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Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of English Dutton Kearney studied com­puter pro­gramming before he decided to pursue a career in English. Hillsdale College
Assistant Pro­fessor of The­ology Jordan Wales studied engi­neering abroad before teaching religion. Hillsdale College

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.”