Dr. Brian Austin Named 2012 Distinguished Professor
Carson-Newman’s Dr. Brian Austin has invested his professional academic career in the examination of reality. Even so, the philosophy professor seemed to have trouble understanding the recent announcement that he is Carson-Newman’s 2012 Distinguished Faculty Member.
The chair of C-N’s Honors Program, Austin had finished his annual Honors Day Chapel duties on April 19 and sat with other platform guests in the sanctuary of Jefferson City’s First Baptist Church. Provost Kina Mallard stepped to the pulpit and began the tradition of hinting at the honoree’s identity by noting experience and accomplishments before naming the recipient.
His realization that the provost was talking about him brought a look of surprise and the blush of being the subject of public praise. Asked about the moment of realization, Austin said, “I thought there must be some mistake. “I looked out and saw all the other people who are more qualified and thought, ‘This really can’t be happening right now.”
The reality of Austin’s accomplishments is clear both on paper and in practice. A C-N faculty member since 1995, the Danville, Kentucky native is a magna cum laude graduate of Samford University with a double major in Spanish and religion. He went on to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, earning the MDiv and the PhD in Philosophy, Biblical Hebrew, and Theology. He completed further study at China’s Yantai University.
Since his initial C-N appointment as assistant professor, Austin has risen through the academic ranks and was recently promoted to full professor, effective Academic Year 2012-13. He has served in several leadership roles, including chair of the philosophy department and leader of several committees. Beyond the classroom, he has served in a host of capacities, including membership on the Church Music Committee, advising Phi Sigma Tau philosophy honor society, leading the London Studies program, chairing the General Education Task Force, and leading the 18-member Private College Consortium for International Studies (PCCIS) for 15 years. For the last two years, he has served as director of Carson-Newman’s acclaimed Honors Program.
His book, The End of Certainty and the Beginning of Faith, was published by Smyth and Helwys in 2000. Since 2008, he has served as editor of Carson-Newman Studies. He has published many articles on religion/science themes as well as church curriculum literature. He has received a number of grants, including a $10,000 John Templeton Foundation prize, an $11,000 ACA study award, and $42,000 to lead a seminar team in Scotland and England. Under his leadership, PCCIS was awarded $500,000 grants for student scholarships in 2001 and again in 2004.
Away from campus, Austin has served area youth soccer leagues as both a coach and referee. Other volunteer work has included being a board member for Morristown’s REACHOUT Inc., and for Dandridge South Jefferson Little League, for which he also coached for several years. Active in Knoxville’s St. James Episcopal Church, Austin has served area congregations as Sunday school teacher, choir member and interim pastor.
Austin’s wife, Sandra, is also an innovative educator who led Dandridge Elementary School as principal for a decade. In January, she began her service as the first principal of Mt. Horeb Elementary School, which will be completed this summer and open for class in August. The couple’s sons are David, a 2010 C-N Honors Program graduate in creative writing, and Seth, a sophomore at Sewanee, the University of the South.
Austin’s recognition pleased graduating senior Schuyler Matteson, who says he has wanted his major professor elevated to C-N’s elite ranks, “since my first semester at Carson-Newman, when he befuddled the class of 40 honors students on a daily basis.”
Matteson’s regard for Austin, who he calls “the best teacher I have ever had,” is based on three factors: broad intellect, connection to students, and “his unending and fervent thirst for knowledge. He searches it out in his studies, in his classes, and he is even a valuable resource as a discussion partner when a problem or argument needs to be assessed.”
While philosophy might be an acquired taste for some, Austin’s methodology is rather straightforward.
“Our approach to Christian liberal arts education is to give students solid exposure to curricular material, the things they see on a syllabus and find in a text book,” he noted. “But, it is much more important to me to help students use those things as tools to help them discover what is most real about themselves. Then, we try to align those real things – truths – with what is real about the universe. As Christians, we discuss this in terms of trying to find ourselves in the center of God’s will.”
To that end, the professor says he seeks “to engage life’s difficult questions” because the “easy answers of our youth are often not adequate to life’s ongoing challenges, opportunities, and mysteries.”
“Dr. Austin deserves this recognition because he has distinguished himself in so many ways,” assessed Dr. Mallard. “As a teacher, he is regarded as a skilled facilitator and interpreter of difficult philosophical discussions whether talking to a first-year student in a general education course or a senior philosophy major headed for graduate school.”
Mallard noted that Austin’s commitment to excellence is reflected in scholarship, teaching, mentoring of students, leading both the philosophy major and the Honors Program, as well as though the demonstration of his faith. “We are proud to have Brian as a member of our faculty at Carson-Newman. He keeps the bar high and is an encouragement for all of us to continue striving toward excellence in all we do,” she said.
Austin remembers the day when he helped a friend, and found his calling in doing the favor. It was in the early stages of his doctoral program and a friend needed someone to cover a couple of classes at a nearby Catholic liberal arts college. The favor carried the added incentive of $25 per course.
While he had previously led classes as a teaching assistant, the professor recalls the novelty of being granted the chance to “fly solo” with “whatever fit in that part of the curriculum.”
The first taste was exhilarating, so much in fact, that he forgot about not getting paid. “Various kinds of ministry positions were alive in my mind, but I didn’t know that I really loved teaching until then,” he said warmly.
Before moving to the Philippines as a missionary a couple of years later, the friend sought out Austin. He held an electric drill in one hand and a circular saw in the other. “I never paid you for teaching those classes for me; will you take these power tools instead?”
Austin said that he is grateful each time he uses either the drill or saw, but remains most thankful for the clarity of call that he received by doing the favor.
A classical guitarist with years of training and performance experience, Austin says that his love for teaching is directly connected to the fact “that I have never found a way to replicate it doing something else.”
Asked to elaborate, Austin smiled. “A good day of teaching would be like a really good jam session of jazz,” he said, likening the classroom to musicians who play together although they represent different levels of skill. “It’s like an ensemble where there’s a master player who has to take the lead.”
The officially-recognized C-N master teacher noted that the musical genre, like a teacher-student experience, “is a conversation.” The senior member, he suggested, be it teacher or lead musician, needs to trust and be able to sense how to provide help should the interaction trail off or start to break down. The success of such a teaching model depends on granting less skilled participants the opportunity to make attempts and learn in the process.
While agreeing that students have choices in the pursuit of higher education, Austin says he is troubled by the notion that students should be treated as customers, since catering to one’s wants often runs counter to what one needs.
“I understand it, but I resist the customer model,” he said. “I resist it because I think it cheapens them. I seek to engage them not as customers, but as unique and valuable children of God. That’s what we are, and that is real value.”