Why I teach

Galen Louis, PhD

Director of ISU's Master of Public Health Program
Galen is based at the ISU-Meridian Health Science Center

What inspired you to be a university professor?
I think I've always known that this would be where I would end up. It was a circuitous route getting here, but the "aura" of knowledge for knowledge's sake has always been alluring, appealing and seductive. In what other profession could one have such freedom to express and share thoughts so openly? I didn't get my Ph.D. until I was 51 years old and have only been teaching full time since 2006, so I'm still fairly new at this. And so, it wasn't so much the inspiration, for that was always there simmering in the background. It was more the perspiration of getting here.

Why teach in a university setting?
I know that it is an "ivory tower" but I think that having lived a lifetime in the "real world" gave me a perspective that other lifelong academics may not have had. Actually, my chosen field of public health is a very practicable and applied field. The university is just a place. What makes it all so exciting are the students. And in this age of technology, the "university setting" at ISU is beyond the ivy halls of one campus. It is Distance Learning and it is Online teaching. Learning does not have a "place." It is an ideal. And it is an ideal that creates a place where praxis and theoria can walk side-by-side.

If you weren't a university professor what do you think you would be doing?
At this stage of my life? I would probably be pursuing some of the things on my bucket list. I've had three very rewarding and successful careers in my lifetime. I think I'd like to just kick back and pursue some of those things that are more left- brained. I have spent a lifetime involved in right-brained activity.

What has teaching taught you about yourself?
Probably the most important thing that I've learned about myself is that I truly still love the process of learning. For every new subject or class that I teach, a whole new world of concepts, ideas and perspectives needs to be explored. Physically, geographically and professionally, I have led a very itinerant lifestyle. I think this transfers also to my more cerebral side also. I didn't know that until I just started thinking about it while I was writing this. Teaching has taught me that I have more interests and passions than I would have ever enumerated 40 or 50 years ago, and the list keeps going. And wow, they are paying me to do this.

What is the most difficult aspect of teaching?
The transference of my personal zeal to the students is the most difficult aspect of teaching. I teach in a graduate program, so with most of my students, this is not only easy, it's fun. The one thing about teaching in a graduate program is that you already have a leg up. The students don't have to be there. They choose to be there. But with all strata of populations, there are the outliers. Not everyone thinks or feels like I do. There are some students with whom it's just hard to connect. Difficult? Yes. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No. One must ask how is it that we can see through their eyes, feel through their hearts, and find the magic that you know is really there. And like I said, you already know it's there. You just need to transform yourself so that you can find it.

What inspired you to enter higher education?
I had worked with younger kids (teenagers) a lot when I was younger. I coached sports teams and I was a camp counselor. Through graduate school, I worked with troubled youth in a rehabilitation hospital. It was rewarding and many times, it was just plain fun. But it wasn't going to be my life's work. I always knew that. Something was missing. I think when I was a senior member of a corporate team, one of my younger colleagues started calling me "professor." I was only in my mid-thirties, but I had become a mentor to my younger colleagues that were just entering into the field fresh with their new MBAs. I realized that I liked the role of mentor, and that I liked the idea of colleagues rather than wards. At the age of 38, I quit my job and went back to school for my master's degree. At 45, I quit another job and went back to school for my doctorate. And the rest is, well.. geography.

Is there an identifying moment where you knew you had a pronounced positive impact upon a student?
Probably the most impactful movie that I ever saw about "teaching" in its purest sense was "The Dead Poets Society" with Robin Williams. He portrayed a part that every teacher would be proud of. Not only well educated, but incredibly creative, inspiring and courageous. His students called to him in the words of the Walt Whitman poem, "O, Captain, my Captain" at the end of the movie that would move all but the most jaded to tears. My identifying moment? After one of my students graduated with her master's degree, she wrote to thank me and addressed me as "O Captain, my Captain."

What career/life messages do you try to impart upon your students?
This is an email that I sent to my undergraduate students of the last class I taught before leaving the University of Illinois.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Five years from now, you will not remember or care that GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter or what your grade in this class was. It won't matter. What I hope that you have learned is that the decisions you make in your life will affect your life. Some decisions may be devastating, but very few things are irreparable. You will make mistakes. "Mistakes are the price you pay for living a full life"....so be gentle with yourself. We are after all, only human. That is what matters.

Another thought that occurs to me is that all of you have most of your lives in front of you. I can't begin to tell you what a wonderful journey awaits you. I openly envy your youth. Carpe diem! Don't confine your life to good intentions. Live them out. Don't be afraid to speak and act on your beliefs. The opportunities in life are many, but you must recognize them and touch them, for it is your involvement that brings life and meaning to the world around you.

Finally, take time to reflect. We live in a fast-paced society of immediacy, but reflection brings a wholeness to your existence. Thirty years from now (when you are my age), I will probably be casting a fly into quiet riffle somewhere in that great trout stream in the sky. If you recall a single word of this memo, then I will smile to know that I accomplished a "small thing in a great and noble way."

Peace be with you,

I long to do great and noble things, yet I know that it is my destiny to do simple things in a great and noble


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