Illustration by Maria Fabrizio

As I sit to compose this essay, I’m reminded of the philosophical thought exercise about the tree falling in the forest, but with a twist. Mine goes: If I write a magazine essay composed almost entirely of quotes of my colleagues, did I actually write the essay? Let’s consider that question here together. 

This fall, I had the privilege of interviewing some of the extraordinarily talented professors at our university. In these conversations, I had an opportunity to ask them about the subjects around which they’ve built lives of inquiry. Our topics ranged from breast cancer to beekeeping, astrophysics to music.

It really drives home for the students the idea that what we do impacts people. We should always be aware of that.

Yvonne Howell, professor of Russian and international studies, focuses on the impact of science and modernity in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet cultures. She’s also passionate about exposing Richmond students to global perspectives. We talked about an experience we’ve both shared, learning a second language. “Something happens when you start to see the world through a second language and culture,” she said. “It has an amplifying effect, so all of a sudden, it’s like the world is bigger. You’re you, but you’re also ‘super you’ who sees the whole world through someone else’s language and culture.”

Law professor Andy Spalding is a leading expert on international anti-corruption law, with expertise on corruption in the Olympic Games. We talked about his recent trip with students to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in anticipation of the 2018 Winter Games. “It’s very easy in law school to forget that the law is fundamentally about people,” he told me. “It’s written by people. It’s written in the service of people. To go to South Korea and to interview people, professors, corporate lawyers, NGO [non-governmental organization] advocates, and hear them talk about how these new laws are actually fundamentally changing the way they interact with each other, with the government, and how business is conducted, it really drives home for the students the idea that what we do impacts people. We should always be aware of that.”

I talked about heroes — how we construct them, why we need them, and why we are sometimes happy when they fail — with psychology professor Scott Allison. Despite tales of heroism stretching back to Homer, there was very little academic research on epic individuals until recently. “There’s something about heroism that resonates with us,” he explained to me. “We can identify with heroes because the hero’s journey is the human journey. It’s our journey. … We go to movies and we read books [about heroes] because those movies and books are telling our story.”

Anthropology professor Jennifer Nourse told me about her trips to Indonesia, where she studies reproductive health in rural populations. To further her research, she learned a largely unstudied language spoken by a very small group of “highlanders,” as they’re called in that region. She also encountered systemic racism that impacts how this rural community receives health care. “What is happening, I believe, is a distrust of the governmental medical system, and so the highlanders don’t trust the lowlanders, and the lowlanders have racist attitudes about the highlanders and see them as not needing pain medicine because they can tough it out,” she said. “All of these [are] racist stereotypes that I’m gently trying to point out to people so that changes can occur.”

It has an amplifying effect, so all of a sudden, it's like the world is bigger.

The deep curiosity and intellectual growth that our faculty exemplified during these conversations spark students’ creativity and prepare them to approach problems thoughtfully, critically, and ethically. I came away from our conversations not only impressed with the quality of scholarship at UR, but with greater appreciation for how this knowledge impacts the educational experience of our students.

I hope you’ll take the advantage of an upcoming opportunity to hear their remarkable stories. Our discussions were filmed and are being edited to share on social media and the web this semester. We’re calling this new video series “Spider Talks” and will be launching it in the coming weeks. I encourage you to view my conversations with some of the people who are ensuring that academic excellence remains a defining feature of a Richmond education as our faculty help prepare students for lives of discovery, success in their professions, and meaningful contributions to our world.