Retiring Physics Professor Reveals Meaning of Life (Kinda)

By Heather Cass, Publications Manager, Penn State Behrend

Jonathan Hall (5)
Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics at Penn State Behrend

Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics, began his career in a remote area of Borneo where the only “technology” he had access to was in the form of painted plywood chalk boards and a hand-cranked, mimeograph-like machine. He taught in a language he had learned just three months earlier.

This month, he will finish his career in education from home, where he has been teaching dozens of Penn State Behrend students remotely using online videoconferencing software and a host of other high-tech tools that would’ve been inconceivable at the start of his career three decades ago.

Yet, Hall, who has been teaching at Behrend for thirty-two years, says not much has changed.

“Though the technology available today for education is very different, the key ingredient for student success has not changed; the desire to learn is the most important part,” Hall said.

Sometimes that desire can be stamped out quickly in physics class, a subject many students find intimidating. Hall learned to build students’ confidence first.

“In my general education physics course, I found that if I started with a topic, such as color and light, that students enjoyed, their confidence in their ability to learn physics enabled them to achieve greater success in the course,” he said. “We still did the more challenging topics, but students did better when I would ease them into it later in the course.”

Over the course of his teaching career, Hall said he has learned as much as he has taught, and we couldn’t let him retire without collecting some of his wisdom on topics big and small.

What brought you to Behrend?  

A 1988 Mazda hatchback. And a job teaching at a college!

What types of classes have you taught over the years?  

Physics, Astronomy, Civic and Community Engagement.

Which classes have been your favorites and why?

Of course, I enjoyed teaching physics, but the advantage of teaching astronomy is that it’s not called what it actually is, which is “the physics of the universe.” Because it doesn’t include the word “physics,” students relax, and enjoy learning… physics!

What I enjoyed about Civic and Community Engagement is that it was team-taught with faculty from other disciplines, including communication, psychology, and sustainability. It was truly inter-disciplinary, which was great, and I learned a lot from my colleagues. With the service projects, students were able to put into practice what they learned in their majors.

What do you remember most about your first year of teaching?

I had been a high school teacher for five years before coming to Behrend. I enjoyed getting to know students in my classes from teaching them 180 school days, but when I started teaching college, I didn’t miss at all the “supervisory” duties of a high school teacher such as monitoring homerooms, study halls, etc. At the college level, I could focus on teaching students, not monitoring them. Also, though I wasn’t any smarter or more qualified than I had been before, the respect people (especially the parents of students) give college faculty compared to high school faculty was eye-opening.

What have you learned the hard way?

I started my career as a Peace Corps volunteer, and it truly was the toughest job I’ve ever loved. I had twenty-five class preps every week in a language that I had only started learning three months before. Speaking a foreign language is not one of my strengths. During the first three months, I wondered if I had made a mistake; about a third of the volunteers in my training group quit during this time. But I toughed it out. Things got better, and I enjoyed my second year so much that I extended my assignment and served three years. In order to survive those early months, one thing I learned to do was to listen intently; to pay attention to and catch both the verbal and non-verbal cues; to listen to everything the person was saying, not just the words.  That skill has carried over to make me a better teacher and I hope more understanding of others. 

What would people be surprised to know about you?

How our children go out of their way to keep my wife, Katherine, and me informed of world and national events. Our daughter, Maria, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Madagascar when a coup overthrew the democratically elected government there. At the same time, our daughter, Liz, who is a Marine, was in Iraq.  Liz has also been deployed to Afghanistan (twice), South Korea, Chad, Australia, and Germany, and is presently at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Our son, David, lives in Portland and kept us up to date on the fires and protests in Oregon. Someday, we hope to be less well-informed.

What have you enjoyed most in your career?

I have always enjoyed teaching young people and helping them to achieve their potential, and that has not changed during my career.

Do you have a different perspective on the profession now?

When people ask me what I teach, I tell them I teach young people, not a subject.  As teachers, we have the task of preparing our students for the future; content knowledge is often a  means by which we teach more important lessons about life.

What will you miss the most?

I have been fortunate in my life and career to work for organizations with a noble purpose, whether the Peace Corps, or Penn State University, whose mission as a land grant institution is teaching, research, and service. Working with everyone at Behrend who share in striving for the common good is what I will miss the most.

What’s the secret of life?

Since, in Malaysia, I was a “guru,” I’ll recommend as a starting point in your quest — the “Galaxy Song” from Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”  (Please note that I didn’t say I was a good guru…)

Any other parting wisdom for us?

In Asian culture, keeping harmonious relationships within the community is often the top priority.  In America, we emphasize individualism.  I think that in a healthy community, there is a balance of both; freedom of individual expression, along with concern for others.

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