Every Thursday, The Breeze will be running a Q&A with one of JMU’s professors. This week we’re featuring retired geographic science professor Jack Gentile.
What have you learned the most at JMU?
I think what I found was the desire of my students and the desire of students to make a difference. The spirit and the determination, primarily [among] environmentally-minded students. They show a tremendous amount of energy and spirit to make a difference in their environment. They find ways to contribute to society in beneficial ways. They’re not egocentric but they work to help each other and help the environment. Students take a bad rap that they don’t care about anything or that they’re not interested in anything outside of their immediate grasp. I never found that to be the case. They kept me active and motivated ... I learned a lot from students and that’s one of the things I enjoyed most.
What do you miss most about JMU?
I miss interacting with my students and colleagues. I keep in contact with a few. I can’t say all meetings were bad but I really miss the classrooms. I may go back and teach a few courses from time to time. I felt like I was benefitting from the students, as much as I hoped they were benefitting as well. It kept me learning and motivated and I feel it kept me young. I think the whole university is that way too. I think the youth of the university has rubbed off on us old timers.
What are your main hobbies?
I retired in July. I like to build things, I built my own house and I’m considering building another one. I like to work on my farm, cutting up trees and use it for firewood. I enjoy working outdoors, building things — woodwork outdoors and such. I constructed a mirror for the bathroom out of wood. My retirement present from my colleagues was a gift certificate to the local Home Depot. I bought a new table saw and used it to do my first project after retirement which was the mirror.
How long have you been riding motorcycles?
I’ve been riding since I was a teenager. My brother let me use his motorcycle. My first big trip was with my wife and we went to California from Pennsylvania. That was back in 1974, then I got away from it for a while, before coming back a few years ago. My brother and I went out to Iowa after he convinced me to buy a new one.
Why and when did you go to Russia?
I went there in the early ’90s, right after the collapse of communism. I was there for a faculty exchange program … I taught at the Kirov Pedagogical Institute. I stayed with a Russian family and everything.
What was it like being in Russia at that time?
Back then, people had been used to being cared for and so they were guaranteed jobs, they were guaranteed a place to live and those kinds of things. So now they had this freedom and now they had never experienced that before and they didn’t know how to deal with the idea that they could make decisions for themselves, because their entire lives, everything had been laid out for them ... It’s a complete contrast from us — you know, we have this idea that we can do anything we want and be anything we want ... One time I asked this girl, one of the students that was standing in the hallway, I said, “Well, now, you have democracy.” Her reaction was “Well, you can’t eat democracy.” So, they had always felt the care of their country and now they felt like they were being abandoned and they were on their own.
Did your experience in Russia shape the way you teach your students?
Oh yeah, absolutely … It was one of my favorite things to teach in class. It’s hard for us to understand that — we kind of have an ethnocentric view of the world. We think that everyone wants to be like us, but not everyone values the same things as us. If we don’t understand that, and we go out to interact with people in the world, we make mistakes…
How did your experience in Russia influence you?
That really taught me a lot about the way we live our lives versus other people live their lives. One of the main things that I taught in class is that different people value different things. You know, if you ask an American what’s the most valuable thing in their lives in this country, they’re going to say freedom.
But other people value other things. So for [the Russians], security was more important than freedom. They were willing to exchange freedom in order to have security. It doesn’t mean people don’t want freedom — people want, intrinsically, freedom. But even in our day, when the terrorist attacks in New York happened, we were willing to give up some of our freedom to have security. It’s just a matter of degree.
Contact Eric Graves and IJ Chan at email@example.com.