HESSTON — Dr. Jim Yoder will retire this year after teaching chemistry and astronomy at Hesston College for the past 50 years.
Born in California, Yoder was determined to follow in the footsteps of his father, who helped found Westmont College and was a history professor and academic dean there.
"I knew I was going to be a college teacher — not high school or elementary — thanks to dad, before I knew what I was going to teach," Yoder said.
Yoder's father later moved to teach at Taylor College in central Indiana.
"I sort of became a Hoosier, then, for 10 or 11 years," Yoder said.
Yoder started at Taylor College, staying there a year before transferring Hesston College for a year and then transferring again to finish his undergraduate work at Goshen College.
"I was not a chemistry major until I was a junior at Goshen," Yoder said. "I hadn't taken any college chemistry, and I graduated with 34 hours of chemistry."
Transferring between schools had its advantages and disadvantages, but it primarily taught him to persevere.
"I wouldn't trade that experience, but I wouldn't particularly recommend it, either," Yoder laughed.
Yoder got his doctorate from Indiana University and went directly from there to teaching at Hesston College.
Over his career, he has seen many changes at the school — from the five presidents (and several interim presidents) under which he has served to the integration of computers and other technology.
"So much has changed over the years," Yoder said. "Students change even more rapidly in terms of how they assimilate knowledge. ...It's a moving target and you're always behind."
One change he resisted initially was the use of digital thermometers in his classes.
"I was really skeptical at first," Yoder said. "I said, 'students need to use old-fashioned thermometers and take the readings.'"
Seeing how quickly the data could be assimilated and integrated for use, Yoder quickly changed his mind and embraced the tools.
"It saves the students a ton of time and they learn," Yoder said. "They're not bogged down with all the data. I think it's much more effective."
Another major change in his classroom came when it was remodeled and set up with pods instead of the traditional rows of seating.
"It's really effective and symbolic of the community that develops in our classes," Yoder said. "Sometimes they work in groups and sometimes they work individually, but in any case, they're communicating with each other. ...If someone has an 'aha!' moment, then they're off around telling everyone else and it's just great."
While Yoder admits he now turns to the Internet instead of reference books for answers, he is still bemused by the fact that his students more often take a picture of what is on the blackboard instead of writing notes.
"Most of the time, I'm just writing on the blackboard so that students see how things come from my mind," Yoder said. "...I don't write very well, so we make fun of my writing and my spelling and I have a great time."
Teaching at Hesston College gave Yoder the opportunity to spend five years on various sabbaticals. He spent two years as a visiting professor at Wichita State University.
In 1979, Yoder and his family took a two-year assignment for Mennonite Central Committee and were seconded to the University of Swaziland in southern Africa. Yoder's task was to aid the school's chemistry department change from a two-year program into a four-year program.
Yoder found that though there were Swazi administrators at the university, expatriates were the professors.
"They, and rightly so, instituted a kind of policy that, over the years, it was going to become Swazi-administered and Swazi-taught," Yoder said.
Yoder found the University of Swaziland was much different when he won a Fulbright scholarship to return there in 2007. After the 28 years that had passed, 75 percent of the school's professors were Swazi.
"A half dozen of those people came to me and said, 'I was your student back then,'" Yoder said.
Yoder was also able to satisfy his interest in drama by being a professor.
"Teaching is a kind of performance," Yoder said. "I can perform, day after day, and that's the way it's turned out."
Yoder has taken on several acting roles in Hesston College plays and musicals, an activity that gave him a change to engage both with his students outside of a classroom setting and those who were not his students in their own field.
Now, just like any good actor, Yoder teaches his classes without using any notes.
"Give me a topic and I can do it better than a textbook, in my opinion," Yoder laughed.
Yoder has memories of many "remarkable" students from his years at Hesston College.
"The students here are good people, regardless of their academic perseverance," Yoder said.
Last year's sophomore class is especially memorable for Yoder. They came together to support him after his wife, Phyllis, died unexpectedly after nearly 50 years of marriage.
"This Hesston College community is exceptional, its faculty and staff, but what I didn't expect was that the freshmen from the previous year were sophomores and they just kind of enveloped me and carried me, emotionally, especially that first semester," Yoder said.
Several students were very special to Yoder.
"I had each of my three children in class here," Yoder noted. "Now, this year, I have a grandchild in my chemistry class."
While it is bittersweet for Yoder to give up his classroom, he is looking forward to the perks of retirement.
"Grading papers — that's one thing I won't miss quite so much," Yoder laughed.