a damn good job lecturing (remember, your audience is paying a lot of tuition), but you have to be an effective researcher and, at the very least, a decent writer. You have to add your voice to a community of scholars who are studying the same general topics as you. You have to be able to produce literature that has some sort of impact on the marketplace of ideas. Most importantly, you have to heighten the awareness of the young women and men who are your students. And I don't even want to get started on the bureaucratic side of the business: the lengthly committee meetings, all of the boards you are asked to serve on, and so forth.
Like anyone else who develops a craft, you become a good teacher imitating others. I've had numerous role models. I'll mention two of them. In the classroom, I've tried to follow Bill Whisner's example. Bill is a wonderful philosophy professor here at the University of Utah who loved nothing more than to come to class and provoke philosophical debates. Bill always put his students first, and they loved him for it. Each class offered a new and vibrant world of ideas.
As a researcher, I've sought to emulate Robert Goldberg, a professor in the U's History Department. Bob taught me the importance of engaging in meaningful research, and he took the time to show me how to write in a plain and simple language, free of the jargon one finds in esoteric journals aimed at tiny, elitist academic niches. His lesson was simple: Just because you are not at Harvard or Berkeley does not mean you cannot contribute something lasting and meaningful, both to scholars and the general public.
Those are just two professors whose contributions have had a lasting impact on me. There are so many other women and men to whom I owe an enormous intellectual debt. Sadly, we students often forget to say thank you to a good professor. Even taking the time to write a glowing sentence or two on a teaching evaluation can make all the difference in the world.
Professors are the forgotten heroes and heroines of our society. To be certain, there is a darker side to academia. On virtually every campus in America, petty departmental skirmishes, humdrum lecturers, and the occasional intellectual bully are as inevitable as death and taxes. But one need not search hard at the University of Utah for the women and men who endeavor to enlighten and, in the process illuminate new horizons.