6 minute read

World Class Faculty

World Class Faculty

As the daughter of an Army chaplain, Indiana State University history professor Dr. Barbara Skinner traveled a lot as a kid and picked up her father’s love of the world and other cultures.

Dr. Barbara Skinner

Dr. Barbara Skinner

During her undergraduate years at Yale, she spent a semester in Leningrad, meeting warm, kind regular people who defied the cold stereotype of what was then the Soviet regime. She speaks Russian and Polish, and studies the world between the countries, including Ukraine. She reads Ukrainian and Belarusian for her research.

When Russia invaded the former Soviet republic of Ukraine, Skinner, who has won two prestigious fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, found the world’s attention focused on the place that matches her academic expertise.

“It has been agonizing to watch,” Skinner said. “Ukraine had so much going for it, with a modernizing economy and energetic young people helping to create a vibrant future, and now all of that is in jeopardy. The Russian war crimes and atrocities are simply horrifying, the humanitarian crises there are heartbreaking.

“As one New York Times reporter who had worked a long time in Russia remarked, it is like watching a friend you love lose their mind. Putin has destroyed Russia’s economy and place in the world, and it may never recover from this. Belarus is implicated as well. So the entire region that I study is in crisis, and the future is grim.”

Skinner is a prime example of the high-quality faculty who make an ISU education so valuable and the student experience unique. She values teaching and said she appreciates making a difference with students she refers to as “personable” and “down to earth.”

“I came from a family that wasn’t that well off,” Skinner said. “Army chaplains were not well paid back then. Yeah, I did get to go to Yale, but I was a total scholarship kid, and I always felt out of place there. It’s just nice to be in a place where it feels real.”

What also feels real to her, perhaps more than many others, is the devastation of the war. She has been constantly checking the news and contacting Ukrainian and Russian friends. She has followed Russian opposition YouTube channels.

“I have a (Russian) family I’ve been very close to for 25 years,” Skinner said. “They’re getting older and he has Parkinson’s, and there are problems now getting medicine. The sanctions in place against Putin’s regime are hurting ordinary Russians. These happen to be people who are completely in opposition to the war and understand that it’s horrible.”

That sort of personal connection to her subject is what Skinner said she wanted to share when deciding to become a professor after spending time as an interpreter in the old Soviet Union.

“I wanted to pursue an academic career where I could apply my real-life experience to trying to explain this part of the world to college students,” she said.

Dr. Christopher Olsen, ISU Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, said Skinner is the type of professor who populates ISU’s faculty at large and the type the university recruits.

“She is a world-class scholar in every sense of the term—books and articles with the most respected, prestigious presses and journals, and multiple fellowships from the NEH and the (American Council of Learned Societies), something that very rarely happens,” Olsen said.

“Yet, she still prioritizes teaching students at all levels, from first-year to graduate. She teaches a freshman survey of world civilization every year. That’s the experience students get at ISU that can’t be matched at smaller schools and isn’t part of most undergraduate classes at larger universities.”

Political Science professor Dr. Mike Chambers, an expert on China, is another example of faculty excellence focusing on a vital part of the world.

Dr. Mike Chambers

Dr. Mike Chambers

He recalled, after some encouragement from the author, impressing people at a conference and being invited to write the China article in an annual book called Strategic Asia. The previous authors were among the nation’s foremost experts on China, all of whom had prestigious private school academic credentials.

The article, he said, went over well with the book’s editors who “subsequently started bringing in scholars” who weren’t the usual suspects.

Chambers, who received his Master’s and Ph.D. at Columbia University, won ISU’s Theodore Dreiser Research and Creativity Award in 2007, but said he is mostly interested in teaching.

“I got into academia not so much for the research but for the teaching after teaching high school for a couple years,” Chambers said. “I taught four years at St. Olaf College, a small liberal arts college. It’s about the teaching. Of course, I’m committed to research and scholarship, too, but teaching is the big part, and that’s what Indiana State is as well.”

Chambers said he can’t wait to get back to taking students to China, and he loves the Indiana State Advantage pillar that, starting with this fall’s freshmen, will offer up to $3,000 to students for an out-of-classroom learning experience.

“That is fantastic,” Chambers said. “What other school does that? And we’re a public university. ISU’s really trying to make things work for students.”

Chambers said the ability to broaden the horizons of students is a key reason he finds fulfillment as an ISU professor.

“We have so many great students who just need a little bit of encouragement to get a better sense of their full potential,” Chambers said. “As faculty, we can prod them. We can put somebody on an airplane and take them from Indianapolis to Shanghai and in the span of, you know, 24 hours, we can say: ‘Here you go. You’re in China now.’ It’s a great feeling as a professor to be able to open up the students’ eyes to literally a world of possibilities.”

Olsen said it’s part of what makes ISU unique.

“Students can travel to China with faculty like Professor Chambers—that’s amazing, and it’s just not happening elsewhere to any extent like it happens here,” he said. “The Indiana State Advantage is only going to make experiences like this more common, and within the reach of all of our students.

“These are life-changing opportunities and we want all students, not just those from more privileged backgrounds, to have the chance to work with faculty like these and to have that one moment, that one experience that changes their lives forever.”

Skinner agreed, saying the measure of a faculty member at ISU is different than at a flagship university.

“You know, it doesn’t really have to do with who got their degree where, it’s how well are you teaching,” Skinner said. “And if you have full-time faculty teaching these entry-level courses from the beginning, from freshman year, you’re getting quality. I just can’t stress that enough.

“That’s what people need to know about ISU: I see you. It’s not about how many publications (professors) write. It’s about, from the beginning, (students) get this real professional introduction to the field.”

By: Mark Alesia