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Humans of Beloit: Rob LaFleur

September 23, 2016
By Will Tomer'17

Rob LaFleur, Professor of History and Anthropology

Since 1998, Rob has taught at Beloit College, where he shares his passion for both history and anthropology with students. An expert in the cultural and political history of East Asia, Rob has participated in a staggering number of projects, conferences, and classes. As a two-time winner of the Underkofler Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching Award, he has been repeatedly recognized for his achievements in the classroom.

Most recently, Rob has recorded a series lectures for the distinguished Great Courses series.

Get to know a little bit more about this celebrated faculty member.

Q: What was the most exciting part of your summer?

A: It is hard to say “most exciting” when you start in Hawaii and you spend a whole chunk of the middle taping 24 lectures for the Great Courses and then finish up on a Chinese mountain for a month. So the whole summer was exciting.

Q: What is your philosophy toward your work?

A: It is, number one, to keep myself interested. I think there is nothing that a student should flee from more quickly than a bored professor. But the fact is that that is not hard to do because I love what I’m studying. And then number two, I believe that scholarship drives good teaching. That’s not always how we talk about it at liberal arts colleges, but I believe very strongly that scholarship drives my teaching, not vice versa. However, the beautiful thing about Beloit College is that it does work the other way. You rarely hear someone at a major university talk this way, but I am often motivated by what we talk about in class and bring it to my research. Teaching informs research, research informs teaching. You have to have both.

Q: Tell me about the Great Courses series you were involved in creating.

A: The first set on mythologies of East Asia and the Pacific are out. They’ve been out for a year. I’ve actually been using them in my teaching of Pacific world history to “flip the classroom.” In other words, we have more time for discussion because some of the lecturing is happening outside of class. The second set, we taped in July. There are 24 lectures on Confucius and his little book, The Analects. I’ve done all my own translations for the series, and I see it as original work. There are several original insights that aren’t elsewhere. It is kind of exciting that way. They’re not just informational, where I’m just processing other people’s information. I actually have my own approach to the book, which might startle some people in a good way.

Q: What movies make you cry the hardest and laugh the hardest?

A: Cry and laugh is interesting. I guess laugh and cry at the same time is one of my three favorite movies of all time, Fargo. It is really awful stuff, but it is dark comedy. And the comedy part of dark comedy…you can’t help but laugh. Being from that area, I know very well that the pronunciations are dead-on. But the movie I just love and it is maybe the most emotional is Casablanca. During that scene where they start singing spontaneously ‘La Marseillaise,’ I actually tear up. Those are bronze and silver movies, but my gold medal movie, getting up on the podium, is The Seven Samurai. Akira Kurosawa made a movie that is emotional in every way. I’ve watched it over 300 times.

Q: If you could only dance to one song for the rest of your life, what would that song be?A: I’m trying to decide if I’m going to tell you the truth here or if I need to give you an answer that’s more palatable [laughs]. “Stairway To Heaven.” There’s a version I can’t stop watching, where it is being redone while Led Zeppelin watches from the stands and are loving it. Jimmy Page can’t believe it. I’ve actually used “Stairway To Heaven” in class as a model for writing an essay. So because it is a teaching tool, my choice is “Stairway To Heaven.”

Q: What is your favorite part about teaching at Beloit College?

A: Flowing from my answer about my philosophy, Beloit College, unlike a lot of other places, has allowed me to do these two things together. In other words, they’ve allowed me to really take research and to really take teaching seriously. One can say, “Well, doesn’t that happen all the time?” No. It does not. The other thing is the curriculum we have in the history department. It allows me to share with my students things that I’m exploring in my own research. So Beloit College has allowed me, with its open and flexible curriculum, to really put my teaching philosophy into practice.

Q: Are you hoping to start any new courses?

A: I’m hoping to make my Confucius course an offering that happens a lot, at least once a year. It is not just because I have any particular research interest in it, though I certainly do. But the reason I’m really eager to have that be there for the coming years is that it gives a great opportunity for this “flipping of the classroom.”

Q: How would your best friend describe you?

A: My wife is my best friend at this point and she knows me the best. She once said to a group of colleagues, “You know, Rob’s really quiet. He is just kind of quiet and relaxed at home.” They actually told her, this person who is married to me, that she was wrong [laughs]. But the funny thing is that I’m an introvert. Nobody believes me when I say it, but I’m an introvert. A very gregarious introvert.

Q: Would you consider a hot dog a sandwich?

A: No. A hot dog is a hot dog. And it shouldn’t have ketchup on it.