The walls, door and desk of Associate Professor of Biology John Giannini’s office are covered with photos of and pictures by his four sons, wife and brand-new granddaughter, Gloria. Continue reading “Faculty in focus: meet John Giannini”
St. Olaf’s mission statement dictates that the college strives to create an “inclusive, globally engaged community.” One way students gain global perspective is through learning or teaching languages. Assistant Professor of English as a Second Language (ESL) Education Jill Watson might be new to St. Olaf, but she has been around teaching and language-learning for her entire professional career.
“My first professor job was teaching French back in 1986, and I also taught German,” Watson said. “I was always a language geek, with a huge interest in global languages and cultures, equity [and] ethics issues, spirituality and wisdom traditions.”
Watson studied French and German at the University of South Dakota before going on to receive a Master’s degree in French from Middlebury College. She earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction-Second Languages and Cultures Education from the University of Minnesota. Before coming to St. Olaf last fall, Watson taught ESL and French at the secondary school level. She has also taught courses in both French and teacher education at various colleges, from South Dakota to New York.
“My academic interests focus on best practices for teaching English and academic learning to newcomers, especially those with limited or no prior literacy and schooling in any language, including their home language,” Watson said.
At St. Olaf, Watson serves as the advisor for ESL Club and teaches courses for ESL licensure, which include topics ranging from policy and legislation to teaching methods and assessment. She also teaches Principles of Education, a course designed to prepare aspiring teachers for planning and leading lessons.
Watson proposed a new course, Second Language Acquisition, that she will begin teaching in the coming fall. The course is open to any student interested in how humans learn both first and additional languages, and it will also explore the larger societal trends in language learning.
“There is nothing more important in today’s global society than prioritizing and knowing how to conduct effective, peace-loving, life-giving intercultural relations – which ESL education always is, de facto.”
As the only ESL teacher at St. Olaf, Watson hopes to expand and develop the ways the department prepares students for working with language-learners. She emphasizes the importance of both the theory side of education as well as the practical challenges presented by teaching, such as classroom management and relationship-building.
Her vision includes organizing a major conference at St. Olaf regarding one of her areas of expertise: students with limited or interrupted formal education. She is currently co-authoring a book on the subject and hopes to raise awareness on campus. The conference will take place in Tomson Hall on May 6 and include free food from various cultures.
Apart from ambitious academic goals, Watson aspires to learn Somali (which she has begun), develop a partnership program between a refugee camp school in the horn of Africa and a nearby university, go scuba-diving, learn how to make lefse and more.
“I hope to write a scholarly book on the encounter of orality, literacy [and] digitacy in the context of education and moral and post-colonial hermeneutic theory,” Watson said. “I want to do an interview series with elders from oral cultures, to learn how they have and do conduct education traditionally in their culture … and then propose ways of incorporating those approaches into our overly-standardized classrooms.”
While Watson’s interests and involvements are various, they revolve around her passion for connecting people across languages and cultures. She is excited to share her ideas with students at St. Olaf, and she encourages them stop by her office for chocolate, a conversation and to check out her working model of Starship Enterprise. Watson also advises students to explore their professional calling and how language can fit into it.
“Consider that language learning is not only endlessly fascinating, but also mentioned twice in 1 Corinthians 12. As Heidegger said, ‘Language is the house of being’– clearly no mere matter, a worthy vocation to consider.”
Of the 18 students who have reviewed Professor of Music David Castro on ratemyprofessor.com, not one of them has given him a rating below the full 5.0 out of 5.0 points. Some of the comments read: “Castro is the best prof I have ever had at St. Olaf … I look forward to class everyday, and I can already feel how much I am improving as a musician;” “He is completely dedicated to his students’ success, a dedication manifested in the way he runs his classes;” and “I love this man. I love this man. I love this man.”
Castro has taught at St. Olaf for about eight years, but his love of music goes back much farther. He grew up in a family with strong connections to the evangelical church and was involved in choir at a young age.
“Church was everything in my family, and the way that I participated in church was by making music,” Castro said.
He entered Pacific Union College with the intention of becoming a band director, but he soon found a new passion when he got the opportunity to step into the classroom as a substitute for a professor.
“I’m not sure why, but I got a real bang of it,” Castro said. “At the end of it, I [asked] him, how do I get your job?”
While Castro currently focuses primarily on teaching and research, he still finds ways to incorporate his love of directing.
“Sometimes I think of [directing and teaching] as kind of the same thing, because when I’m in front of a classroom, I’m kind of directing the ensemble of people to think in a certain direction,” he said.
Castro’s professor advised him to pursue a graduate degree, so he went on to earn his master of music in music theory from the University of Arizona before completing a doctorate program at the University of Oregon in 2005. He taught for three years in Austin, Texas, where he worked with a St. Olaf alumnus who encouraged him to apply to a position at St. Olaf.
The small, Midwestern liberal arts school brought significant changes from Castro’s experience in large public schools, but he feels that he has found a great fit here, from the liberal arts approach to the connection of spirituality and music to the students themselves.
“I would say the nice thing about this place is that students are sincere and genuinely curious,” Castro said. “They want to learn stuff. They get excited about something as simple as an idea. It doesn’t have to go anywhere, it doesn’t have to do anything. I meet a lot of people here who are curious, and they like to learn … I’m just privileged to work with that.”
Castro’s courses typically center on music theory – specifically aural skills, a topic on which he has co-authored a textbook along with Associate Professor of Music Justin Merritt. He compares the skills-based practice to playing an instrument or sport, and he enjoys witnessing the progress students make throughout the semester outside of class between check-ins.
“I get to see that – I call it slow burn. Keep your head low, keep working, be determined, be disciplined and it can happen.”
Castro has also started teaching in the American Conversation program, which allows him to incorporate his music background into broader historical and cultural contexts. He cited the example of using class time to analyze the meaning of funk music to African American communities in the 1970s.
“I’m able to focus, ironically, a lot more in the AmCon class, because I’m learning. I’m exploring new ideas, I’m getting to talk about things I don’t ordinarily get to talk about. And so for me, it’s just a really exciting experience because I’m just one of the people who likes new ideas and exploring things.”
Students in Castro’s classes appreciate his genuine passion and interest in them as individuals, but he seems to enjoy the classroom experience just as much as the students do.
“[My favorite part of teaching] is when I see a student start to nod, or their eyes get big, and there’s that ‘ah-ha’ moment and they make a connection,” Castro said. “That is a really exciting moment for me. So I kind of watch for it, and then when it happens, I kind of get a cheap thrill out of it.”
The door to Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Loebach’s office is decorated with colorful notes and signs saying “Congratulations!,” “Great job” and “Best news ever!” His colleagues appear very happy to hear the announcement of Loebach’s recent tenure appointment. They even threw him a party to celebrate.
Loebach has been teaching and doing research at St. Olaf since 2009. Much of his work centers around cognitive neuroscience and sensation and perception. His main interest currently lies in understanding how cochlear implant users learn to hear, and designing a training program to help them do so.
“From stimuli in the world, how do you agree on what reality is when your senses are different?” Loebach said.
He says St. Olaf is a particularly good place to study these topics, thanks to the many music students and a hearty interest in the senses.
Loebach collaborated with students and Devin Lackie, a technician in the physics department, to build a SoLoArc, a device that can help test sound localization vertically or horizontally. The sophisticated research device contains 37 individual speakers and 73 LED lights that are used to test how well subjects can determine the location of a sound’s source. He hopes to incorporate vision into the tests to see how the sensation of sound and sight can work together to influence perception of where a sound comes from.
“It would give us a glimpse into how we integrate space and time together,” Loebach said. “That’s been kind of a sub area I’ve been interested in ever since my post-doc, and the SoLoArc allows us to do that.”
In addition to his own research interests, Loebach’s work is often influenced by students and what they are interested in learning. He often uses their questions to guide experiments through a creative, thoughtful process. Students work through challenges with him, which provides learning opportunities on both sides.
“It’s a really great community,” Loebach said. “The people have been really fun here. They’re really earnest and eager to help, and that’s just something you don’t always get at other places.”
To Loebach, helping students explore their passions is his way of giving back. At Arizona State University, he got the chance to work with professors who encouraged him to pursue his research interests. Loebach started out as a business major, and described himself as a classic liberal arts student, taking even more classes than needed as he navigated from business to clinical psychology to neuroscience. He went on to earn his PhD in Biological Psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“You don’t really know exactly what you want to do until you do it … you usually get to where you want to be in the end,” Loebach said.
Loebach taught briefly at Carleton College and Macalester College before coming to St. Olaf, where he has taught biopsychology, the psychology of hearing, sensation and perception, cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. In the future, he hopes to teach in the Science Conversation, a relatively new interdisciplinary course that examines a holistic history of science and society. While he will be on sabbatical next year, he plans to focus on research and writing.
Loebach’s wife, Grace Cho, also teaches in the psychology department at St. Olaf, and the two of them have two young sons, Nicholas and Gabriel. Much of the professor’s free time is devoted to spending time with his family. He takes one day off teaching each week to spend at home with the baby, and he focuses on spending time with them as much as possible.
“The other great benefit here is all the things available for [the kids] to do,” Loebach said, “So they get to see things they may not get to see in other cases.”
When he’s not working or doing activities with his family, Loebach enjoys reading and watching science fiction. He rereads the Lord of the Rings series almost every year, and it remains his favorite series. Just like in his professional life, he knows a good thing when he has it and invests wholeheartedly in his project.
“It’s very rare for me to get into something brand new, because I’ll get fixated on something, and I’ll read it a couple times. And I’ll usually read the whole series and get kind of saturated in it. And then when I’m done, it’s like, okay, now what do I do?”
From his various interests to his focus on community, Loebach fits in well at St. Olaf, and the psychology department is excited that he’ll be around for a while.
As INBLACK enters its fifteenth year at St. Olaf, members of the theater group look to tackle some of the major issues on and off campus using humor, shock, satire and sincerity. The student-organized production stages a sketch show during a two-month long process. The first steps of this undertaking were recently completed, as the returning members held auditions and selected the newest members for this year’s show.
Elana Abelson ’17, Grace Brandt ’17 and Sam McIntosh ’19 led the auditions as INBLACK’s returning members. This year’s production will be the second for Abelson and McIntosh and the fourth for Brandt. The group is open to any student, and once they are accepted, they are a member for the remainder of their St. Olaf career.
Over 20 students tried out for the five open INBLACK spots between Feb. 13 to 17, with one round of callbacks before the final decisions were made. Ultimately, the group added Christian Conway ’18, Laird Vlaming ’17, Sarah Willstein ’19, Willem Mudde ’18 and Lindsey Bertsch ’19 to its ranks.
One unique aspect of this theater production is that none of the members actually major in theater. In fact, they each have their own separate interests.
“I think this group brings a lot of different perspectives and backgrounds. Based on our meeting the other day, it seems like people have ideas they are really excited about. I love that our cast is composed of musicians, visual artists, improvisers, creative writers,” Abelson said.
The next step for the eight students involves writing sketches, which they will then produce, direct and perform for a series of nine shows between April 26 and 29. Until then, the students will work together, with little to no outside assistance or instruction, to put all the pieces together.
“My first time seeing INBLACK I was amazed at my fellow students’ abilities to perform sketches that ranged from outrageously hilarious to emotionally impactful … I’m really looking forward to the first show when everyone’s hard work will come to fruition,” Vlaming said.
While INBLACK has traditionally been staged in Haugen Theater, it moved last year to the Art Barn. This change presented challenges in lighting and seating configurations, but the actors expect this year to be a smoother setup now that they are accustomed to the new space. The show itself looks completely different year-to-year and even night-to-night, as the audience members get to randomly choose the order in which the skits are performed.
“I think the structure of the show is so emotionally effective. For those of us involved it is an unreal adrenaline rush, running around and never knowing what’s coming next. I love how the random nature and the audience involvement keeps us on our toes even when we’re working with material we wrote and staged and have been working with for months,” Brandt said.
Although late April may sound like a long way away, students are already getting excited for INBLACK’s promise to deliver refreshing, unflinching commentary on St. Olaf and world issues. The hype is all too real for the cast members as they dive into planning.
“We strive to be honest, reflective, outrageous. We shine a light on campus life, both the positive and negative aspects. I want the audience to be able to extract some truth from our show, some sense that we’re listening. And also, of course, I want them to laugh,” Abelson said.