German professor discusses education and culture differences

Every Thursday, The Breeze will run a QA with one of JMU’s professors. This week, we’re featuring part-time philosophy professor Pia Antolic-Piper. Antolic-Piper was born and raised in Germany until she came to the United States in 2007. She’s been a professor within JMU’s philosophy department for nearly four years.

How does JMU differ from the colleges in Germany?

In Germany … you do not go through a general education program, where you don’t have education requirements — those are sort of done within school by the time you graduate from high school. So when you enroll, you enroll into your major, and only your major. When I started studying, I had philosophy, history and sociology courses, and that was it. The courses that you take you usually take only with majors with your immediate fellow students. The interaction between students, because of that, is different. You’re sort of somewhere in your own stew, a lot more disciplinary speaking. We don’t really have residential life in college because students either live with their parents, if they live close by, or they find their own private living arrangements. So, the campus feeling is very different than an American campus. And the age ranges in students in Germany are different. So, on American campuses, undergraduate students, we’re talking ages 17 or 18 to 21 or 22. In Germany, when you look at undergrad … we’re talking about, I don’t know 18, 19 to 25, 26, 27. So, it’s a very different feeling than it is here.

What influenced you to start teaching?

In the beginning, teaching came as sort of a requirement with becoming a philosopher. So I earned my Ph.D in Germany and was a member of a research group back there in Frankfurt. And part of our assignment, or our jobs, was to change courses in medieval philosophy. So, at the beginning, it was very much something that I had to do, but something that I started to enjoy very soon. And what changed when I came to the U.S. was that I wasn’t exclusively teaching in my own area of concentration, medieval philosophy, that I was also teaching general courses — general introduction to philosophy or to ethics, and teaching not only majors, but also non-philosophy majors. And that’s when I really — when a whole different side of interest of teaching began to develop. I think that philosophy is very important, that I think it’s a lot of fun and that it is different to share that with people who have no prior experience or exposure to philosophy. And so, it’s kind of a mission to persuade people, to show people who are not already committed to philosophy as an academic discipline, to show that this is something worthwhile — doing and pursuing even if you don’t study it as your major.

What do you enjoy the most about teaching?

The personal interaction in the classroom with my students and also in office hours. I enjoy when I get the feeling that they are genuinely and sincerely interested in the material, and when they start to challenge me, to be quite honest — when they tell me they disagree with an interpretation of a passage, or if they disagree with another philosopher’s arguments. So, I like friction in the classroom — when students disagree with each other, with me and when there’s a debate, when there’s an exchange of arguments, and students feel that what they say and how the arguments go really matters and makes a difference in their life.

What do you enjoy the most about JMU?

The campus culture, that people are friendly and open. That whenever I have to come here with my daughter or something- because our daycare is closed, or she’s sick or something like that and we have to sort of make it work with classes and everything- — that whenever I see people, they respond friendly to her, and that it is a very friendly and open atmosphere, and that the students that are here are very happy and ready to get to know you personally and to engage with you and to meet with you, even after class is over. So, I had students get together with me for coffee long after the class, and this is something that I have not experienced at other universities I’ve taught.

Next month, we will have many students graduating. What is one thing that you want graduating students to know or remember?

I think that one of the strengths of JMU’s offerings in terms of classes and programs is the strong emphasis on the general education program. And of this is something that students need to, in a sense, get through in order to graduate, but I would hope that students will remember, later on in their life, that they will remember the general education program fondly, that they will feel that it was beneficial for them in their growing as individuals, and also citizens. And I would, of course, especially hope that they will think back fondly to philosophy, and one thing they will retain is the habit of being in touch with themselves and with others in terms of values, mutual expectations, norms — that they will retain the habit of reflecting on their own beliefs and actions in a way that was introduced to them within the general education program. But I think, especially in philosophy class, is when we talked about how to treat others, what a good life was, whether we’re free or not. Yeah, and good luck.

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