Section: Features

Before Class: The nine lives of Kenyon professors

Before Class: The nine lives of Kenyon professors

David Suggs works in his hut in Botswana.

by Emma Welsh-Huggins

Many of the professors featured in this series have led extraordinarily adventurous lives, filled with travel, danger and excitement. But sometimes, seemingly mundane jobs can also lead to a great sense of enlightenment.
After graduating from Rutgers University with a degree in literature, Professor of Biology Drew Kerkhoff moved to New Mexico with his girlfriend and now wife. While she worked as a teacher on the Kewa Pueblo (an Indian community between Santa Fe and Albuquerque), he took up carpentry, and for five years immersed himself in the hard manual labor and artistry of designing and constructing furniture. Throughout that time, he began to think about where he wanted his next step in life to take him. The job, Kerkhoff said, “was very influential in terms of moving me back into school for a variety of reasons, some of which are very practical: when you’re learning how to make handmade custom furniture, it’s a very interesting, very fulfilling job — but it’s hard to make a living.”
Fueled by a love of the outdoors, Kerkhoff ended up going to University of New Mexico for a PhD on trees in semi-arid woodlands in the Southwest. He then conducted research and fieldwork in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Costa Rica and Mexico. Kerkhoff has continued his work here in Ohio, and is currently working with other faculty members on studying aspects of the tobacco hornworm, among other projects.
After such a wide-ranging career, Kerkhoff shared an oft-repeated perspective of professors at Kenyon: “You don’t have to know in April of your senior year what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.”
Although most Kenyon professors have indeed begun their careers without knowing what they would pursue in the future, this certainly wasn’t true for Professor of Anthropology David Suggs. He started graduate school with the intention of studying religion amongst foragers in Africa. However, as he realized the limited research possibilities for such a narrow field, he shifted his focus. Suggs did not stray from Africa, but instead wrote grants seeking opportunities to study “women’s life course[s] and the cultural factors involved in interpreting the way they understand aging” — a topic rich with field research areas in rural Africa. In 1984, he and his wife set off for Mochudi, a large village in Botswana.
“At that time, Botswana’s airport was a single red brick building with a pot-holed runway … and we flew into there from South Africa in literally an old 1940s German Fokker, [which is a type of propeller plane],” Suggs said, laughing heartily as he remembered his traveling escapades.
Once they had finally landed, Suggs and his wife had another unorthodox introduction to the country. They had unknowingly arrived in the midst of a meeting of the Southern African Development Coordination Conference, which was, as he explained, “a group of the front line states opposed to Apartheid and finding ways to support its dissolution.” The hotel they were staying was host to many influential and powerful African politicians of the time. Along with being pinned to the wall twice at gunpoint by various bodyguards for security measures, he recalled celebrity sightings.
“I remember seeing two people who were very much my heroes in that region, together side-by-side, walking down this hallway — it was Robert Mugabe and Samora Machel,” Suggs said, naming the presidents of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, respectively.
After his run-in with the two African presidents, Suggs and his wife were finally able to settle into their research among the Mochudi people. But it wasn’t all work: he recounted the days they spent camping with nothing but a tent between them and the outstretched land and sky.
“That’s what I remember best in my early days,” Suggs said. “Those moments away from research.”
One of the most life-changing perspectives they gained was a different view of family.
“[You and] I live in these little tiny nuclear groups and we see relatives kind of when we want to,” Suggs said. “The Botswana live in large extended families and they see each other daily and they cooperate in everything.”
Both Suggs and his wife had been hesitant about starting a family before they travelled to Botswana, but reconsidered after spending time there.
“What family means in Botswana and how it impacted me,” Suggs said, led to a complete reorientation of their initial hesitation. The daughter Suggs and his wife would eventually have had a name given to her by a leader of the tribe even before she was born — “Keletso,” which translates to “a wish.”
Suggs has shared this influence with students for almost 30 years through honest and raw discussions about culture because of what he first learned in Botswana.
“[The experience] taught me to temper my individualism,” he recollected, a trait that he said has ironically prepared him to be a part of Kenyon’s faculty.
Individualism is an important aspect of a successful career, and it can sometimes be too easy to neglect a sense of passion for what makes an individual in lieu of a more concrete profession, which is how Professor of Dance Julie Brodie began her undergraduate career.
After being a dedicated dancer her entire life, Brodie tried to give up her passion to pursue an engineering degree. While enrolled at the University of Illinois, she soon realized how much she missed dancing and switched into Illinois’s renowned dance program. After graduating, she moved to Chicago to begin an unpaid apprenticeship with a modern dance company. Although she spent her nights waitressing to support her dance career, the income was not quite enough. She began working for a commercial dance company, which led to all sorts of unusual gigs.
“Every Friday night, we would dance at this Russian dinner theater sort of nightclub place where families would go,” she said. “[It was a] sort of Vegas-review kind of show.”
While in Chicago, she also began teaching dance. She taught at a small private studio in Hyde Park, along with residencies in inner-city schools. Her second great realization was how much she loved teaching dance, and so Brodie decided to return to school. She was given a teaching assistantship for a graduate dance program, where she specialized in kinesiology; during this time, she also discovered labanotation. Labanotation is, she explained, “how you write movement in symbols — like music scores for dance.” She currently teaches the subject here at Kenyon, and uses it to reconstruct historical dances.
But before Brodie made her way to Kenyon’s hill, she began working with Whirlwind Performance Company in Chicago. They worked with inner-city youth through residencies in schools every week and would reward dedicated students with extra time and performance opportunities on the weekends.
“[We’d] have kids from the South Side of Chicago working with kids from the West Side of Chicago … on Saturdays, [working together] with kids that out on the street they would have normally been at odds with.”
The most enduring impact that these experiences left her with is her ability to be aware of people’s backgrounds.
“Where people are coming [from], what they’re coming from, what their day has been — the arts can be a very powerful way of transcending that, but also it can kind of bring stuff up because you can put people in a vulnerable place,” Brodie said.
Kenyon’s incredible faculty serves as an everyday reminder of the importance of simplicity, self-awareness and individualism. Each faculty member has taken varied, surprising and winding paths to end up in Gambier, and we should count ourselves lucky — even throughout midterms and term papers — that they did.


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