Tell The History Of Now
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Before they were professors

It's a Monday morning, and you're sitting in class waiting for the lecture to begin. For 50 minutes or so, you take notes, trying to take in what the professor is saying.

But while you sit typing away in that crowded lecture hall listening several times a week to that person talk about existentialism or human anatomy, have you ever wondered how the person got to be where he or she is? Did he always know he wanted to teach at the university level or was it an accident? Maybe he has this wild background filled with trips to foreign countries and classified information.

Well, in fact, some of them do.

Some never thought about being professors, such as Religious Studies Prof. John Portmann. Others hated the subjects they teach now when they began to learn them, like Politics Prof. David Waldner. And there are even those, such as English Prof. Jahan Ramazani, who traveled extensively only to come back to his hometown to teach.

Jetset to professorship

Portmann was born into a teaching family. His mother was a sixth-grade teacher, and his father was a math professor for Wilson College, a small women's institution outside of Gettysburg, Pa. Yet he said he never really thought about teaching for a living as a child.

"I definitely liked having summers off, that rhythm seemed natural to me," Portmann said, noting that it was not until college that he thought about installing that break into his lifestyle as a professor.

He began his undergraduate studies at Yale University where he picked up philosophy. He was unsure of the subject at first and was reluctant about taking it.

"I was afraid I would fall flat on my face," Portmann said.

Swimming was also a major part of Portmann's life. He dedicated five hours a day to the sport, and it was because of swimming that he decided to dive into philosophy.

"A couple of the older swim team guys were philosophy majors," Portmann said, and with that influence he enrolled in his first philosophy class on Plato.

His reaction was better than he thought.

"I just loved it," he said.

After graduating from Yale, Portmann took a few years off from school and became an investment banker for Morgan Stanley in New York City for a year.

"I was on my own after college, and the investment bankers came to recruit and they seduced you, and I thought, 'Well, OK, I'll do that.'"

Once that year was up, he transitioned to a high-power law firm as a legal secretary, where the experience was not as bad as Portmann expected.

"I thought it was going to be really rough, but I really enjoyed it," he said.

After turning down another offer from the law firm, Portmann went abroad to attend graduate school at Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, continuing his education in philosophy. The city had jumped out at him years before when he was on his way to Switzerland to work at a camp for wealthy children.

Paris was an "overwhelming experience, and I decided that I would go back," he said.

After two years in Paris, Portmann then studied at Cambridge. With contacts at home telling him he needed more teaching experience and a more American education, Portmann came to the University. It was here that he finished his doctorate and gained the teaching experience he had lacked while studying abroad in the religious studies department.

It was not he became published that Portmann became a professor. After teaching part-time for a year, Portmann received an initial three-year contract. His contract was renewed, and now Portmann is a permanent part of the University community.

A love-hate relationship

Unlike Portmann, Waldner knew he wanted to be a professor. He did not know, however, that the class he would end up teaching at the University was one he loathed during his undergraduate studies.

Jimi Hendrix's filmed performance at Berkeley was where it all started for Waldner. A native of New York, Waldner was a fan of Hendrix as well as the movie "Jimi Plays Berkeley" -- and that was how he decided to attend the University of California, Berkeley.

Like most interested in politics, Waldner came to Berkeley with the intention of becoming a lawyer. He transferred to Berkeley for his last two years of undergraduate study and was forced to enroll in the prerequisite course "Introduction to Comparative Politics."

It was "a low-level course and I wanted to take upper-division classes," Waldner said.

To his surprise, however, Waldner "was immediately grateful and fell in love with the material," beginning his path to becoming a professor in comparative politics.

Waldner stayed at Berkeley to finish up his undergraduate studies as well as to earn his master's degree and doctorate.

"People who get into Berkeley don't want to leave for a very long time," he said, adding that he did leave for awhile, however, when he went to the Middle East.

Waldner's specialization is in Middle Eastern politics, so his education took him to countries such as Egypt, Syria and Turkey. He conducted his doctoral research in Syria and Turkey, but it was in Egypt that he studied Arabic and met his future wife, who was doing graduate work at Columbia University.

After meeting his future wife, Waldner ended up at Columbia University teaching Middle Eastern politics as a visiting assistant professor. He then received an offer from the University.

"The job at Columbia wasn't permanent, and the job here was what is called tenure track," Waldner said.

The promise of a secure job as well as the benefit of tenure drove Waldner to Charlottesville. It was here that he got his first opportunity to teach comparative politics.

Home Sweet Home

Ramazani has the University running through his veins. His father was a faculty member here in the politics department and told his son that he "could get as good an education here as anywhere."

Ramazani finished his undergraduate studies at the University in three years and figured out along the way that the path he thought he wanted was not right for him.

"I thought that I wanted to study to become a Foreign Service officer and travel around the world and so forth, but then I kept finding that the excitement I had about the works that I was reading in my literature classes was greater," Ramazani said.

He even thought of making a triple major, with philosophy, history and English, but soon found that to be impractical.

After finishing his undergraduate years at the University, Ramazani received a Rhodes scholarship.

"It took me to Oxford for two years, and that was a thrilling experience having grown up in Charlottesville," he said.

His advisors then told him to go study at Yale for his doctorate, where he spent five years. Coming back to his hometown was not a difficult decision.

"Part of it was from the vantage point of New Haven -- it's not always a pleasant city to live in, and Charlottesville seemed like a kind of pastoral paradise," Ramazani said.

His love for literature also helped him decide where to go.

"U.Va. has one of the top English departments in the country, having been ranked number four by the National Research Council, and it's in my hometown," Ramazani said. "It just seemed like a great combination."

Ramazani had received several other offers, including ones from the University of Michigan and Princeton University, yet he has chosen to remain at the University, having taught here for 20 years.

Tuesday's Life section examines three more professors' lives before teaching at the University.