Beloit College Magazine

Beloit College Magazine

Spring 2012 (March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am)

The Teacher-Scholar in Practice


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March 20, 2012 at 12:00 am
By John Morgan'96

Rob LaFleur, a cycling devotee, devours books the way Lance Armstrong did the French Alps, at a furious and untiring pace. But it hasn’t always been this way. He spent part of high school skipping class to play golf and describes himself then as a “rotten student.” Considering the exceptional success of this Beloit College professor, with dual appointments in history and anthropology, this Ferris Bueller-like part of his past is rather surprising. 

Rob LaFleurBut LaFleur is full of surprises. He nearly became a wine importer. His musical tastes range from Hank Williams to Felix Mendelssohn. He once worked in advertising for a Taiwanese computer manufacturer while straining to understand the logic of the company’s management. Ultimately he earned a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and decided to become an academic. His life’s work involves translating, studying, and applying the lessons of a 10,000-page book by an 11th-century Chinese scholar for what it can teach contemporary Western managers.

And this is simply a taste of the fascinating thinker and gifted teacher who, since 1998, has called Beloit College home. If Beloit truly is a college that changes lives, then it is certainly thanks in part to professors like LaFleur. He is a two-time winner (2001 and 2011) of the Underkofler Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award, given annually to outstanding faculty in Wisconsin, and he is energized by working with students. For LaFleur, it’s as much about what he gets from teaching as what he gives to it.

“I don’t just give energy to teaching, I get it back,” LaFleur says. “And I get a lot back. To me that’s the excitement of teaching.”

It isn’t a stretch to say that teaching is in LaFleur’s genes. The son of educators, he recalls that his mother, who died young, was born to teach, and she was exceptional at her craft. A memorial honors her at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wis., and the family still has letters of admiration they received after her death when Rob was a teenager. His father, who was admittedly rather stiff in the classroom originally, learned to be very successful as well, tapping into energy and enthusiasm and becoming a great teacher, too.

But after his mother’s death, and perhaps somewhat in response to it, he checked out. Despite enjoying ideas and learning, he starting ditching out on high school. He learned that he could skip certain hours of the day, jump in his car, and play nine holes of golf. But in the way that subtle events in one’s life can have large impacts, his life was interrupted unexpectedly one day as he was wrapping up a midday round.

“I hit my tee shot, and as I got closer to the green, I saw my assistant principal with his hand on the pin. He let me putt out. And then he said, ‘You’re in detention for the rest of your senior year.’ And this was November! And a funny thing happened. I started reading,” LaFleur recalls. “I started doing OK.”

Because the answer for this somewhat aimless teen was reading, a young LaFleur prepared for college at the University of Minnesota by reading at a furious pace.

“I got really interested in reading, and I read a book a week all summer long,” he remembers excitedly. Because the University of Minnesota was on trimesters, the fall term didn’t start until October, so there was even more time to read. “I took my trusty dog, Zorba, and went to the family cabin in Detroit Lakes, Minn., and spent September reading nearly a book a day.”

He stresses that the University of Minnesota changed his life in the year he was there. But his academic quest wasn’t in tune with the place, and he knew he needed a change. He transferred to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

Intellectual bearings

This was just the beginning. Upon learning about a rather unusual graduate program at the University of Chicago, LaFleur set his sights in that direction. Called the Committee on Social Thought, it is where a community of thinkers has gathered since 1941.

Hannah Arendt, Saul Bellow, T.S. Eliot, and Allan Bloom, among many others, have called the place home. The group’s website emphasizes that it “has no specific subject matter” around which it is focused. Instead, the interdiscipli­nary program requires students to steep themselves in 12 to 15 books that form the foundation of their academic interest before starting intense work on a specific topic for a dissertation.

For LaFleur, it was heavenly. After his stint in Taiwan and other stops after Carleton, the University of Chicago is where his thinking really exploded and where he completed a cultural, anthropological, and historical examination of Chinese culture. He titled his dissertation, A Rhetoric of Remonstrance.

“When I first heard of the Committee on Social Thought my junior year in college, I couldn’t even imagine something so exciting!” LaFleur exclaims. “It shaped everything about my teaching, my research, the way I think about the world. Everything.”

It’s obvious that part of LaFleur’s quest is to pass this torch of excitement on to students at Beloit. His reading lists for classes are legendary, including 12-plus books per semester. Needless to say, some dig it and some don’t.

This compassionate and equally challenging teacher literally dares students, whom he regards as “partners in an intellectual enterprise,” to be “haunted” by discussions long after class ends. As part of his teaching mission, he pushes these young thinkers to blur the invisible line, perhaps for the first time in their lives, at Emerson Street—the divide between academic lives and personal ones.

“Education is a total life activity. That is what drives my teaching,” he acknowledges. And if this drives his teaching, then the fear of boredom fuels that engine. He truly feels that to be successful in the classroom, he must get something back as well. He realizes this may seem selfish, and that some may misunderstand, but he asks, “Have you ever had a teacher who’s bored? You can either get bored teaching the same thing over and over again, or you can make it complement your research. Every year I go back and read the key source material and re-read it in Chinese and Japanese. There’s a real academic payoff for that.”

New Hierarchy

Indeed, LaFleur relays that the depth at which he dives repeatedly into source materials in his classes affords him the opportunity to see patterns he may not have otherwise. Perhaps the greatest impact has been on his most monumental project, a translation and modern application of a 10,000-page text on Chinese history known to some as one of the most significant works of history ever written. The Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling was finished in 1085 by Sima Guang who had devoted his life to it. LaFleur began studying it 30 years ago while a junior at Carleton.

Today, his goal is to share what he has learned with a much wider audience than fellow historians at annual conferences. He hopes to teach the world—in a book of course—about why this 11th-century text matters.

The central idea is that we simply don’t understand with any depth how to manage each other or why we do manage in the way that we do. Namely, LaFleur calls for a better understanding, appreciation for, and implementation of three inextricably important variables as explained in the Comprehensive Mirror: roles, hierarchy, and remonstrance. The last tenet is perhaps the most important and complex, the idea that we absolutely must critique not only each other but also our superiors, with the understanding that we are not beholden to them. Instead, we are beholden to a higher cause. In this way, subordinates must critique their superiors and bosses must want to be critiqued. LaFleur has coined this concept The New Hierarchy. Egos beware!

Why are these ideas relevant now, and why should LaFleur be the one to bring them to mainstream readers?

In part, the answers lie in the fact that there are perhaps a handful of scholars like him in the world who could explain what he aims to, but most either have focused on singular events presented in the Comprehensive Mirror, such as a particular battle in the sixth century, or—and this is much more likely—they have no interest in writing for a popular audience. Yet LaFleur feels that it’s simply too important a story not to tell, and part of his mission as a scholar is to include a wider audience in the discussion.

“I want the whole grain. And when you read it for the whole grain you see the remonstrance that you don’t see if you’re just looking at troop movements. So that’s why people have missed it,” LaFleur instructs. “They’re not interested in reaching a popular audience. But they also haven’t gotten it that this is a management book. And that’s the scholarly side of this where I’ll go toe to toe with them. I’ll take them on at that point.”

His voice raises in the way a well-armed researcher goes to academic battle. He argues that Westerners must understand ourselves so that we can understand others—an issue of particular importance as China very likely becomes the biggest economy in the world and Americans are wearing sneakers and jeans to jobs where there’s no apparent hierarchy. LaFleur says this is fine. He’s not demonizing this post-modern, flat organization—he just cautions that we don’t even know why we’re doing it, and we had better appreciate why this model is not accepted elsewhere in the world.

“I see myself as part of a long Western tradition that studies the other. And I take this seriously,” he explains. “Whether Herodotus or Homer, of looking outward and back in at our self.”

LaFleur summarizes his project in an immense opus of a blog, titled the Emperor’s Teacher, which is just the beginning. LaFleur wants to transform his blog into a book of the same title. That’s the next step, but he has struggled convincing book agents, who may be skeptical about the topic in general or about trusting that a professor can actually write for a popular audience. Still, some are saying that if he can pull it off, the book will be a best-seller.

LaFleur says that he’s been like a pressure cooker, teaching and thinking about these ideas for years, and now he has to let them out. He regards this project as an extension of his teaching and understands teaching and research to be inextricably intertwined.

“It’s not just that research informs our teaching, there’s more. Teaching, if you do it right, can inform your research,” he stresses.

And so, this exceptional teacher, after nearly 15 years at Beloit and with a possible best-seller brewing, is not only sustaining his pace, he’s thriving. He’s exploding with ideas. And this time, he’s looking to take us all along for the ride.

“The truth is this: My research is what drives me and then I take that energy and walk into the classroom,” LaFleur concludes. “I’m not sure I’m all that good. I’m just energetic, and I love it.”

Round and Square, Rob LaFleur’s blog, is available at http://robert-lafleur.blogspot.com. It includes a link to the Emperor’s Teacher, a preview of LaFleur’s management book, which he sees as the logical successor to The Art of War.

John Morgan’96, a freelance writer and editor living in Stoughton, Wis., took his first college writing course 20 years ago from another gem of a professor, the late Roxie Alexander. Since then, his work has appeared in several Wisconsin publications, including: the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Wisconsin State Journal, Isthmus, On Wisconsin, and various University of Wisconsin publications.

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