Smith Receives Perry Fellow Award

Smith.jpgDr. Travis Smith is still learning. And that’s exactly what he loves about his job.

As Central Methodist University’s 2021 recipient of the Carolyn and Tad Perry Fellowship Award, it might be reasonable to assume that Smith would consider himself an expert in his field and at teaching. But the philosophy professor freely admits that his continued learning process is part of what makes him successful at Central.

“I never thought I’d be a teacher when I was younger because I’m pretty terrified of public speaking,” Smith said. “But once I got into the classroom and had more experience, I got more comfortable and just sort of fell in love with getting to continue my own education and getting to continue to read some of the most influential books in human history.”

Smith says he grew up thinking he’d follow in his dad’s footsteps and become a small animal veterinarian and later considered going to medical school to be a doctor. During his undergraduate studies, however, he latched onto history and philosophy and ended up double-majoring in the two subjects. He left his home state of Oklahoma to pursue a master’s degree in Western philosophy and later a PhD at Southern Illinois University, and it was during this time that he found his true passion within his area of study.

“We had a new professor arrive who was originally from China, and he started teaching courses in Chinese philosophy. I took my first course and kind of fell in love with that,” he said. “I decided I wanted to write a dissertation on Daoism. . . and I needed to be able to read the original text in the language. So I went to Taiwan and spent two years studying Chinese at an intensive language school.”

Smith soon realized that the most direct way to make use of his philosophy degrees would be to become a professor, and though he says he didn’t receive much proper training in how to teach, his record of student satisfaction at Central speaks to how well he has adapted.

“I think it’s just a learning process, you know. I’ve made mistakes and every year I try to do better,” Smith humbly admits. “My teaching philosophy is that I try to be transparent and straightforward with the students. I let them know very clearly what I expect them to learn.”

Being transparent and open with the students in his classes is important to Smith in part because of the difficulty of the subject, and because not all his students are philosophy majors who are inclined to be interested in the material. The professor says he has used a number of different methods and media to try to get students more engaged, from videos to podcasts to games.

Watching those students make connections to the material is one of the most integral and rewarding parts of his job, he says.

“If they can understand the concept, that’s the first step. And then I do hope it challenges them a little bit and that they can reflect on this, and then maybe it’ll impact their own worldview, their own thoughts on life,” said Smith. “It can help them grow and develop their own intellectual curiosity.

“It’s not just learning facts. This can be relevant to their own life.”

Some of Smith’s students have indeed taken the lessons learned in his class to heart in their own lives, from starting the university’s Philosophy Club, to attending a United Methodist workshop on climate change, to moving on to law school after graduation from CMU.

“It’s exciting for me, being a smaller school and a school that focuses on teaching and less emphasis on research and publication,” he said. “The emphasis is on engagement with students and on teaching.”

His engagement with those students and others who just stop by his office to chat is just one of the aspects of working at Central that Smith appreciates, along with the ability to teach a range of different philosophies and religions apart from the Western traditions usually emphasized at American schools.

And, as most Central professors would attest, the sense of camaraderie and collaboration among the faculty is another key attribute of the job.

“My colleagues here at CMU are some of my best friends,” Smith said. “They are constantly joking around with me but also talking about how we can make our classes better.”

One specific instance of collaboration that Smith noted was his work with Dr. Kevin Carnahan, professor of philosophy and religion, in designing the new comparative religion and philosophy major. After months of hard work, they were able to create a unique course of study for Central’s students.

“I think we put together something we’re pretty happy with and proud of,” said Smith. “I think it’s doing something that needs to be done, by offering students an opportunity to study religious and philosophical traditions, not just from the West, but to recognize the value of Eastern traditions coming out of India and China.”

But even with all his effort, collaboration, and success, Smith says that he was “kind of shocked” to receive the Perry Fellowship for 2021.

“I was extremely humbled and very touched by that award,” he said. “[It’s] very much an honor to receive and to be recognized.”

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