Auntie Fatcat's

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Monday, January 24, 2005

Good Folks: Dr. Philip Nordquist

From time to time, I plan to regale you all with tales of some of the wonderful people who have influenced me. This year, one of my two favorite professors, Dr. Philip Nordquist, is retiring from Pacific Lutheran University after a long and storied career teaching European history to undergraduates. I originally wrote this essay for a memory book about his career, but since I didn't get around to doing this until some time after the request went out, I'm not sure it's going to make it into the book. So I thought I'd post it here, where it can kick off my Good Folks series.

My Life as a History Major in Business

At the end of my freshman year at Pacific Lutheran University, I decided to major in history. Almost everyone I knew immediately asked what I planned to do with a history degree. “Teach, I guess,” I answered, knowing this was what they expected to hear. A nagging voice in my head pointed out that a girl who hated digging up obscure research materials and who became nauseous at the thought of speaking in front of more than five people might not be the best choice for a career in academia. But I had my reasons for choosing history, and the primary one was Dr. Philip Nordquist.

I met Dr. Nordquist when he taught my first class in PLU’s innovative Integrated Studies program. I can’t remember the course title, but the class covered most of Western thought and culture from the Greeks through the beginnings of the Enlightenment. Immediately afterward, I started looking for ways to work his other classes into my planned English major. When I discovered that switching to history would let me take his classes and have him for my advisor, the deal was sealed. In the end, I only got to take two more courses from him: the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. But the lessons I learned from him then were among the most memorable of any I took away from my college years--and among the most useful in my later work as a game publishing company’s executive editor.

The first thing I noticed about Dr. Nordquist’s teaching style was that he always addressed his students formally. While it took me a while to get used to being called “Miss Marshall,” it did eventually teach me that demonstrating respect for those under his authority encouraged us to behave respectfully as well. Later on when I used this lesson in the business world, I found it also encouraged my subordinates to respect themselves, which made them more eager to contribute their ideas and energy.

Back in Integrated Studies one day, we were discussing the nature of the soul and whether animals had souls. Thinking of my beloved cat, I argued passionately that there was no reason to believe they did not. Dr. Nordquist heard me out and then said, “That was an interesting argument, Miss Marshall. If I may ask, are you a vegetarian, and are those leather shoes?” This taught me to consider all of the ramifications of a line of reasoning, not just the ones I was interested in at the moment. I have no doubt this helped me make better choices in my life and work.

As a straight-A perfectionist, I used to get very frustrated that Dr. Nordquist kept giving me A-minuses on my papers. I knew the same level of work had always earned me As before, and still did in my other classes. When I finally asked him about it, he said, “I know you can do better. And so do you.” Initially, I considered this a lesson in going the extra mile—the good being the enemy of the best and all that. But later on in my work life, it came back to me as a lesson in the importance of maintaining high standards even when it seems nobody notices the difference. Eventually, the CEO of my company credited my insistence on high editorial standards for our products as one of the things that shaped the company’s direction and made it successful.

On the first day of his Renaissance class, Dr. Nordquist went around the room and asked us all to state our majors. After each student answered, he mentioned how developments in his or her field of study influenced or were influenced by an event of the Renaissance. I walked away with the best lesson a writer or editor can learn: to discover the underlying interests of my audience and tailor my words to them. I can’t tell you how many times knowing this made the difference in my ability to explain or persuade effectively in writing.

When I took Dr. Nordquist’s class on the Middle Ages, my friend Dave Howell signed up as well. Dave had always had trouble with history classes; he just wasn’t able to focus on memorizing dates and names and places. But Dr. Nordquist often presented his lecture material in the form of stories that illuminated both the forces at work and the personalities involved. To this day, if I ask Dave about the Investiture Controversy, he might look at me blankly. But if I mention Henry IV waiting outside Canossa for Pope Gregory to forgive him, a light goes on and he remembers the whole thing, investiture and all. This taught me that the best way to present complex and possibly dry information is to turn it into a story about people--which proved very helpful in such endeavors as getting my departmental budget increased.

So yes, I chose to major in history--not because I wanted to teach or even had any idea what I would do with the degree, but because I knew I would learn the most from the best teacher, whatever the subject. And I was right. Though I know I disappointed Dr. Nordquist by choosing offices and meeting rooms over lecture halls and libraries, I hope he knows that the time and attention he lavished on me was not in vain. As he taught me, no matter what sort of work we end up doing, history most definitely teaches us something.


Blogger Rick Marshall said...

Among Dr. Nordquist's stranger legacies may be that your experience as a history major led directly to our decision to place my Dungeons and Dragons campaign in the real world, to base it on England in the year 1000 A.D. I guess that would make him the godfather of our games.

2:17 AM  

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