From the Tutor's Table

Why I, an Engineer, Came to Teach at St. John’s College

 

This is the third in a series of posts by Mr. Poppele, a tutor at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.

 

I am an engineer by education, by professional experience, and perhaps by nature. I love to find ways to collect data, wrestle with it, and make computer models of real-world systems. Part of me would like to spend my time with data, but another part draws me to a more human side of things. When I was close to finishing a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering, I realized that I might have to choose between research and teaching. Engineering is usually taught at large universities, where undergraduate courses are generally lecture-based, and faculty are expected to do research as well as teach. At that time, I felt (and I still do) that there are better ways to teach than lecturing, and I realized that I wanted to be more connected with learning than a lecture hall would allow.

I think that teaching is something of an art, and this side of it is often overlooked and undervalued. This belief comes in part from trying to answer the question ‘What is teaching?’ That’s a very difficult question, and I’m still working on it, but it sometimes seems easier to say what teaching is not. The word “teach” has come to mean little more than “to tell,” invoking the useless image that the teacher is a repository of knowledge that can be poured into a student. Anyone who has been a student, and the more recent the experience the more vividly you might feel this, can attest that hearing another person’s words does not create knowledge for us. Some students call what they write down on homework and tests ‘regurgitation,’ and that name alone makes it clear that there’s something other than parroting that defines learning. Teaching and learning are not simply telling and remembering.

Rather than look more closely at teaching, I find that the fruitful questions come from asking about learning. What is learning? That, too, is hard to say, but learning is not simply memorizing facts or information. Learning is coming to see what we could not see before. Because of this, learning cannot mean simply having more information. It is not adding “data” to our way of seeing the world. Learning means changing the way that we see the world, the way we understand ourselves, the way we see others. Learning is coming to see what we could not see before, not because it was hidden from our eyes, but because it was hidden from our understanding. Learning is not having more information, but is about being able to see more deeply, more richly, and with more insight.

Learning happens everywhere, but for those who seek it it is easier in some places than in others. I feel lucky that I found a position at St. John’s College because its singular aim is learning. I also feel lucky that I am surrounded by students who are deeply curious about the world, who are really interested in learning. Although I have had to put most of my technical interests on hold, I am grateful to be at a school that has wrestled with the questions of teaching and learning for so long, where all the classes are small and discussion-based, and where faculty are challenged not to be experts in a particular field, but to work always to be better teachers and better learners.

Most engineers wouldn’t be so lucky, but I already knew about St. John’s when I looked for teaching positions. Long ago, after a year and a half at the University of Chicago, I came to St. John’s as an undergraduate. I found inspiring teachers, classmates, and friends, and found some of the best of what school can be. Nonetheless, as graduation approached, I felt that I did not want to go on “only” reading and studying, but wanted to do and make things in the world. I went from St. John’s to the University of Michigan for a Master’s degree in environmental engineering, took professional jobs, and never looked back. Well, at least not for a dozen or so years. But here I am again, in part because of how grateful I am to the College for the ways it prepared me for graduate school and for being a life-long learner.

 

Eric Hunter Poppele received an M.S.E. in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from the University of Minnesota, and worked as a consulting engineer for several years between those two programs. He has been on the faculty of St. John’s College since 2003 and has taught all of the classes in the undergraduate program. This semester he is teaching Senior Seminar, Classical Chinese (in the Graduate Institute), and will lead a preceptorial on Turing’s paper on computability.

The student writing staff of the johnnie chair blog

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