While it may feel like some teachers were born to lecture, not all who take up the lectern have spent their lifetimes climbing up the ivory tower. Some professors and lecturers pursued a variety of jobs before arriving at Brown, from consulting to translating.
Passing up the bar for books
Richard Parks, postdoctoral fellow in history, was hired as a French translator for the North African division of the World Bank straight out of New York University. He landed the job through a temp agency that recruited people with foreign language proficiency and an “adequate” familiarity with the country they would be assigned to work with, he said.
“It was very easy to get a job in 1995,” he said. “This was kind of like the Clinton heydays where, when I graduated, I had six job offers.”
“It was a completely different world than we live in now,” he added.
One of those six jobs was located on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center, and he said that every now and again he reflects on how things would be different if he had accepted the position.
After two years at the World Bank, Parks went to law school at Tulane University, but he said he realized midway through school that law was not the right career for him. But Parks still wanted to finish. It wasn’t until he got the opportunity to teach at Tulane that he realized teaching appealed to him — so much so that he reshaped his career path. An interest in history took precedence over taking the bar exam, and after graduation, he headed straight to graduate school, where he also worked in Tunisia on a Fulbright grant.
Parks originally planned to go to law school right after earning his undergraduate degree, and the “pressure to take the next step” led him to leave his job at the World Bank for law school.
Parks did not major in history as an undergraduate, but he said he was always interested. He emphasized colonial history in his coursework for his French civilization degree, and his interest in political science veered more toward the historical aspect of events than the quantitative number crunching of political analysis. Despite his interest in history, he felt compelled to follow what he thought was the one path to law school by earning a degree in political science. He said he thought that in those days, career paths were more prescribed, a pressure he felt more strongly as a first-generation college student.
Parks said he does not regret the path he took because it led him to where he is today. Even though he ultimately forewent becoming a lawyer, the skills he acquired in school, such as public speaking and logical argumentation, have been widely useful, he said.
‘Messier than the textbooks’
David Wyss, adjunct professor of economics, has “done a lot of things” since finishing graduate school, he said. He obtained a Ph.D. at Harvard in economics after majoring in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wyss decided to pursue economics after taking a statistics course in the economics department with a preeminent professor, he said. That he ended up in economics after studying math was “pure chance,” he added.
Near graduation, “I started to think, what does a math major do for a living, other than teach math?” he said. Economics was an appealing application of his studies. “Besides,” he added, “it was the ’60s. We couldn’t be too practical.”
The ethos of those “hippie years” prized learning over earning, but he was “much more worried about where the next job was coming from,” he said, and one answer lay in economics.
After Harvard, he headed to Washington, D.C. to work at the Federal Reserve System for nearly a decade, operating “on loan” to other organizations such as the Bank of England. From there, Wyss moved to a consulting firm called Data Resources, Inc. started by his former thesis advisor. He then transitioned to Standard & Poor’s as their chief economist. Throughout his career, Wyss taught business courses part time at various universities.
Wyss always knew he was interested in teaching — it is why he pursued a Ph.D. — but he knew he wanted to do something with “real-world applications” too, he said. Once he retired from the world of economics, he said he “wanted to slow down,” adding that he realized that his dream of teaching was facing a “now or never” moment. His consulting work had him away from home for a third of the week, and he saw teaching as a chance to have more stability.
Wyss said he tries to “bring the real world in (to the classroom) — with mixed results.” Some students might see his examples as “tangents,” he said, but he said he thinks it is important for students to be exposed to the practical side of finance — not just theory — to prepare them for the jobs they hope to obtain.
“Economics has to relate to the real world,” so most students who study economics intend to use it in consulting, finance or business, Wyss said.
As a teacher, “it helps to know what the real world is all about,” Wyss said. “It’s very easy for professors to get caught in an ivory tower.” He noted there are some who consult on the side and dabble in work outside of academia. He decried the dominance of “publication mode” among professors, in which getting published demands the bulk of their attention. He added that experience contextualizes the importance of and reason behind the content that students learn.
“The real world is a lot messier than the textbooks,” he said. “It’s like trying to learn to drive a car from a textbook — you can’t do it. You have to actually go drive one.”
Ad(venture) in Africa
While Barrett Hazeltine, adjunct professor of engineering, was checking off all the requisite boxes of bachelors, masters and doctorate for a tenure position at Brown, he certainly took a few pit stops along the way.
As a young faculty member, he was an ideal candidate for the Ford Foundation’s program to expose new professors to the industry, “not to do research, but to be involved in what they call ‘real engineering,’” he said. That program connected him with a company called Raytheon for 15 months to work on bettering space communication for NASA’s Apollo programs. In the ’70s, spacecrafts landed in the ocean, and without GPS technology, NASA was worried about not being able to find them. Hazeltine worked on technology designed to address that problem.
Upon receiving tenure in 1967, Hazeltine said he found more freedom to explore outside Brown’s walls. He taught engineering at the University of Zambia for a year. He returned a few years later, then taught in Malawi off and on for the next decade to avoid political problems in Zambia. He then moved on to Botswana, though he tried to avoid spending more than a year at a time away from Brown. “My worry always was that if I was away from Brown for more than a year, people would sort of forget who I was,” he said.
In his work in Africa, Hazeltine helped the newly independent countries transition their educational institutions from colonial-era trade schools to universities, simultaneously watching the political forces within those countries transform themselves, he said.
While teaching at Brown, Hazeltine worked on instituting an entrepreneurship program, which kept him tethered to the University throughout his travels. His job at Raytheon entailed managing research and development, such as forecasting important upcoming technologies, which inspired him to start teaching management at Brown.
Hazeltine called his efforts “an uphill battle” at a liberal arts university that questions the place of practicality in its curriculum. Management first started as an independent study of three or four students and then developed into a group independent study course before evolving into the popular course ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations” in 1974.
The interest certainly existed among students, and Hazeltine had enough contacts among alums to come back and speak, but “it was hard getting people in University Hall to put much support in it,” he said, adding that no administrators wanted to back a business-like course. “Obviously it wasn’t that bad because the whole thing survived,” Hazeltine said.
Hazeltine said he integrates real-world problems into his course, stressing, “it’s not just an abstract game that we’re playing. This really is involved with what’s happening out there, and if you’re going to be a good citizen, you should understand what’s happening.”
He added that working with actual problems is good for students’ self-esteem. He lauded the Swearer Center for Public Service’s efforts to offer social entrepreneurship opportunities to students, but said that at Brown, students often must seek out opportunities to do hands-on work with real-world problems.
Lessons from the other side
For these professors, the draw of professorship is building relationships with students founded on learning. Parks said he finds academia allows him “to be more engaged with things that I was interested in and be able to engage other people on a high, intellectual level” — fellow academics and students alike. Wyss said he enjoys being able to impart to students what he has learned over a lifetime of working in a variety of positions. He knows first-hand what problems exist in the world, he said, adding that he wants to equip students with the knowledge to solve them.
“Our country is going to be in bad shape if the educated people are disdainful of what happens in the real world,” he said. “We need to have a cadre of people who are focused on doing things rather than talking about it.”
Parks and Wyss stressed that people’s interests will always evolve, even within their given fields. Even when Parks settled on history, he shifted from graduate research on HIV/AIDS as a case of the intersection of bioethics and law to research on the Jewish community in North Africa.
“I think that the world is different now,” Parks said. Students will have a handful of jobs in their lifetimes and can attain those positions in any number of ways, he said.
Even for professors, having a variety of experiences is important.
Hazeltine lamented that Brown is different from other schools in that engineering professors do not do as much entrepreneurial work on the side. The upside, though, is that professors are allowed to explore different routes, he said.
“I’m sure a school with more money and therefore more administrative structures wouldn’t have let me do the kind of things that I’ve done,” he said, calling the situation one of “benign neglect.”