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Politics professor takes students the last mile to find answers

"We will end up with more questions than we started with in this class." Phil Brick, Whitman associate professor of politics, is known for his questions, and for the lengths he's willing to go to find answers.

On this crisp day in March, the 20 or so students in Brick's Introduction to Politics and the Environment class are tackling the political concepts of property, power, liberalism, and freedom. They've read Gary Varner's Environmental Law and the Eclipse of Land as Private Property and Wendell Berry's Private Property and the Common Wealth, and Brick leads a brisk discussion of property rights as they relate to these readings. When the class gets to the question of property as a "borrowed commodity," Brick widens the discussion to the experiences of real-life Oregon tree farmers "Bob" and "Leo." Bob Jackson and Leo Goebel are regulars in Brick's class. He uses them as examples of loggers who are environmentally friendly but often get a bad rap from environmentalists because they cut down trees for a living. He also makes them one of the many stops on his annual field trip to Wallowa County, Oregon, where conflict between environmentalists and natural resource producers is a daily occurrence.

Junior Amanda Cronin, left, professor Phil Brick, and sophomore Lea Redmond, meet after a class on politics and the environment. The class is held in a Maxey Hall classroom dedicated to the late professor Bud Kenworthy and featuring a mural that celebrates the natural world.
Brick, known for his legendary field trips to Oregon and Nevada, is equally famous among students for his classroom teaching style and his rapport with them. As one watches his animated lecture-discussion on property rights, it's easy to see that he loves what he's doing. Brick readily acknowledges that he's known he belonged in front of a classroom since his sophomore year of college. "I was sitting in American Foreign Policy Class at Lawrence University, which is just like Whitman, when I noticed the professor teaching the class, Chong-do Hah, was having a great time, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do."

Another mentor that Brick remembers with gratitude is Nick Maravolo, professor of biology at Lawrence. "He took us on weekly botany field trips around Wisconsin, and a whole world of plant life opened up for me." These mentors represent the kind of teaching Brick attempts to emulate. "They were very generous, passionate about their ideas and interested in me as a student."

Brick's students certainly feel that they get the benefit of these positive role models. "He really cares about students," says politics major Martin Evans, "and he's a good orator. In class he's animated always moving and interacting with students. He never lets the discussion die." A sophomore, Evans says that although the Intro to Politics he's currently enrolled in is his first class from Brick, it won't be his last. "He's made me think about politics in a different way I'm less unconditionally radical than I was before."

Brick's teaching style is described as "engaging" by sophomore Lea Redmond. "He asks provocative questions that really make us think and that's good in an educational institution." Redmond and other students invariably comment on the fact that Brick is involved inside and outside the classroom in the field of environmentalism and is always up to date on the information in his area of expertise. Brick, who serves on several environmental committees, is the editor of a 1996 book on the land rights movement and the new environmental debate and a book just published on collaborative conservation in the American West. He has no intention, however, of giving up the classroom.

"Teaching offers me the opportunity for a rich and full life especially at Whitman. I feel very privileged to work here," says Brick. Teaching at Whitman, he adds, is intellectually challenging, offering the opportunity to work with wonderful colleagues and young people who are eager to learn and hard working.

But the secret to his success, and his students', seems to be in this simple philosophy: "I always try to make sure I'm learning more and having more fun than the students."

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