Barry McNamara  |   Published June 13, 2016

Talking it out

Ott enjoys discussing the ‘big ideas’ with his students
  • Professor Dan Ott talks out a few key points with his colleague David Wright.
Monmouth College’s Dan Ott was studying at the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and serving as a teaching assistant for Bible and Greek courses when he realized he was most passionate about his theology courses.

“The big ideas are what excited me most,” he said.

A member of Monmouth’s philosophy and religious studies department, Ott was recently granted tenure. His promotion to associate professor was announced at the College’s May 15 Commencement Exercises.

Ott, who was a music composition major at the undergraduate level at West Virginia University, wasn’t sure where he was headed when he began seminary. But the “big ideas” gave him a clear idea – he ultimately received his Ph.D. in the philosophy of religion and theology from Claremont (Calif.) Graduate University.
“I enjoy being able to spend my time talking with people about things that really matter,” he said of his role as a professor.

That is reflected in his teaching method. Ott might occasionally deliver a “mini-lecture” for 10 minutes to inform his class about a key point, but the vast majority of his courses are discussion-driven.

“I set it up as a community of inquiry,” he said of his classes. “How can we begin to wrestle with what we just read? The classes are largely discussion-based, and I remain open to different readings of the text. Part of the process is drawing out the nascent ideas the students might have.”

Some of Ott’s work comes in Monmouth’s integrated studies curriculum, teaching the Introduction to Liberal Arts course to freshmen and serving as co-coordinator of the Reflections program, which is the third-year element of the curriculum.

Last year, Ott and department colleague Hannah Schell published Christian Thought in America: A Brief History, which consumed much of his non-teaching time.

Ott’s specialty within his department is the study of peace, ethics and social justice, which became a minor at Monmouth two years ago.

“The base assumption that a lot of people have, in general, is that war is just a reality – that peace is not a genuine possibility,” he said. “I started thinking about that at a philosophical level. … If we establish philosophically that peace is a possibility, what is the actual groundwork?”

Asked if peace was indeed possible, he replied, “Yes, I think so. To paraphrase (20th-century philosopher) William James, ‘Peace is a possibility, which becomes more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of peace become.’”

“Since I’ve been at Monmouth, I’ve really steeped myself in the history of the peace movement,” said Ott. “We still have a ways to go, of course, but one of the areas I’ve studied is nuclear disarmament. We’ve gone from about 65,000 warheads down to around 7,000. Now, it’s hard to get from 7,000 to zero, but there are lessons to be gained from how we got from 65,000 to 7,000.”

Ott has also studied non-violence as “a general and moral alternative. … Non-violence can still mean engaging in conflict, and it can be coercive, but it’s a way to approach our differences without killing somebody.”

Ott said that part of the payoff of being a professor is discussing the “big ideas” such as peace. But he said another benefit comes around graduation, when he reflects on the “life journeys and academic journeys” of the students he’s taught.

“Teaching the liberal arts is going back to the original disciplines of the mind to free your mind – subjects such as rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics,” said Ott. “It’s like being an athlete, and being in training. These disciplines train the mind to be flexible and powerful.”

Ott said he often asks his students to “Take me back to the text” in their discussions.

“My seniors really get that by the end – how to pull out the most important pieces of the text,” he said. “Watching those graduates, it was interesting to see how much more capable they are than when they started – how much more logical they are, critical, reflective – how much more mature in every way.”
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