June 9, 1997
It is no small irony that Thomas R. Flynn, Samuel Candler Dobbs Professor of Philosophy and first recipient of the George P. Cuttino Award for Faculty Mentoring, occupied the office right next door to Cuttino when he first came to Emory 18 years ago. "I remember going to him as the new students were arriving on campus and saying, 'George, these freshmen keep looking younger and younger,'" Flynn recalled recently. Cuttino, never one to mince words, gave a salty and negative reply ending with, "You'll know you're getting older when their parents start looking younger and younger!"
Flynn admits, albeit reluctantly, that the parents are starting to look younger, but he's still unfazed at the close of his second decade at Emory. The parade of students keeps coming to his office, and his door is always open. "I give students my home number," said Flynn, "although I do tell them they can only call up until midnight." One student who telephoned him at 11:40 p.m. apologized for the lateness of the hour. Yes, it's late, Flynn agreed. "So speak fast."
Looking back over his career, Flynn says that his interest in knowing his students and being available to offer them guidance was influenced by his own experience as an undergraduate at Carroll College in Helena, Montana. "It went without saying that they knew me or made it a point to find out about me," said Flynn of the faculty there. "I always sensed that they were genuinely interested." While the faculty at Carroll didn't spend as much time on research as faculty at Emory, "they did love the life of the mind and that came across to me very clearly," he said. It has come across to scores of his students as well.
"I've never met anybody as willing to make you go farther in what you are studying or what you are thinking about," said Mark Hull,'97C, of Patchoge, N.Y., who took two courses with Flynn during his final semester. Josh Peskin of Akron, Ohio, '97C, a magna cum laude graduate whose senior honors thesis was directed by Flynn, said "he is certainly one of the main reasons I majored in philosophy. He made the system more personal. I could just go to his office and talk to him." And when you're discussing something, said Peskin, "you are actively involved as opposed to just remembering it."
No one knows that better than Flynn. "I suppose if mentors have anything in common it's an interest in teaching the whole person," he said. "You want not only to impart information, but you are concerned with the way it's being received and who's receiving it. You want to know who they are; you want to know their names. And when you say, 'How are you doing?', it's not just a social lubricant; you really are concerned about their life plans."
That philosophy not only benefits the undergraduate students Flynn has taught over the years, but also extends indirectly to many more through the lives of his graduate students, some of whom are now faculty members at other institutions.
Ken Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at Oxford College whose PhD dissertation was directed by Flynn, admitted that when he first entered graduate school, he had no idea he would end up as a teacher. "I was painfully shy. I never thought I could do it," said Anderson. Flynn, however, knew otherwise. "He got me to lecture his classes a couple to times when he had to be out of town," Anderson recalled. Those times boosted Anderson's confidence and eventually helped him to decide on teaching as a career. He went on to win the COE Professor of the Year teaching award at Oxford.
Judith Jones, '93G, who wrote her dissertation under Flynn's direction and just received tenure at Fordham University, said Flynn taught her "that you're always dealing with the whole person and not just the part of their brain you're trying to put things into." That approach requires a genuine like and respect for people, which Flynn has, said Jones. "All you have to do is add up the huge number of people who count him as friend to know it's something people pick up on and respond to," she said.
"I enjoy students' company," Flynn said, but added that he doesn't try to be their buddy. That can backfire, he said. What is more important is honesty, especially with graduate students, who face tremendous uncertainties in today's job market. "One student asked me, 'Do you think I'm smart enough to get a PhD?' I told him he asked the wrong question. The question you should be asking is, 'Do I have the perseverance?'"
Flynn relishes the full range of teaching experiences at Emory, from freshman year to dissertation direction. He currently serves on about 10 dissertation committees, is directing one dissertation (he directed two last year), has taught freshman seminar every year he has been at Emory and was one of the organizers of the program. He also writes from 40 to 60 student recommendations each year and teaches a full load of courses, ranging from graduate seminars on Sartre to the freshman introductory course.
"I like teaching the introductory philosophy course," Flynn said, because "you get students in their 'first fervor,' to be blunt about it." He smiles at the thought. "Especially in the fall semester, they don't know what it's reasonable to expect. They rise to the occasion until well into the semester, until they learn from the sophomores they don't have to do that much," he said with a chuckle, then added: "It's nice to be present at the beginning." Scores of students and alumni couldn't agree more.
Return to June 9, 1997 Contents Page