Bucknell professors’ love of the liberal arts expresses itself in and out of the classroom.
By Brett Tomlinson '99 • Photography by Bill Cardoni
Friday night is gig night for Professor of Geology Carl Kirby. Most weeks, Kirby plays guitar for Lux Bridge, a trio that specializes in Celtic tunes and dabbles in old-time fiddle music and bluegrass. In late September, though, he mixed up the weekly repertoire, organizing a jazz trio with Associate Professor of Psychology Bill Flack on bass and local musician Joe DeCristopher ’70 and Kirby each playing guitar.
Kirby gives a brief introduction, announcing the group as Nine Degrees of Syncopation (a name made up 15 minutes prior), and with a quick 1-2-3-4, they’re off and running, picking and strumming through a selection of smooth jazz standards, including “One Note Samba” and Kirby’s bluesy rendition of “Pennies from Heaven.”
While the three musicians are old friends, they only play together once or twice a year. But they stay in sync, save for a few stumbles on transitions, smiling and nodding their way through a one-hour set. The dinnertime crowd at Puirseil’s Irish Pub is engaged and appreciative, and Kirby enjoys being more than just background. “I love playing live music,” he says. “If I’m playing for an audience, I’ll play for next to nothing.”
After the jazz trio packs its equipment away and clears out for the night, Kirby takes a few moments to relax and snag a sip of diet cola. Then he unpacks his pride and joy, a 1921 Gibson mandolin, and leads his next gig: the bar’s weekly Irish jam session.
In all, Kirby is part of four bands and two regular jam sessions. He’s also an annual visitor to the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention in southern Virginia. He plays swing, jazz, bluegrass, folk, Celtic and whatever else catches his interest. And while he’s happy to read music, he’s fond of playing by ear, leaning on the mere basics: “What key is it in, and what’s the first chord of the bridge?”
By day, Kirby is an aqueous environmental geochemist who studies the groundwater effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by oil and natural gas companies — an issue of great local interest in central Pennsylvania, which includes a wide stretch of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation. Music is a complete departure from Kirby’s academic work, but it has been an “essential” part of his life for more than two decades.
“The job keeps me pretty busy,” Kirby says. “Music is an outlet for me.”
While Kirby’s talents are remarkable, his devotion to an avocation is not uncommon on campus. Bucknell faculty members pursue an extraordinary range of passions away from their labs and classrooms.
Music may be the most popular hobby for professors, who play everything from the oboe to the washboard, enjoy styles that stretch from Beethoven to barbershop and turn up in some surprising performance venues — playing along with the Bucknell Pep Band, for instance.
Peter Groff, associate professor of philosophy, may be the faculty’s lone indie-punk drummer. He began playing guitar when he was 10 and joined his first band in the fifth grade, continuing on that path through college. Groff eventually put music on hold during graduate school but picked it up again when he started teaching and writing philosophy, hoping to find “something different, in terms of creativity and expression.”
His current band, Snakes Are Strong, prides itself on being something different. The band provides its own stage lights, projecting candy-colored scenes from 1970s Italian horror movies and the locally produced horror flick "The Feed" throughout the performance. The group plays original songs almost exclusively, and even its covers have an offbeat sensibility (the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” for example).
As seasoned musicians, Groff and his bandmates could choose the easy route and play sing-along favorites like “Brown-eyed Girl.” But Snakes Are Strong draws more satisfaction from taking creative risks and connecting with its punk roots.
“It’s kind of crude, and primitive and visceral,” Groff says. “And in some ways, the more crude and visceral, the better.”
While Groff and Kirby enjoy the rewards of performing on stage, Jeff Evans, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is devoted to a smaller audience on his farm about six miles northwest of campus.
Each time Evans strides into the barn and grabs an empty pail, the youngsters hear him coming and nudge forward, brushing shoulders as they eagerly wait for their next feeding. Evans obliges, serving the dairy heifers a powdery mixture of ground corn, oats, minerals and molasses. He spreads a fresh bale of protein-rich alfalfa hay, glances at the automated water supply and checks the pen, making sure each heifer looks healthy and happy.
Running a farm may sound like an “out-of-control hobby,” Evans admits, but a modest operation like his is not quite as time consuming as one might think. Feedings only take a few minutes, and in that time, Evans can glean a lot about a heifer. Are her ears up? Is she eating enthusiastically or standing back? It’s like a “parent’s intuition,” he says — when a child catches a cold, mom and dad are usually the first to notice.
While Evans sounds like a lifelong farmer, he had little experience when he and his wife purchased their 60-acre property in the late 1980s. He grew up in a rural community, but not on a farm, and while he’d done some farming chores, he had never been the person in charge.
The initial plan was to raise a horse or two and rent the majority of the farmland to neighbors. Gradually, Evans began cultivating more of the land on his own, for feed, and in the last dozen years, he’s run what he terms a “daycare center” for dairy heifers. He cares for about 20 female cattle, owned by a local Amish farmer, in the bovine equivalent of their teenage years. When they are old enough to produce offspring and milk, Evans returns the heifers to their owner.
Maintaining the machines that plant and harvest feed for the animals requires a fair amount of mechanical tinkering — a good fit for an engineer — and in Evans’ words, “You have to be amenable to hard work.” Making 1,000 bales of hay or shoveling 3,000 pounds of dried corn into a grinder is a serious workout.
But the farming life also has perks. The land has a certain scenic appeal, from the wide stretch of sloping corn and alfalfa fields behind Evans’ home to the roadside pasture dotted with the white and black heifers. With little traffic passing on the road nearby, the farm is invariably quiet, and the stars shine a little brighter at night. “It’s pretty sweet,” Evans says.
Closer to campus, another faculty member has proved that one needn’t live on a farm to pursue an agricultural hobby. For the last five years, Sue Ellen Henry, associate professor of education, has been raising chickens at her home, not far from the Christy Mathewson-Memorial Stadium.
Getting started required a bit of persuasion. A township ordinance stipulated that residents needed at least 10 acres to raise chickens, but Henry convinced local officials that by keeping the coop in a wooded area of her property and not housing roosters, she could effectively raise a half-dozen chickens without disturbing the neighbors.
Henry spent part of her childhood on a farm and was familiar with caring for animals. She also had been reading about the American food supply and the local-food movement. Raising chickens, she says, seemed like a “good way of marrying these interests.” The hobby had its own modest rewards — on average, each chicken lays an egg per day.
“In my mind,” Henry says, “this was a pretty good exchange.”
Following the advice of every chicken-raising book she read, Henry has given away many of those eggs to appreciative friends and neighbors. She enjoys the simplicity of raising chickens, and she also has found teachable moments for her children, who have gained a better understanding of where food comes from.
Raising dairy cattle or caring for chickens may help to slow down the rhythms of everyday life. Eric Kennedy’s hobby, on the other hand, speeds things up.
Kennedy, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, enjoys high-performance driving, revving the engine of his Mini Cooper S on racetracks and other closed courses where he can push the sporty car to its limits.
One of his favorite tracks is Virginia International Raceway, a twisting road course deep in rural southern Virginia, not far from the North Carolina border. He’s logged more than 100 miles in a single day, getting acquainted with each turn and straightaway. On the track, he says, “You really do feel like a racecar driver for about 20 minutes. It’s an incredible amount of fun. The Mini is an adult go-cart — except, of course, it’s your own car, so you want to drive it home at the end of the day.”
The Mini is never far from Kennedy, even at his office, where his wall clock emulates the gauges on the car’s dashboard. Every hour, on the hour, a red Mini pops out of the clock — cuckoo style — and revs its engine. When Kennedy and his wife, Carol McLaughlin Kennedy ’96, were married, they shuttled the bridal party from the church to the reception in a caravan of 14 multicolored Minis.
While high-performance driving can be great fun, there also is a serious side, Kennedy says. By understanding what your car can do — and cannot do — in extreme conditions, you can become a smarter, safer driver in everyday situations.
Groups of car enthusiasts are working to share those lessons with young drivers, who tend to have higher rates of accidents on the road, through a national program called “Tire Rack Street Survival.” Kennedy volunteered to lead the classroom part of a local session, held in Mechanicsburg, Pa., in April and October. He used his expertise in biomechanics to explain things like the forces involved in a car accident, the pressure that a seatbelt applies to the driver’s ribcage and the force exerted when an airbag deploys. The students then joined driving instructors for a hands-on, emergency car-control clinic, testing skills like steering their way out of a spin.
While Kennedy pursues a hobby to extend his teaching, other professors prefer hobbies that give them the chance to be a student again. Shara McCallum, associate professor of English and director of the Stadler Center for Poetry, was a dancer during junior high school and continued through high school. But when she decided to study poetry, she drifted away from dance.
Five years ago, McCallum was able to carve out time in her schedule for a modern dance class with Kelly Knox, assistant professor of dance. Keeping up with undergraduates proved to be “an incredible challenge and an exhilarating experience,” McCallum says, and it rekindled her love of expressive movement. Since then, she has continued her dance education in Professor Er-dong Hu’s ballet courses.
McCallum says that as a dancer, she’s “inwardly motivated” — she has little desire to perform in public. And while dance does not necessarily inspire McCallum’s poetry, it helps to provide a sense of balance in her life, which in turn helps her writing.
Taking dance classes has aided McCallum’s teaching, she says, by helping her to remember “how vulnerable you feel when you can’t do something.” At a university where most of the students in arts courses are not training to be professional artists, that can be a useful reminder.
Some of Bucknell’s faculty have hobbies that involve sharing uncommon knowledge or skills. Consider Lea Wittie, an associate professor of computer science who may be the only professor who’s made her own soap using fat and lye and almost certainly is the only one who knows how to cut and sew garments that replicate those worn by European women in the 12th century.
Wittie is a longstanding member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a living history organization with local groups, or shires, around the world. SCA combines fun social activities with a serious commitment to replicating the practices and lifestyles of the middle ages.
The era of castles and knights may seem far removed from computer science, but Wittie says that elements of historical recreation appeal to the same problem-solving sense that she and her academic colleagues enjoy.
Wittie has a particular interest in medieval garb. Her ongoing “quest” is to design and create an accurate bliaut, a flowing garment that features floor-length sleeves and a narrow waist. Examples appear in drawings from 12th century Bibles and medieval sculptures. Turning those images into a working template is not a simple task. Sculptors, Wittie notes, did not waste their energy or artistry by carving seams.
Through trial, error and conversations with other SCA needleworkers, Wittie has made progress toward her goal. “I think I’m getting closer and closer to the correct form,” she says.
Like Wittie, Assistant Professor of Art Joe Meiser has a hobby that draws on a hidden talent. Best known for his skills as a sculptor, Meiser also is a trained boxer.
He learned to box while pursuing a master of fine arts degree at Ohio University. Previously, he had trained in martial arts in his hometown of Cincinnati and competed in kickboxing competitions, so he was a relatively fast learner. By the time he left grad school, he had boxed in a few amateur tournaments, winning three bouts and losing three.
“It’s amazingly exhilarating to win, but it’s really no fun to lose,” he says, and winning requires “extreme dedication” that is just not practical for a college professor. So he decided to hang up the gloves five years ago.
Meiser has not left the sport entirely. At Bucknell, he leads a small group of graduate students and professors in boxing training, working on the basic technique during weekly sessions on campus. They take turns holding focus mitts while their friends throw various combinations of punches and work on footwork and defensive techniques.
Training as a boxer has benefits to both strength and cardiovascular fitness. Meiser says that it also helps him “cultivate mental focus” in a way that running on a treadmill or lifting weights does not. And he enjoys the collaborative environment of a boxing gym — even when it’s just a handful of friends working out.
Meiser sees distinct parallels between teaching boxers and teaching sculptors. In both cases, expertise starts by gaining proficiency in the fundamentals. For a boxer, that means moving with “control, efficiency, speed and power,” he says. For a sculptor, it involves producing work that is compelling, both visually and intellectually.
One of Meiser’s boxing students, Joseph Tranquillo, is among the faculty’s most wide-ranging hobbyists. Tranquillo, associate professor of biomedical and electrical engineering, studies brain activity in his day job and seeks out physical activities in his time away from his academic work.
In addition to boxing, Tranquillo has been an avid modern dancer since his college days and has performed several times in Bucknell productions. (He says that he’s developed a reputation on campus as “the engineer who dances.”) He also ran the Boston Marathon and remains a devoted distance runner, with a fondness for trail races.
Trail running helped Tranquillo learn about another outdoor hobby: adventure racing, or more specifically, “Tough Mudder” races. The extreme sport looks like an obstacle course for masochists. Competitors dash over slippery log bridges, climb cargo nets, wade through thigh-high mud and lug tires over their shoulders. It’s the sort of race in which just reaching the finish line seems like a monumental achievement.
Tranquillo has done more than just finish: He ran well enough in a regional competition to qualify for the series’ ultimate challenge, the 24-hour “Toughest Mudder.”
At some colleges, pursuing several hobbies might be misconstrued as a professional shortcoming. But at Bucknell, Tranquillo says, peers seem to understand that one can be serious about teaching and research while still enjoying the benefits of a well-rounded life. Students appreciate that professors are real people with real interests.
“Faculty at Bucknell don’t need to hide their hobbies,” Tranquillo says. “In fact, they’re celebrated.”
Brett Tomlinson ’99 is the digital editor at the Princeton Alumni Weekly.