Branching out of Academia:
How MPA Professors are Expanding Their Influence Outside the Classroom
She sits with stacks of research surrounding her, a cursor blinking on an empty computer screen, and a thousand thoughts suspended in her head. So she does what is most logical for her—she picks up her paintbrush.
"I find there is less emotional baggage when I sit down to research if I have taken a creative break to paint," says up-and-coming painter Eva Witesman. "When you take the opportunity to express lots of pieces of your humanity, it improves other aspects of your life."
Although Witesman is a highly regarded associate professor at the Romney Institute, her outside pursuits have not only provided an artistic outlet but have also begun to garner attention. The Springville Art Museum recently accepted one of her paintings in its religious art show—a first-time occurrence for Witesman.
But she is not the only professor to shine outside the classroom. Several MPA professors have also found that outside pursuits enrich their teaching experience.
Like Witesman, who began painting in grade school but whose participation gradually dwindled, Rex Facer began playing the violin at an early age but gave it up as a teenager. Gentle prodding from his wife and his daughter's growing interest in violin made Facer decide to reunite himself with his musical roots.
Facer has played in church and in school talent shows, and he plans more performances in the future. But for now, the main benefit to fiddling around with his four-string is relieving stress.
"It's a good break to take the instrument out and play it several times a week," he says. "It's been a nice, relaxing opportunity."
While Facer admits there are many better violinists, he says it is important to branch outside his area of expertise to inspire students to do likewise.
For associate professor and director David W. Hart, he will be the first one to tell you his running isn't about winning; it's about finishing the race–an especially long one.
Hart doesn't run in a common 10K or even a traditional 26-mile marathon, he is an ultramarathon runner. He has been competing in marathons, including 50K races (thirty-one miles), for the last eight years. This summer Hart's endurance will be tried as he runs a fifty-miler.
While many may wonder how running for hours at a time could be enjoyable, it's very cathartic for Hart. It clears his mind to run on beautiful paths through the mountains. Hitting the trails has helped Hart achieve equilibrium in his life and has even been a great place for brainstorming.
"I realized how important running was for my professional life while I was working on my dissertation," he says. "I would work on it all day and in the evening I would go for long runs. It helped eliminate all the day's ‘noise' in my head and was a surprising source of good ideas and inspiration."
While Hart is going the distance, colleague Don Adolphson is expanding his tennis swing. Adolphson, a former Cal-Berkeley tennis player, reminisces about the days he toured California playing against some of tennis' legends, including Wimbledon stars Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith. When he joined the LDS church while attending graduate school, however, Adolphson says tennis matches, which typically included Sunday play, took a back seat.
"I made a commitment that I would give up Sabbath-day tennis if the Lord helped me keep up my tennis skills throughout my life," says Adolphson, who claims he was born with only two talents: playing tennis and understanding math.
Adolphson kept his commitment and is still swinging strong. In 2004 he played in the St. George senior games. And every year as part of a charity auction, Adolphson auctions off private tennis lessons.
Some professors think the key to a balanced life is to mix business with pleasure, particularly when picking extracurricular pursuits. Professor Jeff Thompson became a member of the Pleasant Grove Patrons of the Arts advisory board after discovering the lack of adequate facilities for children's theater groups in Utah County. In this capacity, Thompson uses his skills as an organizational behavior professor to expedite progress on an independent arts center in the area.
"It's tough to balance everything," Thompson acknowledges, "but one reason I am able to do it is the group I'm working with is phenomenal and reliable."
Thompson, who is a self-proclaimed theater enthusiast, participated in theater during high school and is thrilled to witness his children following his path.
"I'm not really talented myself, but I love how theater can teach principles in a very immediate way; it can move and inspire you," he adds.
Whether inspiration is derived from acting, athletics, or visual aesthetics, the importance of sustaining outside interests is deeply ingrained in the Romney Institute faculty. But those interests are not just meant for the individuals themselves; they are meant to be shared.
"I think it's good for my kids to see me paint, because they see me in a different dimension," Witesman says. "We are all creators; we express ourselves in many ways."
Writer: Sara Elizabeth Payne and Sarah Tomoser