Professor Bill Boyer was both encouraging and challenging
By Gene C. Fant ( '84 ), Ph.D.
Originally published in Fall 2006, this is just one of many stories from Madison magazine's award-winning Professors You Love series, written by JMU students and alumni, about the professors that have made the most impact on their lives — then, and now.
Bill Boyer served on the JMU faculty from 1979 to 2005 and continues to teach part time in JMU's General Education Program.
During the spring of my junior year of high school, my family encouraged me to narrow my college choices by visiting the schools I thought I might like to attend. We made our way across the state from our home in Hampton to tour three campuses. I made a special point to meet with faculty members from my proposed major, anthropology. At one of the universities, the faculty member was pompous and aloof. At another, the professor was somewhat engaging, but he really didn't seem to care whether or not I chose his university. Ah, but the third professor was Bill Boyer, in JMU's anthropology department. His bushy mustache framed a quick smile and reinforced his easy-going temperament. He was both encouraging and challenging.
I struggled with my choice, but finally settled on JMU in large part because of Dr. Boyer, so I was delighted to be able to take one of his courses during my first semester. On the opening day of the class, he brought in some sort of strange object and had us try to figure out what it was. We made all sorts of guesses, and he just smiled and sipped his coffee. After a while he told us what he thought the object was. He was introducing us to a foundational skill in archaeology: object interpretation. I didn't know it back then, but that moment was a central teaching moment in my life. At the same time, Clarence Geier, then chair of the anthropology department, challenged me to learn how to observe people; and Jean Cash, a professor in freshman English, cultivated my love for story. Those three professors subtly joined together to shape my eventual career in writing and college English teaching.
People often ask me how I made the transition from anthropology to literature, and the answer is pretty easy. I simply went from interpreting artifact to interpreting text. I also write poetry and fiction, both of which depend on keen observations of people and their interactions. At every turn, I find that my training in anthropology expresses itself in my work, whether I'm writing, teaching a story, or even managing my colleagues as an academic department chair.
Now that I'm a college professor, I have a special passion for helping to recruit prospective students. I have students and their families in my office almost every week. Very few of these meetings pass without me remembering when I was the student in the professor's office and Dr. Boyer was inviting me to change my life by attending JMU. So I smile at these prospective students, and I wonder if they will think of me in 25 years the way that I think of him.
About the professor
Bill Boyer served on the JMU faculty from 1979 to 2005 and continues to teach part time in JMU's General Education Program. An unceasing advocate for the importance of liberal education as part of a university education, Boyer helped develop JMU's Interdisciplinary Social Science program and was an active participant in the design of the Freshman Seminar. As head of JMU's Sociology and Anthropology Department from 1993 to 1999, he contributed significantly to the creation of the current General Education Program.
About the author
In addition to his B.S. in anthropology, Gene C. Fant, ('84), Ph.D., earned four graduate degrees. He chairs the English department at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and has published nearly 100 articles, poems, essays and reviews. He is a frequent contributor to The Chronicle of Higher Education and has written or contributed to seven books.