The Other Side of the Coin: How Students Inspire faculty

The 2011 Harry W. Rodgers, III, Distinguished Teacher of the Year shares how students inspire and influence his work

By Magazine Staff
Thomas Ward

One day when Thomas Ward, Ph.D., was discussing maras—Central American gangs—in his Contemporary Central America class, he spotted a student nodding in understanding. He paused to ask her what she knew about maras.

“We had them in our high school,” she said.

“Where was your high school?” Ward asked.

“Virginia,” the student replied.

The whole atmosphere in the classroom changed. “It became electric in the class,” Ward said.

That was eight years ago, and since then the professor of Spanish and director of Latin American and Latino studies has changed the course to keep it more current for his students. As he teaches students who share insights from their exposure to Latino culture in the U.S., Project Mexico service, and study abroad experiences in El Salvador, Chile, and Buenos Aires, Loyola’s 2011 Harry W. Rodgers, III, Distinguished Teacher of the Year finds that they both inspire him as a professor and enrich the courses for their fellow students.

“That all comes back into the classroom,” said Ward, who incorporates service-learning opportunities into many of his classes. “When one student is talking, the other students are listening. They get each other charged up, and then they get me charged up.”

Students who have studied abroad in El Salvador return to campus and take Contemporary Central America with Ward. Sometimes they raise a hand to clarify or offer a different perspective. “They come back much more informed about Central American realities,” he said. “Some of them are learning about Latin America in a way you really can’t learn in a class.”

Ward sees today’s students becoming more socially engaged and politically aware—especially as they travel abroad. “They have a lot of energy, and it’s positive energy, and it’s contagious.”

Ward, who first started studying French in high school, learned Spanish in the 1970s coincidentally as Latino immigration to the U.S. increased. “It wasn’t a rational decision, just the forces of life,” he said. He came to Loyola in 1989, and within three years, he had told the administration that Loyola needed a Spanish study abroad program. Now the University has four.

Ward, who travels to Peru every year—and married a librarian he met in a Peruvian library—focuses his research on 19th century Peru. As he writes a book on the influence a 17th century historian had in the 19th and 20th centuries and incorporates this knowledge on his Literature and Identity Politics in Peru course, Ward finds that his students force him to clarify his research and relate it to them—which then improves his work. “They make you find ways to explain things to people,” he said. “They whip me into shape.”

In one recent class, Ward was teaching an essay written in 1888 in which the author, Manuel González Prada, was complaining about the press. “The author was saying that journalists have to have a positive view about the human potential for growth and about ethical awareness. The journalist must be an optimist, not just report the facts. The journalist must have a positive view of society,” Ward recalled.

Ward saw that his students were looking at him blankly. “I said, ‘Well, do you think the people in the Occupy movement are pessimists or optimists?’ And they said, ‘Oh! Optimists.’” And I replied, “They are like González Prada.”

“You have to figure out where they are,” he said. “They keep my teaching and research relevant.”

“We get really, really good students. They’re smart, they’re articulate, they’re very world-wise, and their greatness rubs off on me.”

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