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Teaching to engage work ‘in the field’

Story by Drew Kaufman

For someone who said he’d rather spend 90 percent of his time outside, Keith Summerville spends a large portion of his day indoors.

This time spent indoors must be used efficiently to complete the work his many positions at Drake University require.

Summerville is an associate professor of biology and environmental science, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and president of Faculty Senate at Drake. Through his professional life, Summerville brings a willingness to listen and teach to his positions.

In the classroom, Summerville, who is often referred to as Keith by students, uses unique methods to help students learn.

“I am very committed to spending as little time in the classroom as possible and more time in the field,” Summerville said. “Students are going to learn a hell of a lot more from doing things with me than listening to me prattle on about some topic.”

When students head out into the field with Summerville, they aren’t going just as students in his mind.

“I fundamentally view my students as collaborators in the scientific process,” Summerville said. “It’s all too easy to say professor, student and bifurcate the relationship in a really unproductive way.”

Summerville’s style works for junior Mariam Vahdat, an environmental science and environmental policy double major.

“Keith’s classes are challenging, but I don’t think I’ve gotten as much from any other class,” Vahdat said. “He’s able to phrase things in a way that students can really understand.”

In the entomology course she took with Summerville, Vahdat created a museum-quality bug collection by going out into the field and capturing the insects. Being in the field enables students to understand global concepts on a local level, she said.

Vahdat, a Mason City, Iowa native, is also one of Summerville’s academic advisees. She has built a strong relationship with him, which means she goes in for anything from academic advice to venting on a bad day.

“He’s invested in what we’re going to do in the future,” Vahdat said. “It feels like he’s willing to do what he can to make sure we succeed in the areas we want to succeed in.”

Summerville also brought a willingness to listen into his work as president of Faculty Senate. Faculty Senate recently received attention because of the decision to implement a plus-minus grading system. Prior to that vote, Summerville worked to get input from everyone who would be affected, including in surveys and open forums.

“My role was to try to shape a process that included the fairest, fullest vetting of the issue that we could do,” Summerville said.

The vetting included a full faculty vote, the only one Summerville recalls occurring in his 10 years at the university.

Gathering feedback led to changes in the proposal to address concerns of those involved.

“The decision to delay (implementation until 2016) is a direct consequence of their (students) vocal feedback about it being fundamentally unfair,” Summerville said. “In that regard, I think their voices were heard.”

Dorothy Pisarski, associate professor of advertising and the faculty senator for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, thought Summerville was successful in listening to feedback and communicating details about the grading proposal as the discussion changed her mind.

“When I first heard it (the proposal), I was opposed … I thought it would be very difficult in creative classes,” Pisarski said. “After discussion and clarification, I realized this wasn’t a mandate, simply an option for faculty, I said I’m good with that.”

Summerville also acted as a mentor for Pisarski when she joined Faculty Senate this year. Pisarski said Summerville helped her voice opinions
in the meetings.

Debra DeLaet, professor of politics and international relations and chair of the department of politics and international relations, is the incoming Faculty Senate president. She has been working with Summerville to transition into her new role.

“Keith has done an excellent job of planning for a smooth transition. He encouraged my attendance at the January Board of Trustees retreat which helped orient me regarding an important part of the Faculty Senate president’s role,” DeLaet said via email. “We meet regularly to discuss the nature of the position and how I might prepare for what I hope will be a successful year.”

Summerville engages in strong communication in his role as assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He oversees the administration of the college, which means he’s frequently receiving reports on the various aspects of the college.

“I’m sort of an on-call assistant to whatever the dean needs accomplished,” Summerville said.

To complete all of the work required for his positions, Summerville works efficiently. He developed strong
multitasking skills.

“I don’t screw around a lot when I’m here,” he said.

As far as his future, Summerville is looking forward to attending more Phish concerts this summer. He’s already been to 36 and is hoping to make 37 and 38 this summer.

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