Even among the humanities, some professors have a background in computer programming. Outside of the computer programmers in the science division, two professors now teach English or religion at Hillsdale.
Before Associate Professor of English Dutton Kearney decided on a career as an English professor, he taught himself computer programming while working for an insurance company.
His specific project involved using two computer languages — SQL and UNIX — to make and improve databases of injury-related information for insurance companies.
At one point, Keaney learned a new computer-programming language over the course of 72 hours in order to take on a new project.
“You’re continuously training and learning, and it’s exciting because it’s something brand new,” Kearney said. “Computer programming is a lot like learning a foreign language.”
Based off Kearney’s work with improving the programming for the databases, the insurance companies could then improve the timeframes of expected recovery from different types of injuries. This allowed the insured workers to return to their jobs as soon as possible while still giving them sufficient time off for recovery.
For Kearney, though, the rewarding part of the job was the challenge of the programming.
“You spend days or weeks or maybe even months putting code together, and then you brace yourself and hit ‘run,’ and then it works, and that’s just fun,” Kearney said. “It’s not physically building something, but it tricks the brain into thinking that you are constructing something, that if you can make it elegant and have it work, and be able to create a user interface that anybody else can use too, that’s a challenge too.”
One day, though, as the novelty of the new projects and programming languages wore off, a realization struck him: Kearney said he realized he wanted more from his career than an office cubicle, chasing the promise of a higher salary and a corner office. He left his job and was accepted into a doctorate program in English, enticed by the promise of new literature to explore — the passion for literature that he had already pursued as an undergraduate student and wanted to return to.
“I had stopped learning at my job, and it was just maintenance, so it lost its freshness,” Kearney said. “Whereas going to study the literature of the western world…”
For Professor Emeritus of Computer Science Reinhardt Zeller, computer science was not his primary academic interest. Before he found computer sciences, Zeller studied economics, and taught at Bowling Green State University and Iowa State, where he offered business and statistics courses. He then left to pursue graduate coursework in statistics, and worked on a econometric modelling project that left him with a new interest: computer science.
Zeller used computer modeling to simulate how liquid crystals would react to different environmental factors while pursuing doctoral studies in computer science — a technology he said would one day be present in flat-screen televisions.
“I could write parallel programs that would run more efficiently on these high-tech machines,” Zeller told the Collegian.
He then shared his passion for computer sciences with Hillsdale students until his retirement in 2015.
Whereas Kearney’s and Zeller’s interest in computer programming stemmed from their professional work, Assistant Professor of Theology Jordan Wales said his own interest in computer programming developed when he was in high school, and stemmed from a philosophical interest in capturing reality within a model.
“I remember building a cathedral in a 3D computer game because I liked this idea of a world that could be entered into and explored,” Wales said.
This interest followed him to college, where he studied engineering and focused on robotics.
He even went abroad to study cognitive science on a Marshall Scholarship.
“Cognitive science is kind of like a mixture of Neuroscience computer science artificial intelligence philosophy of mind philosophy, biology, and computer science,” Wales said. “But there were certain questions, like what is the flourishing of the mind what does a good life look like? Is there a soul? How does God fit into it? I became frustrated because there were certain questions that couldn’t be asked within the domain of cognitive science.”
He used his remaining semester on scholarship to study theology at Oxford before returning to the United States, where he had a National Science Foundation scholarship to pursue a doctoral degree in computer sciences. He began working in a laboratory that aligned with his interests, and engineered robots that could recognize and move pieces on a tic-tac-toe board.
He said the research wasn’t particularly interesting to him, and conversations with his friends about larger questions in life led him to withdraw from the computer sciences program and instead, study theology at the University Notre Dame.
While his field of study changed, Wales said theology required a similar approach in which individual components of study were always viewed in light of the whole.
“The mode of thought that one must have as an engineer or a scientist or a theologian is a very synthetic mode of thought where the parts must always be understood in light of the whole,” Wales said. “For me it feels like a continuous development or refinement of the way I wanted to approach this yearning for reconciliation of the parts and whole and the desire to capture whole.”