Barry McNamara  |  Published June 27, 2024

‘A Complete Intellectual Experience’

Monmouth’s four promoted professors discuss their creative approaches to teaching and how they began their academic careers.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – The four Monmouth College professors who received promotions this year may not share an academic discipline, but they all share a passion for working with students, helping to take them to new levels of thinking and understanding.

Eric Engstrom in biology, Bob Simmons in classics and David Wright in English were all promoted to full professor, while Mike Solontoi in physics was promoted to associate professor. Simmons and Wright are also the co-recipients of the College’s Hatch Academic Excellence Award for Distinguished Scholarship.

ERIC ENGSTROM: The biology professor is shown introducing Golden Scots to the Monmouth College Educational Farm earlier thi... ERIC ENGSTROM: The biology professor is shown introducing Golden Scots to the Monmouth College Educational Farm earlier this month.“I’m going to get you to try a little harder than you think you need to and to discover the value in doing that,” said Engstrom, when asked what he’d say to a prospective student seated in his office.

Engstrom made that statement not in his office, but while seated in front of the new yurt classroom as he oversaw a late afternoon U-pick session at Monmouth’s Educational Farm, which he serves as co-director.


Training the mind

“The metaphor I like to use is going to the gym,” said Engstrom. “If you’re an athlete and you want to do better, perform better and get on the field, you practice, you do reps, you work hard. Mastering biology is the same thing. Just the vocabulary of it – you have to work really hard at it. But as you do that work – just as you’ll find in the gym – you start to discover the joy in it. You begin to think, ‘I’m looking forward to that bio lab’ or ‘I’m looking forward to my I&I (Inquiry & Identity) class.’ You think, ‘I WANT to do this.’ That’s one of the things I enjoy about teaching. I want to take people there.”

“The metaphor I like to use is going to the gym. If you’re an athlete and you want to do better, perform better and get on the field, you practice, you do reps, you work hard. Mastering biology is the same thing.” – Eric Engstrom


Simmons also spoke about a shift in mindset for his classics students.

“They’ll learn to step outside of their familiar perspectives,” he said. “They’ll step outside of what they know. They’ll get to know people from thousands of years ago, from far, far away. They’ll see things differently, learning to understand why those people did things the way they do, and why we do things. It helps them see why people might think in different ways.”

And that learning happens in an interactive, non-threatening environment, said Simmons.

BOB SIMMONS: The professor is pictured talking with students during last September's Classics Day VI, an immersive expe... BOB SIMMONS: The professor is pictured talking with students during last September's Classics Day VI, an immersive experience he brought to the College a decade ago.“The Latin and Greek classes are heavily interactive,” he said. “There’s a lot of working with their peers. I believe in that type of model and making students agents in their own education. … Classics is a way to learn about themselves in a way that’s not as personally revealing as being in counseling or having heated political conversations.”

Solontoi agreed with that approach.

“My classes are about as interactive as they really can be,” he said. “I’ve set it up so it’s not just a presentation of facts. We get to talk about all sorts of cool things, not just in astronomy, but in physics, too. I want to make it fun. We’ll take a look at things and play around with them, like a scene from a movie, asking ‘Could that really work? How did they make it work?’”

“I want students to not be afraid to ask questions. If I’m not wrong about at least three things, then I’m having a pretty boring day. That’s learning. You’ve got to be comfortable to be wrong and learn that it’s OK.” – Michael Solontoi


It comes down to being comfortable, both with asking questions and with being wrong, said Solontoi.

“I want students to not be afraid to ask questions. If I’m not wrong about at least three things, then I’m having a pretty boring day. That’s learning. You’ve got to be comfortable to be wrong and learn that it’s OK.”

On the last day of his astronomy class, Solontoi reviews with his students: “’What we did not know when the semester began? What happened in astronomy while we were studying it?’ We so clearly don’t know all the answers in astronomy. Every day, we learn brand new things. And that’s part of the appeal of a liberal arts college – being a lifelong learner. You can’t do astronomy without a commitment to being a lifelong learner.”


Bringing the energy

Simmons might teach about the ancient past, but there’s very much a vibrancy to the way he involves his students and brings his subject to life.

“My classroom thrives with energy,” he said. “They’ll get the best of me for 50-75 minutes, and they’ll get the best of me for office hours. I greet everyone by name, and students are going to be active in my class.”

There was a time when Wright’s classroom vibrancy was directed toward pure enthusiasm – even entertainment – but he’s modified his approach over the years.

“My classroom thrives with energy. They’ll get the best of me for 50-75 minutes, and they’ll get the best of me for office hours. I greet everyone by name, and students are going to be active in my class.” – Bob Simmons


“My pedagogy used to be sheer energy and enthusiasm,” he said. “I could enthuse for 50 minutes. At some point, you realize, ‘I need some thoughtful technique beyond jazzing people up.’ I can still turn that on from time to time,” perhaps tossing a piece of chalk over his shoulder and getting it to land squarely in the chalkboard tray.

But now, Wright’s focus is on the students.

DAVID WRIGHT: The English professor is pictured at May's Commencement ceremony, just as his promotion was announced to ... DAVID WRIGHT: The English professor is pictured at May's Commencement ceremony, just as his promotion was announced to the audience.“For me, that’s a sacred profession – helping people understand themselves through language, story, imagination. I love this phrase – helping students ‘come to terms with the world.’ Language and stories shape us more powerfully than we realize. All the reading we do, all the writing we do is part of recognizing that and learning where we are in the world by the way we think, speak and write.”


How it all began

Each of the professors was asked how they discovered their discipline, and how they got into teaching it. Wright – the son of two educators, including Monmouth alumna Nancy Clark Wright ’57 – went back to his undergraduate days, which he started as a music and English major.

“I discovered there were many people who had far more capacity for music than I did,” he said. “My sophomore year, I was working on a poetry project for my creative writing class, and I was sitting on the floor of the library for, like, an hour-and-a-half, with all these books around me. I completely lost track of time,” missing a choral practice, as a result. That proved to be his turning point.

 “For me, that’s a sacred profession – helping people understand themselves through language, story, imagination. I love this phrase – helping students ‘come to terms with the world.’” – David Wright


Engstrom has been focused on biology as long as he can remember – one of the few television programs he watched growing up was Nature on PBS – and he began teaching it in graduate school.

“You realize how much deeper you understand something when you have to explain it to someone else,” he said. “I still enjoyed doing research, and the first place I worked, that was a focus, but it wasn’t the fit I hoped it would be. It’s hard to do both teaching and research at an extremely high level.”

Engstrom said he does miss doing research but noted that the College’s phage lab – a program he helped start in 2018 – has led to opportunities for him and his students to be published.

Like Wright, both of Simmons’ parents were teachers, and he called the profession “a way to give something back to the world. The only question was, ‘Would it be teaching English or classics?’ … Classics provides an opportunity to work with a range of subjects that I find interesting – language, culture, history, sports. … I’ve been active in athletics most of my life, and in my ‘Sports in Greece and Rome’ class, my interest in athletics overlaps with my academic area.”

MICAHEL SOLONTOI: The physics professor also serves as the coordinating adviser for the College's Midwest Journal of Un... MICAHEL SOLONTOI: The physics professor also serves as the coordinating adviser for the College's Midwest Journal of Undergraduate Research.Solontoi’s family teaching connection is through his grandparents. And, like Engstrom, he’s done his share of both teaching and research. But it didn’t take him long to realize that teaching is where his heart is.

“I’m proud of the research I’ve done, but I realized I was more passionate about teaching,” he said. “I enjoy helping others. At the end of it all, I want to see one of my students go on to do something interesting, rather than myself. Plus, space is amazing. I enjoy sharing it with other people.”

Solontoi has felt that way all his life.

“I just always wanted to do science,” he said. “When you’re a kid, there are two main ways to get into science – space and dinosaurs. I just never got out of that phase. I’ve been drawn to physics-y, space-y things from a very young age. Nothing else ever drew me in in the same way.”

Wright tied it all together while describing how Monmouth’s faculty know each other, regardless of discipline.

“You not only get individual attention at Monmouth, but you get attention from across the disciplines,” he said. “You can be a writer, but also a musician or a philosopher. You can make paintings, ceramics. The faculty pass energy back and forth that the students can absorb. That’s harder to do at larger places. It’s beyond saying something like, ‘We have a 9-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio.’ … It’s a more complete intellectual experience when you call on those other folks and tap into their knowledge and energy.”

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