Exploring a World of Ideas: An Interview with Dr. Geoffrey Rockwell | By Nikita-Kiran Singh

Education Visionaries in Edmonton is a series of articles highlighting educators whose passion for their work, dedication to their students and desire for innovation are invaluable to the growth of Edmontonians and our city as a whole. By conveying multiple perspectives from leaders in a diverse array of educational fields, The Wanderer hopes to illustrate the intrinsically valuable nature of learning and celebrate the admirable art of teaching.

Good professors often have to make trade-offs. To become a truly great teacher, leader, researcher or adviser, you have to sacrifice something else. Geoffrey, however, has a remarkable ability to excel at each of these tenants. With him, it’s not a question of ‘or’; rather, it’s the fact of ‘and.’  He is an attentive leader, a smart researcher, a dynamic teacher and an adviser who devotes considerable time to his students.

I was a student of Geoffrey’s for my Master’s degree at the U of A, as well as one of his undergraduate students at his previous university. In my undergraduate experience, Geoffrey was a great teacher, enthusiastic about keeping his courses fresh and novel. In turn, he was able to excite my fellow students into engaging more than we usually did. He takes students seriously, and we tend to respond to that respect.

Geoffrey also opened many doors for students. When a local publisher came by looking for people to teach on emerging web issues to their journalists, he sent them my way. As I approached graduation, he connected me to research projects on campus, helping me stay employed as a freelance developer. I also worked on my undergraduate thesis under him, where I picked up many research collaborative skills that I still use today.

Having both started at the U of A in the same year, Geoffrey again proved to be a phenomenal mentor. He advised many students as research assistants, myself included, equipping us strongly with research and publication skills. Most importantly, he gave us a great deal of autonomy and trust when we worked for him. For students still trying to envision themselves in the world, this approach gives them the indispensable self-confidence to trust in their own ideas and to act upon them.

~Peter Organisciak

As an undergraduate student, Geoffrey Rockwell discovered his penchant for philosophy. With a fondness for travelling, his natural curiosity led him to Europe, the Middle East, and then to the University of Toronto for graduate studies. Today, Dr. Rockwell is a Professor of Philosophy and Humanities Computing, teaching courses ranging from Big Data to Japanese Game Culture. As Director of the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS), he is committed to discovering how interdisciplinary research at the University of Alberta can advance societal goals. I recently had a conversation with Dr. Rockwell about immersion in learning, the value of the liberal arts, and the social contract between universities and the public. We celebrate Dr. Rockwell as an Education Visionary for empowering his students, fostering collaboration between different fields of study, and his sensitivity to the community’s needs.

Nikita: Could you describe your personal journey with education, and how you became interested in philosophy and humanities computing?

Dr. Rockwell: I got interested in philosophy as an undergraduate. The college I went to had a fabulous philosophy department. I think I went to university thinking I’d be a math or history major, and neither math nor history sort of took. But then I took a philosophy course and was taken by it. After I finished my BA in philosophy, I wanted to travel and work abroad, so I ended up wandering. I taught English as a second language in the Middle East and discovered I did like teaching.

At that point it was fairly smooth.  I went to the University of Toronto for my graduate degree.  I had always been interested in computing, and I began to use computers in my own teaching.  I was very fortunate that a job came along where they wanted someone with a PhD in Humanities and significant computing experience.

Nikita: Was there a philosopher that you enjoyed in particular while you were studying?

Dr. Rockwell: I return to Plato over and over again. Every time I crack open and read a Platonic dialogue – they’re magnificent, they’re just brilliant. I struggled long and hard with Aristotle, and got to the point where I sort of liked him. I had a lot of respect for him. Now I find myself returning to Heidegger. I took a Heidegger course in undergrad and did not get it, but things begin to fall into place. His work on technology I return to, now that I work in technology. And the neat thing about an area like feminist thought is it’s so relevant. Feminist philosophy isn’t happening only in The Academy; it’s happening every time I pick up the newspaper. Gender underlies so much.

Nikita: What do you think is the value of interdisciplinarity in academics?

Dr. Rockwell: So many of the neat things that people want to do span the social, the humanities, science and other areas. For example, climate change. Science is important to that, but we’re not going to make any difference on climate change without thinking about the political and the human. I was reading an article about Governors of the United States who deny that climate change is an issue – 29 of them. That’s a political and a social issue; it’s not a science issue.

We have disciplinary divisions, but sometimes the world doesn’t fit them. So interdisciplinarity is very important, and we should never think departmental disciplinarity is more important than it is. Anytime somebody tells me, “Oh, you can’t study that because your PhD is in philosophy” – that’s nonsense. I may not have the preparation to study it, but why shouldn’t I let my curiosity go? I sometimes fantasize, if we woke up one morning, and all the departments and faculties had vanished, and if all the faculty and students had to get together, how would we re-form?  How closely would the natural aggregations be to the departmental faculty structure we have?

Nikita: You have quite an extensive travel history. How have your experiences around the world shaped your approach to learning?

Dr. Rockwell: One of the ways I love to learn is by going somewhere. I am a great believer in immersion. There is tacit knowledge around a subject that you simply cannot pick up in a course. If you’re studying Ancient Rome, you can read the poets, you can read historians and so on, but there’s something about being in Rome and walking through the Forum that cannot be translated. If you could translate it into a book or some pictures or a website, then nobody would have to go to Rome. One of the things I’ve always found is, if I could go there and I could understand the unspoken things, it always helped me more in formal learning.

Nikita: The arts tend to be particularly susceptible to education budget cuts. What do you think is the greatest loss to our society in cutting funding to the arts?

Dr. Rockwell: The first thing I would say is that we lose our cultural safety net. When we went to war in Afghanistan, nobody could have predicted three or four years beforehand, but all of a sudden we needed people who spoke Farsi. One of the things that the liberal arts do is they maintain knowledge of the world. That makes a real and concrete difference. At some levels. I think any democracy needs to have that depth of knowledge on the rest of the world, its languages and histories in order to do business and to interact with these cultures.

Argument number two: what universities do, and not just the arts, is we teach the critical thinking skills, the broad communication skills. The final training shouldn’t happen here; it happens on the job site.

Thirdly, the liberal arts are important to democracies. Democracy is not simply a matter of having an election every once in a while. One of the things we’ve discovered in Eastern Europe is you can schedule elections, but that doesn’t create a democracy. People need to understand what a democracy is; they need to be able to make decisions about who to vote for. All these things you don’t get unless you have a population that is educated to some extent.

And lastly, most importantly, literacy undergirds anything. You simply cannot do engineering at all if you don’t have basic mathematical and language literacy. It’s very rare that I meet people who regret having done the liberal arts, because they’re a preparation in thinking and communicating. You learn a rigor in some ways. I’ve always felt that philosophy is about learning patterns of thinking. You’re constantly trying to understand complex problems, solutions, patterns.

Nikita: What is your main objective as Director of the Kule Institute for Advanced Study (KIAS)?

Dr. Rockwell: The Kule Institute was set up to support interdisciplinary research. One of my main objectives is to understand how to help my colleagues with their research. It’s not unlike the fundamental problem of teaching – you can lead a horse to water, but you cannot get them to drink. In fact, if you shove a horse’s mouth, if you force a student to do something, they’re not going to learn it. In the same way, KIAS is not supposed to do people’s research; it’s supposed to help them and get out of the way.

I’ve also become interested in how the social sciences, humanities and arts represent their research back to the larger community. To play with Rousseau, I think the social contract between the humanities and our publics is no longer there. I think people 100 years ago understood why taxpayers’ money was going to the humanities. There was a feeling that investment in classics, for example, was a good investment. Now, that’s no longer the case. I think we need to rethink how we explain ourselves, because at the end of the day we’re paid by taxpayers. Nothing prevents me from being a philosopher, but if I want tax funding through the government, and to be paid through the university structure, then I have to be accountable, and I have to be able to explain why what I’m doing is useful to the larger public.

I think one of the ways forward is to break down the ivory tower and begin to imagine research projects that are co-developed with our publics. We’re here in Edmonton. Who would I go and ask to figure out what research questions would make a difference to the city?  The mayor has identified poverty as one of the priorities of the city. Homelessness is a big, gnarly problem. We should be listening and then figuring out how our research can help the people who are trying to deal with poverty and homelessness. When I volunteer at a drop-in center, there are people at the front line day in and day out, helping these people with unbelievable problems with mental illness and addictions and so on. How can we make a difference? If we can figure out how to listen to the community, how can KIAS help researchers bridge professional knowledge with the community demand for knowledge?  If we can do that, then I believe we can re-forge a relationship with our publics.

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Nikita: It was evident in the nomination essays Peter wrote about you that you truly value your students. How do you think that teachers and professors can best empower their students?

Dr. Rockwell: By getting out of the way. You try to create a context where someone will challenge themselves to do something they didn’t think they could do and then you artfully get out of the way so that they do it, and it’s them, it’s not you. David Hume said the point of teaching is to have friends. You work with people who are interested in the same things you are to the point where you’re not teaching. I’ve been very fortunate to work in a field where often undergraduates or graduate students know more than me. So you try as quickly as possible to get to the point where the group is tackling interesting issues together.

Nikita: Is there a message you would like to send to any student, or anyone who loves to learn?

Dr. Rockwell: Don’t neglect all the learning that happens outside the classroom.  Travel.  There are so many different ways to learn. Don’t fetishize the class. I’m not saying don’t do your classes – do that too!  I taught a class on Japanese video games, and I had a student who worked for Nintendo who knew more about Nintendo games than I did. How did he learn it?  He learned it first by volunteering and then working as a sales rep for Nintendo. I have another student who has taught herself Japanese because she likes to read manga. Her Japanese is better than mine, and she taught herself!  So that I think is important. Don’t neglect all the ways of learning.


Photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Photographer Antony Ta; banner design courtesy of Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod.

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