Theater professor Theophil Ross, who has taught at Northwest for 40 years, was among the 109 faculty members recognized this semester by the University for years of service.
Ross, originally from Illinois with an education background on the east coast, came to Northwest through an undergraduate classmate who then taught at Northwest. While teaching at the University of Missouri, Rob Craig contacted Ross about an open position in the theater department at Northwest.
Ross jumped at the chance to work at Northwest because it was so similar to his alma mater, Clarion University. Ross said Clarion and Northwest are similar sized, both located in rural areas, are primarily teacher education-focused and have strong ties to the surrounding communities.
“When I made the decision there to stay in education, and eventually to teach in a school, I wanted a school like Clarion, and Northwest just fits that bill,” Ross said.
Ross said he has stayed at Northwest for so long because of the reasons that drew him in, as well as non-professional reasons.
“It was a great place to raise my son,” Ross said. “It’s allowed me to do my scholarly creative work; it’s given me a chance to work with a wide variety of students at all levels, and it’s just been a great place for me to do what I had hoped to be able to do.”
Theater professor Patrick Immel was hired by Ross--which Immel joked was the best decision Ross ever made--and has worked with him for 20 years.
“Dr. Ross is what I imagined a professor would look like when I started college myself,” Immel said. “He taught me what it meant to be a theatre professor... I can’t begin to thank him enough for the faith he put in me and the impact he has had on my life, both personally and professionally.”
Theater professor Joe Kreizinger said Ross is his primary mentor and go-to resource for questions about teaching or theater.
“Theo has had such a broad range of experiences in theatre and education,” Kreizinger said. “From teaching and administrating at the high school through college levels, to performing and directing professionally and in educational settings.”
Kreizinger said Ross is skillful and thoughtful in everything he does from work in the classroom or theater to individual mentorship.
“His students and colleagues are truly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him,” Kreizinger said. “He embodies the definition of professionalism, excellence and wisdom in all he does.”
Ross compared teaching in the same school for so long to a long term relationship: a downside is becoming familiar with all the flaws and shortcomings of an institution or a partner, but being willing to accept people and places because of what really matters under the surface.
“The thing about Northwest is we have students who come here who want to get an education,” Ross said. “They came here; they’re committed, and they’re conscientious. Students haven’t really changed, which is why I’ve stayed here.”
Ross said the only way students have changed in his time at Northwest is in their level of knowledge and skill when they start college.
“Certainly, they come in at a much higher level of sophistication and knowledge and ability, as I guess students all across the country have,” Ross said. “They’re sharper. I don’t know if that’s here or everywhere, but certainly, I can engage students at a much higher level than we could 40 years ago.”
With dramatic changes in technology in the past four decades, teaching methods have changed dramatically and professors have learned to adapt.
“When I first came here, I typed my dissertation on an electronic typewriter,” Ross said. “The ability to access and incorporate media so quickly and seamlessly saves so much time. What took hours, we can now locate in a matter of minutes.”
Ross said the content he teaches, however, has changed very little.
“In theater, you could say things haven’t changed much at all for 3,000 years,” Ross said. “Technology has enabled us to enhance the presentation: lights, sound, special effects, but still at the heart of theater, an actor, an audience and a space is all you really need.”
The studio theater in the Ron Houston Center, which opened in 2008, and the program built around it was a dream of Ross’s when he came to Northwest. He said the flexibility of the space has allowed students the freedom to perform without having to conform to a given stage or space.
Ross said he hopes his students come away with more than just heads full of facts and hard skills after graduation. He said that college is more about what he called the intangibles.
“I hope students experience a maturation,” Ross said. “It’s through interacting with people and being forced to look at or consider different points of view, all of that stuff that happens on a campus is far more impactful on a person’s life than the amount of information or knowledge that you leave with.”
It’s because of the intangible experiences students gain in college that Ross said higher education is still worth the cost, though not for everyone.
“It is becoming more and more expensive and difficult to make that choice because there are so many other options out there,” Ross said. “I have to admit that I can’t encourage it as strongly universally as I could before because for more people it is not practical because it’s not affordable.”