Mike Taber has lived and breathed Colorado College pride since birth. He is the parent of two CC graduates, the former director for the environmental program at CC, and the current chair of the education department. This week, The Catalyst sat down with Taber to discuss his time at CC and his views on education.
The Catalyst: How long and in what capacity have you been at CC?
Mike Taber: Well, I’m the son of a Dick Taber, who was a professor of chemistry at CC. So, he started in the fall of 1963, and I was born in April of ’64. So technically since April of ’64 I’ve been part of CC. But I also attended CC, so I started my freshman year in 1982 and graduated in ’86 with a bachelor’s in geology. And then I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do. I know I didn’t want to go on and work on oil rigs and things like that. So my classmates and I — of course none of us really wanted to do any of that either — so we kind of had two choices in the mid ’80s: we either go work for an oil company or we could work for rafting companies. And I didn’t choose that one either, so I decided to become a teacher. My mom was a teacher, my father was a teacher, obviously, so I did the Master of Arts and Teaching program. And I finished in 1987 with a master’s in teaching secondary science. Gosh, then I taught down in Texas, I taught in Colorado Springs after wanting to move back to Colorado Springs in 1990. Still I was part of CC, attending hockey games — as I always did — working in some alumni-related events. And then went back to graduate school in ’94. I really didn’t come back to CC again until 2006: July 2006 is when I kind of started at CC, and I’ve been here ever since.
TC: In what ways have you seen CC change and what changes would you like to see in the future?
MT: Yeah, it felt like, you know when I was here as an undergrad, that there very much was the proverbial bubble that we talk about around CC. We really didn’t have the kinds of opportunities that you have today with going abroad. One of the reasons I became a geology major was because class was outside so that got us off campus a lot. You know, spending several weeks in Arches learning structural geology was just, to me, the greatest thing in the world. So I wasn’t stuck at CC. And I think there were so many more internal activities and things that we did in CC. Naturally we took Block Breaks to go skiing and things like that, but the reality was we didn’t quite have the opportunities that you had today. We didn’t have all these extra services. I don’t recall there being disability services, for example. We didn’t have The Butler Center; we didn’t have all of those kinds of added enrichment to the curriculum that we have now. I think a big change is that we’ve really seen the college take a stance of focusing on the individual student learner and their needs and addressing those. I mean, really it seemed like in 1983 if I didn’t get something, it’s like, “Figure it out, Mike.” And now, we have so many other opportunities to take advantage of that. Future, I’d like to see the college continue to work toward more economic diversity at the college. You know, I think we’re making strides the best we can in the current economic climate to have students who are first-generation have an opportunity to come to CC. Certainly students who have the means and privilege to be able to come to CC can and sometimes will; but I also think that there’s this sort of shrinking middle class that we always keep talking about, and do they have the right opportunities to come CC. You know, their family income’s fine, but the sticker price for CC is huge compared to when I was at CC: 70 percent higher or some crazy number like that. So that’s a problem that we’ll continue to address, and with not a real easy solution I’m sure. I’d love to continue to see more opportunities for international students as well.
TC: What do you think is the most beautiful thing in the world and why?
MT: Alright, so I grew up in Colorado. So to me the most beautiful thing in the world is sitting at 14,000 feet all by yourself and looking out over the horizon. No doubt about that. I’m an introvert, so I love that space. And I could stay up there for as long as the weather would let me stay there. And the problem, of course, with that is today a lot of people — glad that they can — are able to do that kind of hike and get to the top of 14,000 feet. You know, when I’m up there and there’s 100 other people, it’s not as exciting. So I try to seek out some of those less desirable climbs — and not technical; I’m not a technical climber, but at least more remote perhaps. So that’s kind of fun. That’s to me the beautiful thing in the world.
TC: What is your ultimate goal in life?
MT: I suppose the pat answer is to be a professor, cause that’s what I am. But I think the reality is I want to flâneur in Paris. I want to also be a flâneur in hiking and traveling around the world. I want to just meet new people, talk to new people, attempt to try to understand all kinds of diverse cultures, of course never knowing that I’ll actually ever understand any of those other cultures other than my own. So what do I do for that, though? That sounds like a profession that doesn’t pay and that’s okay. I’m not out to make money or gain labels or anything like that. So to me, that would be something that I would love to do. Maybe after I graduate from being a professor. You know, I’m an educator so I have to couch it in graduation, right? I graduated from toddling around, I graduated from school, graduated from CC, graduated from teaching. Graduate from being a professor? Time to move on.
TC: Which of your experiences have most influenced the work you do?
MT: Wow there’s a lot there. I think traveling and my eyes opening up to the way different people perceive the world in which they live. It’s been some of the most rewarding experiences for me. And that also might include teaching kids. I mean, I taught sixth grade, and every day it was a new day. And to watch them grow and develop and see the world through their eyes was a little bit of remembrance of me being 12 and looking through the world through those eyes. I cherish and value relationships and deep relationships, so those kinds of experiences are just something that I think are most influential to me. You know there’s always the pat answer mom and dad. I think it’s the people around: being a parent, watching my kids grow up and realize that they are their own people. You know, interacting with my wife — who’s also a CC grad — and as we travel around the world and seeing things that she sees that I don’t see. Those are great experiences.
TC: Who is your personal hero and why?
MT: Well, I’m not sure I like the word “hero,” so I’ll back off the word “hero” and just say a person I tend to idolize. And to me it’s always been Marie Curie. Why? Marie Curie was a pioneer, obviously, in physics and chemistry. She established, she transformed the way physicists and chemists thought about two important laws; it was conservation mass [and] conservation energy. Her work in radioactivity is everywhere today. You know, every time you go get an X-ray or an MRI you think about Marie Curie. She helped take geology, a discipline that I love, to a new direction that took a while to catch up on. But the way we radiometrically date rocks and earth and things like that was absolutely critical work that she established in the early 1900s. I think the other thing that I admire most about her is that she never lost her Polish identity. She became a naturalized French citizen because her husband worked also in sciences in Paris. And, yeah, she won the Nobel Prize twice. But she never ever lost her roots being a Polish woman and scientist learning science in a sort of way that was not allowed to be learned — so a clandestine way in Poland. And then being able to go into a place male-dominated in Paris and establish herself as someone who was a scholar. To me that emulates what all scientists should do and think about. I always come back to her. Not because I’m necessarily a physicist or a chemist, but it’s about how she how she was able to do her work and ways that she thought about science and changed things.
TC: What do you believe is the purpose of education?
MT: I’m going to say it’s personal here in a sense that education is about continuing to pursue those things that you’re curious about. And that’s the kind of individualistic perspective. When I look at it on a little bit broader perspective — you know, if we think about the purpose of education for the public — again it’s still couched in that. It’s like trying to foster those individual curiosities and motivations to learn more about things. I don’t think that education has a role necessarily in things like nation-building even though that’s how it was originally set up. If we look back through the history of education in Europe and in the United States through the Enlightenment period, it was really about nation-building all couched in the context of the Industrial Revolution. You know, “We need to make good productive citizens.” And so I’m not sure I think that is today’s model, ’cause the U.S. is so entrepreneurial anyway, so it’s hard for me to get my head out of that bubble. We want people to be entrepreneurs and innovative and manufacturers of their own destiny. And that has a place in some cultures but not all. So other cultures still might hold on to that broader perspective of nation-building; and that’s fine, you know, that’s what their policy might be. But I really do think it boils down to the individual.
TC: What do you like most about teaching?
MT: Getting to know students. I like getting to know what makes people tick, you know? What are they interested in? What role do I get to play in helping them get interested? I’m not what you would normally call “a sage on the stage.” And by that I mean someone who stands up on a pedestal and spouses this terrific knowledge about some topic that some people may not care about. While sometimes lecturing’s fun ’cause it can be entertaining and I can insert a joke or two, I really think that the key to teaching is trying to figure out how students function and operate in their own learning processes and then pulling that out and making it work as a team. That’s what I love about teaching. And so I do like small classes because you get that opportunity. When you get classes of 15 or more students, sometimes it’s a little more difficult to get to know every student on that level that you’re really after to really help them become better persons.
TC: Which book or movie has had the greatest influence on your life?
MT: So, it’s weird, but … I love things that kind of poke fun at life. So “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is always a movie that I keep coming back to. And last night my daughter and I were talking about “Spaceballs,” which is an satiric thing. And if you kind of look at some of the ways in which the scripts are written and the time in which they’re written — we’ve got to make sure that we understand the time in which the social challenges might be happening, then I really like those things. And if it were a TV show, to me it’s the original “Star Trek” series. I mean, it’s so pioneering in the way they were challenging societal norms and pushing boundaries as much as they were allowed to push the boundaries. And so in terms of a book it’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I mean Douglas Adams was admittedly, you know, pretty much on drugs every time he was writing that stuff, which was for a radio show before it got edited for the books. But again it was just a huge satire on what was going on in terms of society. And with that there’s the dystopian side of those things, too. I think “1984” and “Brave New World” were pretty influential for me as a kid as I was thinking about these challenges to societal norms. So I think that’s how I keep cycling back to those things. And I suppose, like, what was the most recent movie in the Avengers series? You know, where they got killed off into dust and things like that, do you remember this one? My daughter would know it cause she’s so into those things. But it was just what a mess at the end. It just made you think about population control. It’s like, “Oh my gosh, that was not what I expected.” And yet that’s a challenge when you think about things that were overpopulating the planet; nobody wants to talk about that, right? And so, while that was not a satire, it made you think about those challenges to society that are interesting.
TC: What advice would you give to current or incoming CC students?
MT: Okay, so let’s go through the years. Let’s start with someone who’s applying Early Decision. There must be something about CC that makes them want to make that pretty important decision, going, “I want to be here.” And I hope it’s because they saw CC as a place, through our structure, to really go back to the question about getting to know faculty, you know. You’re not going to do that at a big university — get to know faculty the way that you can here. And so it’s the deep relationship-building that I think that CC allows because of our structure. So when they’re thinking about the block that they maybe put in in their application that it has some element of that. First-years, wow. First-years, let the block give some time to find your rhythm. It’s a rhythm nobody’s used to unless they went to a high school that had a block like our block. So, find time to work through that rhythm, understand how you learn in those rhythms is what’s going to allow you to be successful. I think too often students go, “The Block Plan’s not for me.” They don’t give it time. Sophomores, oh, go abroad please! If you get a chance to do it, do it. That’s an opportunity back on an earlier question. You know, we could go abroad; it was like Florence, London, you know, that was about it. There was abroad with Spanish down in Mexico like my wife had done, but it’s like, if you can do it, do it. Even if it’s a block. It just is a different kind of experience. And with CC faculty because sometimes we definitely know what we’re doing when we’re abroad, you know, it’s not like we don’t. If you’re a sophomore, plan, you know, “When am I going to go abroad?” If you’re a junior, so it’s Nov. 1. Juniors, it’s time to start thinking a little bit about life after CC. It’s not like you have to make a commitment but it’s like, “What do I want to do with what I’m doing here?” So this is where summer internships are a great opportunity to explore that. You know, maybe you want to work in a lab; okay, go work in a lab. And then you’re going to find out at the end of that lab work, “That’s not for me.” And that’s just as valuable as saying, “I worked in a lab, so now I’m going to go to med school.” So find those opportunities; take advantage of the space between Block 8 and Block 1 and the summer before your senior year and really explore what you can do. I didn’t do that; I worked grounds crew. I had an opportunity to go work as a volunteer on Isle Royale in Lake Superior to tag wolfs with radio collars. I said no to that opportunity and I sure wish I had somebody say, “You have to say yes.” I would be a different person had I done that. I’d be a better, richer person, probably. I would have figured out things that I like to do and not do because of that element of isolation and loneliness and getting lost that can come with that. If you’re a senior, you’re thinking about that, right? You’re not thinking about that now. You’ve already thought about it cause your parents are probably going to be asking you, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” and you want to be ready for that answer. So you’ve thought about that; maybe you’re applying to grad school, maybe you’re taking gap years, you know, whatever it might [be]. But you’ve already thought enough about it so you’re not drained on thinking about it now because now you might be thinking about the theses or you might be thinking about the final classes you want to take. This is your last year and it’s kind of scary, you know? So what do you want to do to take advantage of the last few blocks at CC and literally do that. Do it with a lot of gusto and desire, and no regrets. That’s what you want, no regrets your senior year because it’s going to fly by so fast. .