Born-to-teach professor pushes students to laugh, think

Baltimore Sun

The portraits cast stern gazes over the hallway. These titans of philosophy - Hegel, Kant, Nietzsche - look every bit as complex and daunting as the works they produced.

Jim Thomas shuffles into view. Clad in red Converse All-Stars, worn jeans and an unbuttoned, untucked flannel shirt, he appears no match for the guys on the wall. The words spill out of his mouth in an Arkansas drawl that just might be his secret weapon.

"Some people may think I'm stupid," says the University of Maryland, Baltimore County philosophy professor. "Which is fine because I don't want expectations to be too high."

Self-deprecation is another of the tricks that have made this self-described "screaming hick" the most popular instructor on UMBC's campus and one of the most popular in the country, according to the widely used Web site Rate My Professors.

Thomas has a gift for relating the ideas of those daunting dead guys to everyday experiences that resonate with millennials who communicate in texts and tweets. He comes at students with the comic energy of Robin Williams, the accent of Bill Clinton and the pop cultural acumen of a TMZ reporter.

A recent lesson on the nature of personal identity touched upon singer Rihanna, Road Runner cartoons and magical unicorns, with a macabre reference to agricultural accidents thrown in. Students laughed dozens of times during the 50-minute period and crinkled their faces in thought when Thomas posed some fundamental questions of existence: What makes your dog your dog? What makes your car your car? What makes you you?

"Not only is it that I enjoy coming to class," says Unum Siddique, a junior from Howard County who has taken three of his classes. "It's that he makes it so much easier to understand the material. I can say, 'Oh, that story relates back to what that philosopher said in the reading.' "

The buzz on Thomas is strong enough that his 100-level Introduction to Philosophy courses, generally meant for underclassmen, fill up with juniors and seniors. His page on Rate My Professors - a heavily trafficked site that allows students to anonymously rate instructors on a scale of 1 to 5 for helpfulness, clarity, and, yes, "easiness" - looks like an advertisement for a popular movie.

"Laughed so hard it hurt."

"If he taught all my classes, college would be a breeze and I'd be set for life."

"Amazing instructor, the best I've had yet at UMBC."

These are the raves that accompany his near-perfect scores, which made him the sixth-highest-rated university professor of 2009, according to the Web site.

Thomas, 40, isn't the sort of instructor colleges usually brag about. He never completed his doctorate and has little use for research. He is an adjunct working on semester-by-semester contracts who admits that his wife, a tenured member of the same department, is the reliable breadwinner. What he really seems to be is a born teacher, the kind who gets a jolt when he drives kids to think about why God would allow bad things to happen or why jokes are funny.

"I tell them upfront that I don't give a flying damn what they believe," he says. "I just want them to be able to tell me by the end of the semester why they believe what they believe."

He figures that if his students can talk intelligently about philosophy, they can talk about anything - law, business, politics -for the rest of their lives.

Thomas grew up in Arkansas and attended a governor's school for gifted students. As he neared graduation, he took a class that touched on philosophy, raising questions about the nature of reality and what, if anything, we actually know.

"It kind of blew me away," he says.

At the University of Arkansas, he read Descartes and Socrates, who really got his mind swimming. He just loved pondering big, unanswerable questions. Though he knew the odds of landing a tenured philosophy job were about the same as "trying to play in the major leagues," he was hooked.

Thomas got all the way through his doctoral work at the University of Maryland, College Park but never finished a dissertation. He has taught at UMBC for 12 years, and may be better known through the Internet than he is on campus.

"I don't know him," acknowledges Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the exuberant UMBC president who has built the school into an academic powerhouse with an orientation toward hard sciences.

"I've heard positive things about a couple of part-time professors," Hrabowski said. "What's really important is that students are learning and enjoying the learning process."

Thomas's wife, Jessica Pfeifer, says that professors like her husband, who focus more on teaching than research, get less respect than they deserve in academia.

"He is very, very good at what he does," says Pfeifer, another Arkansas native who met her husband of seven years at UMBC. "To get tenure, you have to be more focused on research."

Thomas remembers one early class he taught as a graduate student in which a student, confronted with one of life's big mysteries, blurted out, 'What is the [expletive] answer? Just tell me!"

"We almost had a riot," he says with a laugh. "I had to tell them look, we're not going to figure this out. But whatever you think it is, I'm pretty sure you're wrong."

He doesn't present himself as an authority. Instead, he calls himself a peer who knows more about how to think philosophically than the students. He prefers that students call him Jim.

As he walked across campus on a recent afternoon, former students greeted him with grins and casual hand signs. "I like your new glasses," one said. "They make you look smarter."

"That's the idea," Thomas said.

His attire and riffing style make him seem like the most comfortable guy in the world, but Thomas says he's actually quite shy, so much so that he vomits before the first meeting of each of his courses.

He worries that his lessons lapse into mere entertainment and that he's too soft a grader. A majority of his students receive As and most of the rest, Bs. "I'd like to think it's because I'm getting them to engage with the material and produce thoughtful work," he says.

Some students admit to taking his classes because they've heard they're easy, although the work includes tests and papers.

"I heard that he's really funny and not that hard," says Michelle McCoy, a senior from Columbia who signed up for Thomas' introductory class after seeing his Rate My Professors' scores.

But McCoy says she now regards Thomas as more than a charismatic pushover. "He engages students in the subject in ways that a lot of other professors don't," she says. "You have to think more, because he wants you to have your own opinions."

Siddique says that when she first encountered Thomas in his Philosophy of Humor class, "I thought, 'Are there really professors like this?' "

"He's just so relaxed, but he's still giving you information," she says.

Students certainly seem captivated by Thomas' discourses. Attendance isn't required, but the room was stuffed for his recent lesson on personal identity. The discussion didn't fall to a few eager overachievers. More than half the students in the room ventured an opinion at some point.

The very question of why they were there is the sort of thing that Thomas might confront. After all, none of the ideas will matter in 100,000 years.

"You're listening to some balding hick yell at you about stuff that doesn't matter when you could be outside flying a kite or playing HALO in your room or snuggling with your sweetie," he says. "It's insane. Why are you here?"

After a moment of contemplation, he says, "That's the stuff I love."

James 'Jim' Thomas Age: 40

Occupation: adjunct professor of philosophy, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Education: undergraduate and masters degree from University of Arkansas; masters degree University of Washington; doctoral studies at University of Maryland College Park

Personal: married to UMBC philosophy professor Jessica Pfeifer; 2-year-old daughter

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