Gatepost Interview: Richard Beckwitt – Professor of Biology

Courtesy of Framingham State

What is your educational and professional background? 

I grew up in Los Angeles, California. … I went first to UCLA, and then I transferred to UC Berkeley, where I graduated. And then I did a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California in marine biology. So, I completed that around 1979. And I worked for a while in Los Angeles. I taught at a number of schools. I taught at Occidental College, California State Los Angeles, and California State Northridge. Kind of a part-time person – I worked for an environmental consulting company, again in Los Angeles, looking at environmental impacts of nuclear power plants and marine ecosystems. And then I took the job here at Framingham State in 1985. I’ve been here ever since.

Why did you choose to teach at FSU?

The offer of a tenure-track position. … I had applied to a number of positions, basically on both coasts. … I was offered a position here. I’d never lived in Massachusetts before. I’d never lived on the East Coast before. It was an adventure to come out here and do something new. In retrospect, it was a wonderful decision. I love the town of Framingham, and I love Framingham State. It’s been a really good place for me to be.

What do you like most about working with students?

My favorite thing to do is teach the research methods class, where we teach students how to do research. That’s what I find the most satisfying. I’ve been teaching that class pretty much every year that I’ve been here. So, for a long time, and I really enjoy it. My goal is always to engage the students in real research projects that, with any kind of work, will result in a publication in a professional technical journal. It often takes several years’ worth of student projects to get enough information together to write a paper. But in general, when I publish these papers, I have a number of student authors on as well, and that’s the most satisfying thing. That’s the most fun. And then, as an extension of that, those students who’ve taken that research course, some of them actually find it very interesting and satisfying, and they’ll go on to graduate school and start setting up research programs of their own. I like that a lot.

What is something your students would be surprised to learn about you?

I play the guitar in my spare time. I like to play the guitar. … I’m an old folksy guy. I’ve been playing the guitar since the 1960s – acoustic, blues, Ragtime – that kind of stuff. I’m not terrible. I don’t hate to listen to myself. It’s about as good as it gets. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your teaching?

I have been teaching all my classes remotely. I’m living on these Zoom things. And it’s had a big impact. I mean, I’ve been teaching for a long time. And I figured out how to do it in a classroom with real people. I’m fairly comfortable doing that, and I think I’m fairly good at doing that. Moving to this kind of remote situation has been pretty wrenching, and it’s been very frustrating. Sometimes, it’s just frustration with the technology itself. You know, remembering which buttons to push to make something happen – this is confusing. Remembering how to manipulate the screen, how to share the screen, how to do something that’s just technically frustrating. And then there’s the problem with the fact that the students are not in the same place, and so there is never any real sense of interaction. It’s not too bad talking one-to-one or one-to-two like this where I can see everybody, and we’re talking kind of back and forth. But in a classroom setting, most of the students have their cameras off, and most of the students are on mute most of the time. And so I talk, I show slides from PowerPoint, and I go through my material. I try to remember to stop and ask for questions periodically, but no one typically responds. I tell a joke, and there’s just dead air, and I feel like I’m howling into the void. It’s very frustrating. In a real classroom, you can do something stupid and people will laugh, and there’s an energy you get from that, that you just cannot get this way. At the same time, I am continually impressed with just how sincerely the students are trying to learn something under these circumstances. They are actually handling this probably more gracefully than I am, and they are making the effort. … It’s not easy for them, either, and it’s very alienating for them. And they have technical problems – their internet goes down. They’re trying to work out some situation where they don’t have enough peace and quiet to actually do something like this. Essentially, it’s very, very frustrating. And so, I am really impressed with just how well they’re able to pull this off. 

What advice do you have for students?

Try to actually get connected somehow. It’s harder than ever for students to feel engaged. It’s difficult to have a class discussion under the circumstances. It’s difficult to feel connected. But my advice is to ask questions in class because if you can get up the courage to ask a question in class, half of the class will be thankful because they didn’t know the answer, either, and they were just too intimidated to say something. So, do that. And if you don’t want to do that, at the very least send an email to your professor – ask a question. We put on these Zoom office hours to which very few people actually go. But I think, then you can interact with someone more one-on-one. It feels almost like a human interaction, and I think it’s a neglected thing that people should take more advantage of.