Prof Spotlight: Students motivate educators, posits Bjork

Bjork encourages his students to pursue their true passions in college, as he has been doing throughout his life. The key to becoming a wonderful professor is love and dedication for the subject one is teaching./ Courtesy of John Abbot

This week we interviewed Professor Christopher Bjork from the Education Department via email. With his long tenure at Vassar and his meta-knowledge of education, Bjork’s insights on Vassar as an educational institution are invaluable.

The Miscellany News: How did you first become interested in education?

Christopher Bjork: I thought about teaching ever since I was an elementary school student. After teaching in California and in Japan, I started looking for ways to combine my interests in education, teaching and Japanese culture. When I was working at an international school in Tokyo, an expert on the Japanese education system, Catherine Lewis, presented her research to the teachers at the school. As I listened to her talk about her work, I realized that going to graduate school to study comparative education would be a logical next step in my career. The next year I applied to doctoral programs in education and, soon after, started conducting research on education reform in Japan and Indonesia.

The Misc: What kind of classes do you teach? Do you have a favorite one?

Bjork: The Education Department at Vassar is very small and we do a lot of different things. As a result, all of the members of the department teach a wide range of courses. I teach introductory courses in the social foundations of education, the senior seminar for education majors, a first year writing seminar and a course in comparative and international education. I also supervise student teachers and run the seminar for student teachers. It’s hard to pick a favorite course. So much depends on the students in a particular class.

The Misc: We’ve all written it on college applications, now it’s time to turn the tables. Why Vassar?

Bjork: After finishing graduate school, I started teaching at another liberal arts college in the northeast. My job converted from a visiting position to a tenure track line, so the college had to conduct a national search. I was planning to stay put, but applied to Vassar as a backup, in case I didn’t get the other job. When I was asked to come to Vassar to interview, I didn’t think I wanted to move, but over those two days, I was really impressed by Vassar. What ultimately led me to make the change was the students. It seemed like students who were taking education courses did so out of a deep commitment to education and to social change. They really impressed me. After struggling to make a decision, I decided that since I spend most of my time working with students, it made sense to [choose] Vassar.

The Misc: How long have you been teaching at Vassar? How have things changed?

Bjork: I came to Vassar in the fall of 2002. The main difference I have observed has been the composition of the student body. After we moved to need blind admissions, we started to attract a more diverse group of students. That has made my job more exciting, given that the classes offered by my department tend to focus on the role that education plays in supporting and impeding social change. It’s interesting exploring those topics with people who have had such a wide range of experiences before coming to Vassar.

The Misc: Do you have any ongoing research projects happening at the moment?

Bjork: Yes, I’m currently working on a couple of projects. For the last three or four years I have been collaborating with Bill Hoynes in the Sociology Department on a study of the youth sports industry. We have been following a handful of travel sports teams and their families, trying to learn what motivates them to spend so much time and money on athletics. Working with Bill—and a team of Vassar student research assistants—has been a lot of fun. I am also part of a team of researchers from Indonesia, Germany and the Netherlands, that is studying the behavior of teachers in Indonesia. We are trying to come up with strategies that can be used to raise the quality of teaching in Indonesian public schools. One of my favorite things about that work is that I have had the opportunity to work with a group of Indonesian researchers to conduct qualitative analyses of education policies. I’m hoping that in the near future, the number of Indonesian researchers capable of studying their own education system will increase to the point that foreign consultants like me will no longer be needed.

The Misc: If you could give students one piece of advice, what would it be?

Bjork: Don’t worry so much about picking a major that seems like it will get you a high paying job, and definitely don’t double major for that reason. During your short time at Vassar, take courses that you find exciting and challenging. I am constantly impressed by the important work people do after they graduate from Vassar, regardless of the major stamped on their diplomas. If you learn to express your thoughts clearly, collaborate with different kinds of people and solve real life problems, you will be prepared to do just about anything.

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