Teaching Chemistry for 51 Years and Not Losing Your Edge

U. of Minnesota at Morris

Jim Togeas
July 01, 2013

Jim Togeas, 75, retired at the end of the spring semester after 51 years of teaching chemistry at the University of Minnesota at Morris. Here are his reflections on his career, as told to Angela Chen.

I've been a faculty member at the University of Minnesota at Morris since 1961. When I started I was 24, so I was the age of my students and thought of myself as very like them. I realized I was getting older when I started referring to them as "the young people," but even now—and I know it's an illusion on my part—I don't particularly sense an age gap.


A number of my students have gone into teaching, and I remember one of them asking for advice. My answer was "preparation." What that means for me is to do it fresh. I don't keep old lecture notes in a file and walk into a class and try to use them. That's deadly for me. It leads to a kind of incoherence to rely on old notes.

So every year you need to recreate the course. What I do in getting ready for my classes is to show the harmonies and coherence of chemistry, the way that things knit together and, ultimately, the way chemistry underpins our physical makeup and the biological world. Finding new ways to show these connections has kept me going. I enjoy writing and rewriting my lectures, and it's made me better because you learn to tailor yourself and present ideas in a clear, concise fashion.

With technology, I've moved a little more slowly than most of my colleagues. I've always preferred blackboards and whiteboards, and used overhead projectors. I used PowerPoint for the first time this last semester, to show my colleagues that it's not true that you can't teach an old dork new tricks.

It's been easy for me to stay interested, in part because I have a larger variety of teaching experiences than you might expect from somebody that taught chemistry for 50 years. I've taught general, organic, and physical chemistry. I'm involved in the interdisciplinary honors program, so I can teach a course with a philosopher, or someone in English or history, or a sociologist. I've taught courses in cosmology, history of chemistry, and relativity. The college has given me a lot of freedom to move in the directions that I want, and my colleagues have not objected to my straying here and there from the chemical path. It keeps me intellectually alive, and not a dullard in the classroom.

The advantage of a small liberal-arts college is that students have access directly to faculty and don't have to go through graduate students. My door is always open, but my main job is not to be a stumbling block for students. For those who struggle, I'm a resource, but for the best, I should just get out of the way.

There are two long-term rewards in the teaching enterprise: staying in touch with the world of ideas and seeing the good things that students do with their lives. When I started, I knew that I wanted the first, but I was too close to the age of my students to know how rewarding the second would be.