Joseph Church, an expert in existential thinking and an associate professor of English at Binghamton University, said he began questioning the world as a young boy after learning that the Earth was suspended in the universe with nothing to hold it up.
“That bothered me tremendously,” Church said.
He envisioned Earth like an aquarium, with a ground to keep the planet from falling through space. White-bearded, soft-spoken and introspective, Church — who has taught at BU for 30 years — is the go-to professor for a philosophical chat.
Church grew up in Los Angeles and joined the Navy at 17. For the next four years, he worked in a ship’s engine room.
“My friends went on to really get into a lot of trouble, so being in the Navy isolated me from that,” he said. “By the time I came out at 21-22, I had really become far more responsible.”
He and his friends had a gang called the Fables, which he said he believes foreshadowed his future as a professor.
“I think it’s a prophecy that I was going to wind up somewhere in literature,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t even know what a fable was in those days.”
After the Navy, Church went to community college at night and worked odd jobs during the day. At 29, he thought he would become a fiction writer similar to Woody Allen. Instead, he found himself at University of California, Irvine for his master’s and doctorate degrees. At the time, the university’s English department curriculum was based in philosophical literature, which he said drew him into philosophy and away from fiction.
“I started to awaken to the beauty and attraction of philosophy,” he said. “From that moment then in 1975, to this moment right here, I never left it.”
Church has since interlaced his teachings with philosophy. Dante Di Stefano, ‘15, took graduate classes with Church for his Ph.D. in English. Now, he teaches at Union-Endicott High School and said Church’s lessons still resonate with him.
“I teach ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ every year at the high school and I still draw on insights I gained from Dr. Church in my instruction,” Di Stefano wrote in an email. “His intellectual curiosity is contagious and he truly does philosophize with a hammer. His classes were more useful for my everyday practice as a high school teacher than most of my education courses combined.”
Besides his profound thinking, Di Stefano also recalled Church’s empathy as a professor.
“I remember I missed class one day, and I received an email from Dr. Church asking if I was okay,” Di Stefano wrote. “I had never had a professor do that before.”
When Church applied to BU, there were around 500 to 600 others in the running for a position, according to him.
“I didn’t deserve it obviously,” Church said. “I mean how could I be the best? But that’s how luck is sometimes.”
Looking back, Susan Strehle, distinguished professor of English and one of his interviewers, said she remembers Church’s innovative thoughts and likable personality during the interview.
“We asked him questions about teaching as well as research and he was outstanding in both areas, with a real commitment to students,” Strehle wrote in an email. “As a person, Joe has a warm sense of humor and the ability to take pleasure in life’s little ironies.”
Since his start, Church has taught British literature and ENG 380V: Metaphysics of Popular Culture, and he also currently teaches ENG 450M: Existential Literature. He has also taught for the English department’s Semester in London program three times and will be there again in the spring.
During his classes, Church encourages discussion. As he sits at the front of the classroom, he shifts from a pose similar to “The Thinker,” to a tight crouch. He is as restless as a toddler in a car seat. As he moves about, he keeps the class on their toes — and he calls on every student who has a thoughtful look on their face.
Although teaching was not Church’s original plan, he said he finds his career very fulfilling.
“They actually pay us to have a job with a lot of satisfaction,” he said.
Sometimes Church thinks back to his first teaching gig when he was supposed to give a lecture on John Milton. Frozen with fear, Church couldn’t make it into the room and he walked away, apprehensive about his whole future in the field. The following year, he got his own composition class and found he was able to walk in with a confidence he hadn’t had the year before. A few weeks later, he got a call from a student’s mother who thanked him for the improvement in her daughter’s writing.
“It meant a lot to me — moments like that,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Maybe I can do this.’”
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