Dr. Nate Zuckerman: On German Philosophy, Palmetto Bugs, and Sweater Weather

Wed, 10/16/2013 - 8:15am
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While traversing across Rydex Commons toward the Lucey Administration Center on any given day, you’re bound to see new faces, and not all of them students. Among the “freshman” faculty at Spring Hill College you’ll find Assistant Philosophy Professor Nate Zuckerman – known by many for his wry sense of humor – listing “beard growing” among his areas of specialization.

Dr. Zuckerman, who hails from Virginia, spent the past few years wrapping up his Ph.D. above the Mason-Dixon Line. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 2012 and recently taught classes at the equally chilly University of Puget Sound.

Here at SHC, Dr. Zuckerman will share his philosophical passions and Ph.D. research – exploring the work of German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), known for groundbreaking work in existentialism and phenomenology. As Dr. Zuckerman explains, Heidegger explores the role of commitment in human understanding. “(Heidegger) makes a compelling case for treating commitment as an activity and not just an attitude,” Zuckerman explains. “This activity explains how it is possible for our selves, our lives, and our world to make sense to us.”

 

SHC: How did you find Spring Hill ... or did Spring Hill find you?

Dr. Zuckerman: Spring Hill’s job advertisement stood out from the rest, not just because the department was hiring in my specialty, but because the website spoke so clearly to the enthusiasm, humor, and overall nerdiness of the philosophy faculty. I felt right away like I could fit in; and fortunately that impression proved true in my interview and campus visit!

SHC: How do you intend to contribute to the SHC and Jesuit mission of forming leaders in service to others?

NZ: On every syllabus of mine, the most vital (and daunting) learning goal is to enjoy disagreement. I don’t think you can live a happy life without that. Philosophy is a perfect way to develop this skill – since its beginnings in ancient Greece, the Western tradition of philosophy has been about cultivating the virtues of conversation in everyday life. We have to get along with people whose beliefs and values we might find shallow, condescending, reactionary, superstitious, dangerous, dim-witted, even bigoted and hateful.

Philosophical thinking and conversation can help approach this disagreement with compassion, fascination and humor, as something utterly human, rather than a source of stress, disappointment, anger or shame. Students sometimes complain that in philosophy ‘there are no right answers.’ But better, clearer, simpler, more justified, gripping, imaginative and thoughtful answers exist – and philosophy always pushes to find those on both sides of any debate.

If I can help my students find it fun and exciting to think through the views of someone they disagree with; to find the most charitable interpretation of their interlocutor’s reasoning; and to find the right questions to ask and objections to raise that will keep the conversation moving toward further clarity and insight, even if the disagreement remains, then I think I will have served the school mission well.

SHC: How you feel about joining the “team” at Spring Hill College?

NZ: I cannot speak highly enough of my colleagues. I respect and aspire to their levels of intelligence and dedication to their students; and I am grateful for the way they have welcomed me immediately and wholeheartedly to Spring Hill. People are constantly offering any help or advice they can give, popping into my office to tell a story or a joke, and encouraging me as I find my way into the culture of teaching and learning here.

SHC: Why is SHC a good fit for you?

NZ: I have always flourished in a small, liberal arts learning environment. I went to Haverford College as an undergrad and was inspired by the constant, focused interactions with my professors. I want to do what I can to offer that experience to my own students, and Spring Hill’s size and mission are perfectly suited to working toward that goal. I resonated with the concept of Cura Personalis because that’s how I think about my role as a teacher, colleague and mentor.

SHC: What are you most excited about?

NZ: The day when it’s cool enough to wear a sweater and try brewing some beer! (I say ‘the day’ because I have come to understand that the other 364 will be too hot for that, right?)

SHC: What are your goals for the program?

NZ: To make a convincing case to students that a philosophy major or minor can be an asset in pursuing many different kinds of careers. I hope to convince more students to take more upper-level philosophy classes, and I’m looking forward to working with some of the same students across a number of classes – a rare opportunity that places like Spring Hill makes possible.

SHC: Talk about the move to Mobile, Ala.  Are you new to the Deep South?  What changes or new things are you experiencing?

NZ: I am new to the Deep South, although there is plenty of Virginia-baked ‘southernness’ in my family. When I first came to visit, it was meeting Dottie (Barnett) and hearing her talk just like my friends and family back home in Winchester, Va., that let me know I’d get along just fine. Palmetto bugs are a new experience, as endearing as they are revolting. My wife and I have loved finding new uses for okra, but we haven’t figured out how to de-slime it yet. 

 

This semester at Spring Hill, Dr. Zuckerman is teaching Existentialism and three sections of Philosophy of Human Nature. In the spring of 2014, he is scheduled to offer History of Ancient Philosophy and Existentialism, as well as regular and honors Human Nature.

Dr. Zuckerman and his wife, Jen, live in Midtown, where they enjoy cooking up new dinner recipes and exploring the various restaurants and breweries of the Gulf Coast region.