Threadgill closes out 32-year teaching career

MC’s Threadgill closes out 32-year teaching career

June 29, 2020 

Although he never met anyone on the Maryville College campus whose ultimate aspiration was to be a cowboy, Dr. Paul Threadgill likens the College’s community to “Bronco Billy,” Clint Eastwood’s 1980 movie about a circus troupe of people from all professional backgrounds, pursuing their dreams.

“One of the real beauties about working at a small place like Maryville is that you don’t get forced into a pigeonhole,” he said. “You can grow and develop into whoever you want to become, academically and professionally, and the College supports that. It gives you an opportunity to do what you’re good at.”

Threadgill, who retired in May and was elected professor emeritus of biology by his colleagues, closes out a 32-year career of doing what he dreamed of doing as an undergraduate student while at the same time helping new students realize their dreams.

From Sooner to Scot

Threadgill, a native of Middlesboro, Ky., came to Maryville College in 1988 from Poteau, Okla., where he had a postdoctoral fellowship in agroforestry with the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture. At that point, his curriculum vitae included a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in botany from the University of Kentucky and a doctorate in plant population ecology from the University of Western Ontario.

“Let’s just say that it was an interesting place to work,” Threadgill said of the Kerr Center. “And as soon as I got there, I started looking for academic positions back east. Actually, what I wanted was to find myself at a small college somewhere in eastern Kentucky.”

Who he wanted to teach, especially, were future high school science teachers.

As an undergrad at the University of Kentucky, Threadgill had realized that his rural high school science preparation was no match for the instruction his peers had received from larger schools in Cincinnati, Lexington and Louisville. He wanted to change that for newer generations of small-town scholars.

“I thought, you know, if I can go back to a small school – the kind that has teacher education – maybe I can give people a leg up, work with folks who are going to become high school teachers and inspire them, level the playing field.”

After a quick application and interview process late in the spring of 1988, then-dean Dr. Dean Boldon offered Threadgill the position of assistant professor of biology. When wife Debbie was offered a position as the Natural Science Division’s laboratory technician, the couple decided they could make a go of it in East Tennessee.

Threadgill’s teaching load started with microbiology, ecology and botany. Soon he was working with colleagues to develop and teach new introductory biology classes, where the bulk of his teaching has been over the years.

Liberal arts patriot

Threadgill said the courses that took him out of the classroom – and out of his disciplinary expertise – were among the most rewarding of his career.

“… if I was [teaching] at the University of Kentucky, I would interact with some of the people in my own division who have the same interests as me – botanists, and I might see a zoologist every once and a while – but here, you get a chance to interact all across campus.”

If he wasn’t a liberal arts patriot prior to joining the MC faculty, teaching general education courses early in his career made him one. He developed a Freshman Seminar course (then called “Inquiry”) that examined salt from multiple perspectives.

“With those classes, you were supposed to touch as many [disciplinary] bases as you could, but I thought ‘How do you get students to think about very common things and all the different threads that tie common things together in life?” he said. “So I picked salt.

“I found a short book on salt and realized that you could look at salt as a chemical, salt as a mineral, salt in the human body,” he continued. “ …We looked at salt from a religious standpoint. I got [Professor of Secondary Education] Terry Simpson to come and talk about the covenant of salt that they had in the Old Testament. We looked at salt as a mystical substance involved in witchcraft rituals and things like that. We looked at salt in so many different ways that students were probably ready to tear their hair out.”

His early years at MC also included a January Term course called “Highland Homeland” that focused on modern Appalachian issues – the environment, economy, education, healthcare, equality.

Working with Dr. Marcia Keith, then director of the College’s teacher education program, he developed BIO311: Natural History of the Southern Appalachians that was primarily for teacher licensure students.

Threadgill added his knowledge of the Southern Appalachians to a “Celtic Connections” travel-study course developed by Dr. Lori Schmied, a professor of psychology. During four different Januarys, they led groups of students through England, Ireland, Wales and Northern Ireland to explore the culture and natural history of the region and similarities to people and places in the mountains of southern United States.

He accompanied two MC instructors, the late Dave Powell ’66 and the late Neisa Pamfil, to Venezuela to help plan another J-Term trip, and while on sabbatical in 2000, he taught biology as a visiting professor at Thailand’s Mission College.

More recently, he blended the Book of Job with a text written by systems ecologist Dr. H.H. Shugart for a BIO149 general education course for non-science majors. Students read the Old Testament text prior to hearing a lecture by Maryville College Humanities professors Dr. Phillip Sherman and Dr. Andrew Irvine. They then read Shugart’s book “Foundations of the Earth: Global Ecological Change and The Book of Job.”

“This systems ecologist is suggesting that we look at the questions that God asked Job at the end of the book. How would we answer them with a 21st century scientific view? How does that fit together? When I first came across this book, I thought ‘Perfect. How can you do any better for a church-related college?’”

In his last year, Threadgill developed another BIO149 general education course on climate change. He co-taught it with Dr. Dan Klingensmith, vice president and dean of the College and a professor of history, who had been saying for years that the College needed such a course. Threadgill taught the science; Klingensmith shared the historical perspective and said he learned a lot from his colleague.

“Paul taught about a topic of the highest public importance, but he also taught students about how to critically evaluate scientific claims,” Klingensmith said. “Plus, he did almost all of the work. I’m so glad I got one more chance to work with him.”

Storyteller at heart

A thread that connected much of Paul Threadgill’s teaching career was an opportunity to be a storyteller. Never interested in having students only memorize information and be able to say it back to him, he wanted students to be able to answer the question “Why should we care?” Conveying that usually involved a story.

Telling stories about land use in the Maryville College campus (Where were the football fields? Where did cattle graze?) helped explain differences in vegetation. Lessons on amoebas were made more interesting by talking about reports of a brain-eating amoeba that gets into the nostrils of swimmers on vacation in Florida.

Despite all the technological advances over the years, Threadgill said his teaching style hasn’t changed much since 1988.

“I use Blackboard, I’ve got PowerPoints, and I put video clips and music and things in there, but basically, I’m using [Blackboard] like a souped-up chalkboard – you know, like a slide projector that has enhanced features,” he said. “Whenever talk came out about flipping the classroom and those other kinds of fads that popped up in education, I talked to Terry Simpson extensively, and what I learned about myself is that fundamentally, I’m a storyteller.”

Threadgill said he made the transition to remote teaching with few complications when the COVID-19 virus closed campus in the Spring 2020 semester, but he said he realized years before that newer styles of teaching and learning were not for him.

“When I started out, you had to carry a lot of information in your head,” he said. “Now, everybody’s got a smartphone, and it’s hard to decide, What do I actually need to know, and what can I just look up? I think that is fundamentally going to change the way we do education.

“And I just kind of got to the point where I don’t think that I’m mentally ready to restructure dramatically everything that I do and try and get up to speed with what needs to happen to prepare students for life in the 21st century,” he added. “I think it’s time for me to step aside after 32 years and let somebody with new and fresh ideas take over and see what they can do.”

The storyteller is leaving with a lifetime of material.

One of his favorite stories involves a student who turned in the final, signed copy of his Senior Study (a graduation requirement) between Baccalaureate and Commencement so that he could participate in graduation ceremonies with family members in attendance.

“He went off and became a teacher and a coach, and some of his family members have told me that at the end of every season, there’ll be boys on his football team come up crying and hugging him, saying that he’s the only daddy that they’ve ever had,” Threadgill said. “This student was not a comet who just blazed across the sky at Maryville College, but man, he is making a difference in the community. I mean, that’s why we’re here.”

Lasting impact

In 32 years, Threadgill has supervised more than 85 senior studies and taught, advised and mentored hundreds of students.

Scores of them have gone on to teach science in high schools, just as he hoped; others have become doctors, lawyers, researchers, conservationists, entrepreneurs and professors.

Katherine Groves Medlock ’98, East Tennessee Program Director for the Tennessee Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said Threadgill – her freshman advisor, major advisor and thesis advisor – was a major influence in where she landed, professionally.

“He encouraged me to go after my dreams,” she said. “He was always honest with his students about their strengths – and weaknesses. That same honesty and integrity influenced me personally as well.”

She described Threadgill as a “powerhouse of scientific knowledge as well as a longstanding champion of the ‘liberating arts.’”

Klingensmith, who arrived on campus a decade after Threadgill, said he has learned much about being a faculty member at Maryville College from the biology professor.

“Paul taught me to take the liberal arts seriously, to approach teaching with dedication, and to care very deeply about all students, not just the ones who are naturally gifted in my subject,” the dean said. “Believe it or not, not all college professors have been trained for any of that in graduate school. Paul has taught a lot of his colleagues what it actually means to be an effective teacher for undergrads.”

Dr. Mark O’Gorman, professor of political science and one of Threadgill’s frequent collaborators and closest colleagues, said he is thankful for his friend’s work to support the Environmental Studies major, to protect the College Woods (Threadgill served as the first chair of the College’s Environment and Forestry Advisory Committee), and to respect the region.

“As a self-described proud rural southeastern Kentucky native, Paul had an ability to connect with first-generation students and majors from the region in ways others faculty could not,” O’Gorman said. “After reading about former Biology Professor Dr. [Randolph] Shields, I see some of the same commitment to the natural sciences, while invoking a love of nature, in Dr. Threadgill’s work.”

The political science professor said he will miss their frequent conversations about politics, science and college basketball, and miss Threadgill’s “impish formality.”

“If meeting in public on campus, he would always greet me formally: ‘Hello Dr. O’Gorman,’ ‘Hello Dr. Threadgill,’” O’Gorman explained. “He was the only one who did that with me. While a bit in jest, it was also done, I believe, to honor our work and to give testimony to what we both did, coming from rural towns and becoming professors at a college. It was a reminder of how far we had travelled, and that our students were beginning that same journey. And to not lose sight of that.”

As for Threadgill, he will miss having abundant opportunities to, as he said with a laugh, “push back the frontiers of ignorance.” Loving a college environment from his own undergraduate years, he expects to miss the easy, daily interactions with bright, interesting people.

Even though Maryville College isn’t located in eastern Kentucky, he joked, he’s still proud to have contributed to the work of a mission-driven institution for 32 years.

“We’re giving people power over their lives that they didn’t have before they came to Maryville College,” he said, referencing the numerous educational and professional opportunities students have when they graduate. “You know, we’re really in the business of creating citizens and giving people options.”

Written by Karen Beaty Eldridge, '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications

Maryville College is a nationally-ranked institution of higher learning and one of America’s oldest colleges. For more than 200 years, we’ve educated students to be giving citizens and gifted leaders, to study everything, so that they are prepared for anything — to address any problem, engage with any audience and launch successful careers right away. Located in Maryville, Tennessee, between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the city of Knoxville, Maryville College offers nearly 1,200  students from around the world both the beauty of a rural setting and the advantages of an urban center, as well as more than 60 majors, seven pre-professional programs and career preparation from their first day on campus to their last. Today, our 10,000 alumni are living life strong of mind and brave of heart and are prepared, in the words of our Presbyterian founder, to “do good on the largest possible scale.”