New professors reveal first impressions, skepticism

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September 12, 2008

1:34 PM

“I was skeptical at first,” Dr. Saidul Islam, a new professor of sociology at the College of William and Mary, said. “I heard ‘The College of William and Mary’ and thought ‘College,’ like community college?”

Deciding which college to attend is a paramount decision, and students aren’t the only ones making it. This semester, a number of new professors who have worried over this exact decision in the past join the College’s faculty. The opportunities for both the new professors and their students make this an exciting and engaging time on campus.

Islam — who now teaches environmental sociology and social problems at the College — has been all over the globe. Born in Bangladesh, he attended International Islam University Malaysia and earned his Ph.D. in 2008 from York University in Canada, where he previously taught.

“I looked for jobs in the U.S. and Canada,” Islam said. “The ad was actually placed by a professor who taught me. It seemed like a great place to start my career.”

After two weeks of classes, Islam has gotten a sense of the class dynamic.

“They are very smart — they are — but I think many things depend on the instructor and how he pursues instruction. Teaching is not just pouring information on students.”
Ultimately, Islam has one goal: “To make things absolutely clear [to the students]. They should not leave the classroom without a clear understanding.” After thinking for a moment, Islam added, “I must also be entertaining.”

In the psychology department, Paul Kieffaber has started as a professor of physiological psychology. Kieffaber earned his Ph.D. in clinical psychology and cognitive science from Indiana University-Bloomington. Kieffaber, like many students at the College, chose this university in order to pursue research opportunities.

“The primary draw is the balance between teaching and research. This was one of the driving forces in my decision. I also had a great feeling about the atmosphere at the College.”

Kieffaber expresses a passion for teaching; however, he has not always thought he would venture down the path of college professorship. “[Teaching has] been my goal for most of my professional career,” he said. “Before, I thought of myself as a clinical psychologist who would serve patients. Once I got a taste of research I knew I would head down the [teaching] path.”

The history department has two new professors. Dr. Brett Rushforth is a professor of colonial American history currently teaching American history to 1877, along with a graduate research seminar in early American history. Rushforth earned his Ph.D. from University of California-Davis, and says his decision to be a professor was easy.

“My dad was a college professor,” he said. “I debated between this and law school. I chose the purer path.”
Rushforth’s decision to come to the College seemed to him the obvious choice. “Because I do early American history, it is a great place to study it,” he said. “There is also a great graduate program, faculty and student body.”

The job does not leave Rushforth with a great deal of extra time.

“I’m a cyclist and I have four daughters, so that takes up most of my spare time,” he said.

Also in the history department, Dr. Eric Han teaches East Asia from 1600 and modern Japanese history. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. History wasn’t always his passion; he received his undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Princeton University.

“I took a trip around the world,” he said. “[I wanted to be a] biologist, but you can guess when that changed.”
Han chose the College because of its specificity to what he wanted to research and teach.

“The position was perfect. Other schools pool you with broader positions; William and Mary was specific about looking for a Japanese history professor. It’s always better to do a job you know you can do.”
Research opportunities were also a draw for Han.

“The courses per semester allows for research and the smaller classes make the teaching experience that much better,” he said.

The College offers him the flexibility to focus jointly on research and students. Han wants to underscore three things in his classes. “Keep history relevant to the contemporary, provoke students to reevaluate assumptions, and emphasize discussion and communication of different opinions,” he said.

The student body has welcomed these new professors with open arms, but almost too enthusiastically, according to Han, “The students are very friendly, but they have not learned to call me ‘professor’ yet. Some still use ‘Mr.’ or just ‘Eric.’ At some schools people are just more formal, but it seems professors don’t mind here.”

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