Utah Tech University

Faculty Spotlight: John Wolfe

By Malia H Adamson

Dr. John Wolfe is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dixie State University and has been for the past 7 years. When it comes to the areas that he teaches, Dr. Wolfe likes to quote Johnny Cash, “I’ve been everywhere, man!” As the only philosopher on campus, Dr. Wolfe specializes in working in almost every area of philosophy, such as Bio-Ethics, Philosophy of Games and Sport, Philosophy of Literature, Aesthetics (the Discussion of Nature and Beauty), Ethics, and more. His favorites when it comes to researching include Ancient Greek Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, and American Pragmatism. When it comes to presenting, he’s presented on topics from Pedagogy all the way to Ethics in Batman. This array of subjects is something that has worked very well for Dr. Wolfe. He gets bored very quickly, and having such a wide variety of subjects allows him to move around and learn more when certain areas or topics get monotonous. As well as this, it gives him the opportunity to engage with many different disciplines, and by extension, he gets to meet and discuss with experts in many of these different disciplines.

Innovation in Teaching

A Whole New Subject

Dr. Wolfe’s class is very different from other classes in the case that the majority of students have never had a philosophy class before taking his at the university. There are a lot of terms and foundational work that needs to be laid before they can move on to higher subjects. So in terms of technique, many of the things that Dr. Wolfe does in his classroom are the things that have been done in classrooms for years. He teaches lectures, assigns papers, all the “boring” things. But “active” doesn’t necessarily equal “activity”. If students can are reading a complicated text, and if they are contemplating and applying it, Dr. Wolfe would argue that that is active learning. Thinking about complicated subjects is valuable, especially during a time when students are learning and finding their identity. If students don’t have time to think about it, they’ll be burning the candle at both ends. Just like Kongzi, Dr. Wolfe doesn’t invent anything, he simply points back to the foundations of experts of the past.

Making Ancient Texts Relevant

While much of his classroom technique follows a more traditional lecture style, the innovation of Dr. Wolfe’s classes comes in asking the question “How do we connect these texts to people’s daily lives?”. Dr. Wolfe finds that students are very interested in questions relating to justice and fairness, which directly relate to the teachings of philosophers. In his social ethics class, they discuss justice, which is a great subject to connect to students’ lives. While justice can seem like a simple term, once students begin to think about how their own personal biases and experiences begin to influence that definition, it becomes a much more complex subject. For example, how we view police officers is tied very much to our cultural assumptions. For Dr. Wolfe, his family tree a couple of generations back is filled with rum-runners and moonshiners, and so his family has always been extremely distrustful of officers. The magic of philosophy is that you can take these subjects, such as justice, and directly apply them to your own experiences and beliefs.

In many of Dr. Wolfe’s classes, he has an argument paper that students write over the semester. He gives students the freedom to explore any subject they want, as long as they can relate it to the subject matter being discussed. For example, Dr. Wolfe had a nursing major student, and they wanted to explore for their paper the significant dropoff of nursing students post-covid and how it relates to Aristotle’s notion of justice as fairness. The project was a great success, as the student tied the text to both their own experience and field, as well to current events. For another example, Dr. Wolfe has a student who wrote on the anime Death Note and asked whether the behavior of the “protagonist” Light is just when using Plato’s definition of justice. Both of these are perfect examples of how these ancient philosophical texts can still apply to current events and life.

Similarly, in the World Religions course, students approach the course through the lens of their own experiences and backgrounds. Dr. Wolfe had a student that talked to him at the beginning of the semester because they weren’t sure that they could participate in the class because of trauma tied to religious experiences. After some discussion together, Dr. Wolfe was able to work with them to find a way to participate. Instead of writing about religious practices, they wrote about architecture and its development in the religion through the texts that were studied in the class.

Bridge-Building In Teaching

All in all, Dr. Wolfe summarizes his teaching method as a competent bridge builder. In his words, “Here are these books, here are these questions, and I know they seem old and I know that you think that you can’t do it, but, let’s walk through these together”. He brings texts from the past to students’ attention. These texts might not be directly a part of their discipline but they are connected to it, and they can help contribute to students’ understanding of their field. While getting job training is important, alone it lacks the cultural experience, history, and morality that can help students to operate to the best of their ability in their field. Dr. Wolfe explains that if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that it’s important to discuss things with people you disagree with, and in doing so, we will be able to see other people as inherently human instead of “others” or “monsters”. Plato describes and uses the term “Battle Brother” (or Battle Partner, to be gender-neutral), which means in order for you to fully protect yourself, your shield will protect half of your body, and you have to trust your partner to cover the other half when you’re in battle formation. He wants students to be good local, global, national citizens, and he wants them to think about complex issues in careful ways to accomplish this. His field teaches students the ways to think about complicated problems in multiple ways and dimensions.

John Wolfe
(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What is your Favorite Class to Teach?

Dr. Wolfe’s favorite subject is Social Ethics, which is taught in Philosophy 1120. It’s a beginning class that introduces a wide variety of students (non-traditional students, high school students, etc) to the subject of philosophy. A lot of students come into the class thinking that it won’t benefit them. However, throughout the class, Dr. Wolfe can show them that no matter who you are, philosophy can apply to you and help you. Exploring a complicated question, over a long period of time, in a thorough way, is something that Dr. Wolfe enjoys, and it is the very essence of the class. As well as this, by the time students finish the class, they have read a lot of important ancient works. All in all, the class gives students a place to think about their own assumptions on the way to progressing in their profession.

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

Get to Know Me Better

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

Are you from Southern Utah originally or did you move from another location when you came to DSU?

Before his current position, Dr. Wolfe had never heard of St George. He grew up in a small town called Warrensburg, Missouri, famous for originating the phrase “Man’s best friend”, which originated from a famous court case in the area. He attended school at Truman St. University, which had a town population of 15,000 people. After that, he went to central Texas for graduate school, and prior to DSU, taught for five years at a school called Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Dr. Wolfe chose and continues to stay at DSU for two main reasons: the university has space to build, and is focused on student-centered teaching. Being the only philosopher, he’s had the chance to create classes. For example, before Dr. Wolfe arrived at DSU, World Religions was a class that fit all religions in the world’s history into a one-semester course. Dr. Wolfe helped to re-create the class into a rotating topics course that covers a different country’s traditions each semester, in a much deeper and more ethical way than they had been covered in the past.

When it comes to having a student-centered university, DSU has been a much better experience than any of the universities Dr. Wolfe had worked with in the past. At his previous institution, tuition was the same cost one semester that it was for an entire degree at DSU, so many of the students were financially privileged to the point that they weren’t willing to work or learn, and had only attended because of their parents’ desire for them to go. Comparing the two, Dr. Wolfe enjoys DSU students more. He loves the students here because students at this university want to be here, and want to learn. It’s an open-enrollment institution that is affordable, many of the students are non-traditional, and from out-of-state. While students may not come to this university with a wealth of knowledge, they come with a passion for learning, and that, in Dr. Wolfe’s opinion, is much more valuable.

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What is your favorite teaching experience?

Dr. Wolfe had the opportunity to teach a student that graduated from DSU last year and is currently going to grad school. He taught them their first year at DSU, and they stood out as a student because although their writing wasn’t stellar, he could tell they were a diamond in the rough. They were open to be bold and to try new things, and they didn’t let their ignorance (lack of knowledge) get in the way. During that student’s first year, Dr. Wolfe hosted a philosophy symposium. The student participated, and wrote about himself and his desire to improve his life. It was amazing to Dr. Wolfe because, while the paper was flawed, there was such a flash of brilliance and earnestness in the way that the student articulated it and in the way he was connecting it to other ideas. Dr. Wolfe compared it to looking at a seed just coming out of the dirt and realizing the potential of what could be. He brings up this experience because it was so awesome to see this student grow and improve during his time at DSU. The student helped the university and community in many ways through his kindness.

Dr. Wolfe explains that his best teaching experiences aren’t tied to a single event in class, instead, they are tied really to what teaching is, which is a long-term relationship that we have with our students. While a student’s growth is most definitely not restricted to their 3-4 year experience here, a student’s time at university is certainly a launching point for their progress. There are so many students that only have semester of experience with Dr. Wolfe, but have still made these amazing connections and accomplishments that they have later thanked him for.

What interests or hobbies do you have outside of work?

Outside of work, if it’s nerdy, Dr. Wolfe does it! He plays video games, he is the Dungeon master for his Pathfinder group, he has Warhammer 40k, he enjoys playing board games, he enjoys hiking, and he participates in all of these activities with his kids and family. He very much values having a separation between work time and relaxation time, and as such puts a lot of value into these hobbies.

(CTL Classroom Photoshoot 2021)

What is your most challenging teaching experience?

One of Dr. Wolfe’s most challenging experiences was at his previous university, when, in a Plato class, a student was making homophobic comments before class started. He ended up kicking the student out of class because they wouldn’t stop, after which the student went to Dr. Wolfe’s Department Chair and complained about him. It was a challenging experience to go in and explain what had happened, but in the end, Dr. Wolfe was able to clear things up, and he went back to teaching. However, the student didn’t drop the class. Over the course of the semester, Dr. Wolfe was able to teach the student not only about the subject material, but also why the comments he had made were harmful even if he didn’t intend it. And the student changed. He started participating in class, and he changed his way of thinking. In the end, Dr. Wolfe even ended up writing a letter of recommendation for the student that got him into grad school.This experience taught Dr. Wolfe about the potential of students to be more than you ever expected to be. While a professor can start out with students that have difficult personalities, traits, or opinions, they can work with them so that everyone can become better from the experience.

Another good experience where Dr. Wolfe improved was here at DSU. One day, a student that fell asleep in class, and Dr. Wolfe stopped class to confront them about it. Afterward, he realized that the way he had handled the situation was not productive to the student or to anyone else in the class. So before the next class, he walked over to the student and apologized to them, because how he had acted and how he came off to the student was not right or fair to them. He asked for the student’s forgiveness, as well as asked them to work with him in the future to improve. Afterward, the student became a great contributor to the class. Dr. Wolfe learned that it is important to show students that they have value and respect, that you are concerned about their well-being, and most importantly, that you can always improve as an instructor.

What is your best teaching resource?

Philosophy is a small subject, and as such, there is a network of philosophy professors in the state that Dr. Wolfe is able to stay in contact with to get advice and help. There are state-specific conferences and meetings where ideas can be shared and discussed. There is even a continental philosophy conference that is trying to get started, so there is luckily support in the local and national discipline. There are many groups, focused on both philosophy and pedagogy, that Dr. Wolfe is grateful to be a part of to be able to learn and share ideas.

As well as this, there are people on campus, amazing colleagues and friends, that are there to help emotionally and intellectually. Dr. Wolfe says he “Stands on the backs of giants” when it comes to those that support him. Students have also been a great resource to him while teaching. For example, during the fall semester, he found that his father-in-law had been in a car accident, and let his students know. After class, he had many students come up and ask if his father-in-law was okay, if he was okay, checking in on him. It was nice to know that the students cared for his wellbeing outside of school.

What advice would you give to other faculty teaching at DSU?

We have an issue of overload and burnout at our institution. We have a high percentage of faculty at this institution who are overloaded, and as such, we have a high turnover. The biggest advice Dr. Wolfe has is to learn to say no, to take time to have downtime, and to take care of yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically. There are expectations that we put on ourselves as scholars and as members of this community to go above and beyond. Often the pressure is to do more than what is asked of you because that is the culture. Work is wonderful, but if you do not take care of yourself as well, you will burn out. So say no and give yourself space and time to heal, because no one else is going to give it to you; you have to take initiative.