Those Who Teach
Dr. Phyllis Baker’s classroom, on the second floor of Building 3 at Wolfson Campus, is dimly lit. New Age music streams from a boom box, random images of prayer meetings, communal gatherings and nature flash on a television screen. The desk at the front of the room, covered with a white table cloth, is laden with peach roses, a basket of peacock feathers and books.
This is an afternoon session of Baker’s Sociology class. It is also the first in the faculty lecture series, and Baker is preparing to engage in a conversation about dreams.
As she lectures, Baker (photograph to the right) merges the intellectual with the emotional, the spiritual with the comical, modern technology with old tools of the teaching trade.
On a pull down screen is her PowerPoint presentation. On the chalk board, she’s written notes in yellow and blue.
On one board: Freud. Casey. Jung.
On another: We are citizens of two worlds.
Wearing an emerald dress and gold earrings, her long locks bundled on her head, she speaks and moves in fluid motion. “Carl Jung was a special individual,” she says. “He’s legendary, inescapable.”
Baker’s lecture covers psychology, sociology and cultural anthropology. She speaks of the importance of dreams in almost every cultural and religious tradition in the world. There are 217 references to dreams in the Talmud, the Jewish holy book. Queen Maya learned she was to give birth to a holy son, Buddha, when a white elephant came to her in a dream. Mary and Joseph were told of Jesus’ birth in dreams, she says.
“Rousseau’s painting, The Dream, is the most spectacular piece of art that you will ever witness,” she says.
She offers a contemporary reference: “Tupac talks a lot about dreams. He said once that he dreamed of people standing over him as he lay in a casket.” The rapper Tupac Shakur was killed in a 1996 shooting.
Baker is the author of African-American Spirituality, Thought & Culture. She will soon publish The Dream’s Journey, and says she finds the topic “absolutely fascinating.”
As an afternoon in Baker’s class illustrates, college professors teach, but they also do much more. At Miami Dade College, faculty members are involved in a broad spectrum of academic and professional activities. Their achievements include major publications as well as national and international awards. Creativity is a mainstay for MDC’s diverse faculty, whether in course development or in out-of-school ventures.
When the session ends, a visitor asks Baker to describe her method. A smile creases over her face, and she says, “I teach in 3-D. Some people connect to the music. Others connect to the images flashing on the television or on the PowerPoint. The idea isn’t just to pick up information, but to experience it.”
Ask any college professor and they’ll tell you their profession is centuries old, and its purpose is to set the very foundation of the societies we inhabit. Their earliest predecessors, the Greek philosophers, were important because they taught their students much more than marketable skills – they taught them to consider purpose on a grander scale than the immediate and tangible. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were not just great thinkers, but also teachers. And their pupils altered history.
Take, for example, the Macedonian Prince Alexander II, tutored in his youth by Aristotle. He succeeded his father as Greek monarch and became Alexander the Great, one of the most successful military commanders in history.
The earliest universities in the U.S. were devoted to philosophy and religion. In time, schools like Yale and Harvard became academic bastions for the sons and, with the opening of Mount Holyoke, daughters of America’s moneyed elite.
Junior colleges came into existence at the turn of the 19th century (but they were established at an explosive pace in the 1960s) with a mission quite different from their predecessors in academia – to provide a way to upward mobility for adults.
Dade County Junior College was constructed in South Florida at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and during a demographic shift that came with the first wave of exiles from Cuba and later Haiti. Like other schools around the country, its mission included three primary components: academic preparation for transfer to four-year institutions, general education and noncredit community outreach.
The first class included housewives, veterans, working men and women, and young people who could not afford to go away for school. Seven black students enrolled, making Dade County Junior College the first junior college in the state to be integrated.
Despite the social realities of the time, a spirit of camaraderie developed among black and white faculty members at the College, recalled Leon Robinson, a College professor at the time.
“I remember going to a regional education meeting that was being held at a country club,” said Robinson during an interview for a College history titled Under Construction: Twenty-Five Years of Miami-Dade County Community College (1960-1985). “I was the only black person. When lunch time came, everyone filed in to eat, but when I got to the door, the club would not let me in. Several others said that if I couldn’t go in, neither would they, and we all went back to town to eat.”
Beyond collegiality was a shared love of teaching. While the small junior college grew exponentially in its nearly 50-year history, becoming the nation’s largest undergraduate institution of higher education, its dedication to academic excellence was never diluted.
“Community colleges are a perfect place to work if what you want to do is work with students,” said Dr. Lois Willoughby, professor emeritus of social sciences who arrived at MDC’s Kendall Campus (then South Campus) 40 years ago.
The campus Willoughby encountered in 1967 was two newly constructed buildings, the smell of fresh paint still present in the air.
“The campus wasn’t even finished, really,” she recalled. “There was little landscaping, and in the morning you could hear the noises of the Everglades. There was nothing past the railroad tracks, just tomato fields, woodsy areas. You felt like you were in the middle of nowhere.”
Though the new campus was physically isolated, its faculty members were committed to the community and dedicated to their core teaching mission.
In addition to general education courses, the College began offering English as a Second Language and foreign language classes in greater numbers. Vocational training also became a part of the institution’s cadre of programming, as were service learning initiatives. “Miami Dade College has always been a very innovative place to work, willing to try new things and committed to making them successful,” Willoughby said.
MDC’s faculty members are renowned artists, musicians, historians, scientists, sociologists, athletes, published authors and social theorists. While each year the College recognizes outstanding faculty through endowed teaching chairs and special grants, faculty members are also distinguished off campus.
Take, for example, English professor Ricardo Pau-Llosa of Kendall Campus. His colleagues describe his literary, artistic and otherwise creative output as “nothing less than exceptional.”
Pau-Llosa has published six books of poetry as well as numerous poems, stories and essays in varied anthologies (including the Carnegie Mellon Anthology of Poetry and the Norton New Worlds of Literature) and literary magazines, including American Literary Review, Heliotrope, Art International, Drawing and New Orleans Review. Serving as co-advisor to the student literary magazine Miambiance, Pau-Llosa provides creative and artistic insights to the students.
At Medical Center Campus, midwifery professor Diann Gregory has always felt her responsibility was greater than just training professionals for careers. She’s been a consummate mentor to students and new faculty members. With two Learning Innovations grants, Gregory developed an online program that allows students to manage their own clinical practices in midwifery. Additionally, she received a $200,000 grant from the Ounce of Prevention of Florida to train community doulas, women who provide advice, information, emotional support and physical comfort to expectant mothers.
Business professor Barbra Rosenthal, a 32-year teaching veteran now at Kendall Campus, strives to continually provide valuable assistants to both students and faculty members alike. To benefit her students, Rosenthal spearheaded numerous service-learning projects – including a project in which her students created marketing campaigns for Habitat for Humanity and directed a Clio Award-winning public service campaign. For her colleagues, she served as a founding member of the Learning Innovations Leadership Team, an initiative that resulted in 53 grants to 133 faculty members worth $355,000.
Dr. Ian Cobham, a math professor at Homestead Campus, has contributed in the classroom as well as out, while serving on various committees, such as the College Academic and Student Support Council. “Teaching at Miami Dade College … I have had the opportunity to be a part of a college that is committed to serving the community,” said Cobham, who has received multiple Endowed Teaching Chair awards.
Dr. Leroy Lashley of Kendall Campus has also committed himself to the teaching and learning process beyond the classroom. Lashley, a member of the NAACP, has served as a judge for the annual Theodore Gibson Oratorical Project and the Miami-Dade County Library’s African-American Essay Contest. He also publishes Calypso and other Caribbean music, is a member of the Arts & Letters Day Committee and past member of the Endowed Teaching Chair Committee.
And Maria Helena Thevenot, an adjunct professor in the New World School of the Arts’ theater department, was awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant in 2006 to lecture and research at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo in Brazil. Thevenot’s research investigates emerging relationships between performance and technology in the 21st century.
With colleagues like this, it’s little wonder why long-time faculty members like North Campus’ Anthony Simone remain at Miami Dade College until they retire from academia.
Anthony Simone’s voice – forever saturated with the New England flavor of his upbringing – booms. It soars across rooms, commands respect, just as it did when he was a baseball coach at North Campus.
Simone (photograph to the right) spent decades in that northwest Miami-Dade County dugout doling advice to future major and minor league ballplayers. Serving as an assistant coach to his mentor, Dr. Demie Mainieri, he gained a new love for the game that had put him through college.
It has the power to change lives, he learned. It has the power to mold men out of boys who were fresh out of high school, give them direction and discipline while they were pursuing their education.
On a recent afternoon, Simone, wearing a red polo shirt and black slacks, greets a visitor to his office. The space is crammed with books, boxes, old calendars and photos. He picks a white binder off a shelf and begins leafing through the pages. The pictures, press releases and memoranda that he’s saved tell an interesting story about his career. More importantly, says Simone, a professor of health and wellness for four decades, they offer newcomers a snapshot of why Miami Dade College remains one of the nation’s top educational institutions.
It isn’t simply that MDC was one of the first institutions of higher education to open its doors to all, regardless of race; or that MDC quickly realized the value of training men and women to enter critical workforce sectors; or that, even in its earliest years, MDC was setting a standard for undergraduate education that is mirrored throughout the nation.
Instead, the College’s defining factor has been and always remains the dedication that its teaching faculty has shown to the students who choose to study here.
Simone left his home in Massachusetts to coach baseball, but he says his greatest impact has been felt in the classroom. “I used to tell my players,” he recalls, “that no matter how well you play, you always have to have an education. It’s the foundation.”
Simone became the head baseball coach at North Campus in 1991. His last season as head coach was 1997. In that year, the college’s athletics programs were combined into a single intercollegiate program to represent the entire MDC system. Some time later, the baseball team’s home field was moved to Kendall Campus. Simone remained at North Campus as a professor of fitness and wellness.
“Whenever students ask me, I tell them dollar for dollar, you can’t beat this place,” he said. “Some student athletes get so caught up when they go to colleges that don’t put academics first. And many of them are surprised that they don’t even deal with professors their first two years – they deal with teacher’s assistants. But at MDC, we’ve always put the student first. We work to make sure they’re successful when they graduate.”
Lois Willoughby’s office is a modest-sized cubicle on the second floor of Building 6 on Kendall Campus. The course schedule for her last full semester before retirement is clearly posted on her door: three courses every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning. She keeps office hours throughout the week. And between teaching courses and meeting with students, Willoughby (photograph to the right), has been intimately involved with one of the College’s most far-reaching academic initiatives.
College faculty members were at the center of the creation of MDC’s 10 Learning Outcomes, a list of skills and attitudes that students will have to learn and adopt by the time they earn their associate and bachelor’s degrees. The outcomes are the head of a trend in higher education, as are the assessment tools that MDC faculty members adapted to measure success.
“This is an exciting time to be at MDC,” Willoughby said. “We talk a lot about what we teach our students – that is, to be productive and responsible. We want everything for our students. We teach them all we can about our subjects, but we don’t often teach the life application of those courses. Years later, students often come back and say, ‘Now I understand why I had to take those courses.’ This is our attempt to tell them now why they need to know the things we’re teaching them.”
During a two-year period, MDC took on the issue by involving the entire community – including faculty members, business and industry leaders, and education experts. The College also gauged student expectations with focus groups, conducted to better understand college learning goals from students’ perspectives.
Those focus groups were an early part of implementing the Learning Outcomes throughout the College. They gave college leaders and the regional accrediting body – Southern Association of Colleges and Schools – an idea of where MDC stands and revealed opportunities to better serve students in all areas, including instruction and assessment. At the start of the fall term, faculty members gathered for a daylong meeting on Learning Outcomes. They discussed the purpose and merits, and viewed presentations from their peers on how to integrate the Learning Outcomes into the classroom.
“It’s part of education’s grander purpose,” Willoughby said. “At the beginning of the semester, I told my students, ‘This is bigger than now. It’s bigger than us. It’s about what role you’ll play in the bigger picture.’”
There are more than 2,000 professors at MDC. More than half have been at the College for a decade or more, and 125 have been at the college in excess of 25 years. Anthony Simone and Lois Willoughby, teaching 41 and 40 years, respectively, were the most senior members at the start of the academic year.
“I got into teaching because I liked the learning process and I wanted to help students,” Willoughby said. “While I’ve done that, I have probably learned more myself about many, many things as a result of this experience.”
— Gariot P. Louima