Letter Home for Parents
Michael Bybee: On Making Connections
What do Einstein’s theories and the hollandaise sauce have in common? At the very least, they represent challenges over which Mike Bybee’s mind ranges--the former inspiring a half year-long, hair-tearing email discussion with colleagues at St. John’s College and the latter a subject of persistent experimentation in Bybee’s kitchen.
Throughout his academic career Bybee has been less looking for answers and more exploring questions, as one pause in the ongoing dialogue between question and answer leads to yet another question to be raised, insight to consider, perspective to appreciate. This makes Bybee the sort of individual a St. John’s search committee might wish to interview, but it took him a number of years, despite repeated encouragements, to get to this stage.
But, this is getting ahead of the story.
Born in Idaho, Bybee earned bachelor degrees in philosophy and English from Idaho State University and then a master’s degree in English three years later. In the interim, he worked as an education therapist at a mental health center, working with homeless individuals and troubled adolescents and then decamped to the University of Hawaii, where he earned a master’s degree in early Buddhist philosophy (the Pāli Nikayas) and a doctorate in American pragmatism.
It was when he was a senior instructor in English at the University of Oregon in the early to mid-1990s that he first heard about St. John’s College, from a junior who was a transfer student. “He told me that I’d be perfect at St. John’s,” recalled Bybee, who at the time was unmoved. However, two other encounters echoed his young friend’s assessment.
When taking an intensive Greek class and struggling to master meaning and syntax, he met an attorney returning to the academic world who got her first exposure to Greek at St. John’s College. Later, over a luncheon discussion with his boss’s daughter on break from St. John’s College, the drumbeat of a new future became louder. Taking up the rhythm, Bybee called to make general inquiries, but through a perhaps serendipitous miscommunication, he was instructed to send “materials” and to expect a phone call.
When that call came from tutor Linda Wiener, a member of the Instruction Committee, an hour-long conversation concluded with an offer of assistance with airfare to travel to Santa Fe for an interview. “That was the first indication to me that I had started an application process!” Bybee said, re-enacting his amazement. “So I had to say, ‘Uh, well, okay, but you need to know that I’ve already signed a contract to be a visiting professor at San Diego State for next year.’ ‘Well,’ she laughed, ‘in that case I won’t pay half your fare.’ But we agreed to stay in touch.”
Telling this story to his colleagues at SDSU the following year, Bybee was encouraged to re-apply; consequently, he flew out for an interview mid-year. Sitting in on tutor Jim Forkin’s junior laboratory class, he was awestruck; in Steve Houser’s freshman seminar on Thucydides, he was deeply impressed by the hard work going on; and in the Book Store, he was ecstatic. “These were real books,” he recalled with delight. “No textbooks or secondary sources. I had to buy another suitcase to get the books I purchased home.”
A highly energetic interview ensued, with a lively exchange of views, and then Bybee faced the higher hurdle: convincing his wife that she and their three children should abandon seaside San Diego for the high and dry desert of Santa Fe. “My background was English, philosophy, literature, and Asian studies, and I would be able to do all that at St. John’s College,” he remembered thinking. By way of demonstrating to his wife the significance of this possible move, he pointed to a single bookshelf: “Now, I teach this, but if I go to St. John’s, I’ll be teaching all these bookcases,” he recalled, bringing his arms out to suggest the expanse of his library.
“If it hadn’t been for [now former tutor] Jim Forkin and Steve Houser,” Bybee reflected, “I’d be ‘teaching’ rhetoric somewhere else to this day—no freshman lab, no Chinese, no junior lab, no Einstein. The thought is just horrifying! I owe them a lot.”
At St. John’s, Bybee has the pleasure of constant, intense intellectual stimulation, whether in the laboratories while students are making connections—“revelatory,” he said—or in getting to read Chaucer or in his community seminars, exploring topics of special interest on Shakespeare’s problem plays, women’s literature, Anglo-American philosophy, and the like. He recently led a preceptorial on Charles S. Peirce, on whose work he wrote his dissertation, and at present he attends a faculty study group on American pragmatism conducted by Steve van Luchene.
With Chinese, he is seeing the near completion of a 10-year effort to put together a manual, based on the mechanisms of language acquisition, which can be used by St. John’s students who are tackling original texts for the first time. For Bybee this has been an iterative process as he has learned the language himself through persistence and with assistance of co-collaborators, including Kay Duffy (SF04, GIEC05), who has been “rewarded” (his words) by getting a full ride as a doctoral candidate at Princeton, where is she studying literary Chinese culture.
Austin Volz (SF09), now a graduate student at Harvard, Alistair Hake (GIEC08), and Joyce Spray (GILA76, GIEC08) also made monumental contributions to the Chinese materials, according to Bybee. “These materials wouldn’t be where they are today if Jennifer Sprague in the Meem Library had not asked me to use them to teach her librarians literary Chinese pursuant to acquiring so many books in Chinese for the Eastern Classics program.” It also turns out that tutor Eric Poppele is auditing Bybee’s literary Chinese class and took it upon himself to compile a computer dictionary of all the characters in the manual. And Graduate Institute admissions director Susan Olmstead is proofreading the materials by using them in her own weekly Chinese study group.
Putting together manuals turns out to something of a passion. Bybee has bound his months-long, on-line discussion about Einstein, and he also has to his credit the “Bybee Calculus Manual,” which helps both him and his students work through the problems they seek to understand in this part of the curriculum. He also recently completed an atomic theory enchiridion, or handbook, for new faculty and lab assistants. Questioned recently by a student--“Do you write a manual for EVERY course you teach?”—Bybee admitted that it does seem like it. He added that he is inspired by two tutors, also manual fiends – current tutor Grant Franks and the legendary Ralph Swentzell, who retired in 2003 after thirty-seven years on the faculty and passed away in 2005.
But, above all, the interaction with inquiring minds is what keeps Bybee smiling and just a bit provocative. His most recent endeavor is a weekend seminar in April on “War and Strategy,” co-led with former graduate student and retired Army Colonel Tim Whalen. “War is too important to be left to the generals or to the politicians, particularly when it consumes so many lives and so much national treasure and yet so rarely achieves its aims,” he explained. “When Tim suggested looking at strategy by reading Sunzi and Clausewitz together, I realized I had the opportunity to read the great minds on military strategy ‘from the inside’ and learn intensively about something so crucial to human life and current affairs.”
Whether with students who are reading critically or older community members who bring different perspectives to a seminar, Bybee finds fulfillment. And back at home, in his kitchen (“the world’s first laboratory), he and his wife flip through Science Experiments You Can Eat. Hollandaise and Boeuf bourguignon, among many other recipes, have excited their curiosity. Although when it’s time to make dinner, Bybee claimed that his wife just doesn’t trust his culinary choices. “She does the marinade and I do the grilling for Korean BBQ. She gets the credit; I get the smoke,” Bybee quipped.
“My whole life was about being a St. John’s tutor, I just didn’t know it,” he concluded.