Teaching what everyone needs
ERIE, Pa. (AP) — Do a little research on Eric Corty and you’ll likely stumble across a 2008 study he conducted on the topic of sexual intercourse and how long it should last. Its publication found him besieged with interview requests from around the world and even some commentary from talk show host David Letterman.
Years later, he’s still getting interview requests.
But there’s more to Corty, a soft-spoken, bearded, bow-tie-wearing psychology professor who has spent the past 23 years commuting from his home in Cleveland to his job at Penn State Behrend.
The son of a chemical engineer and an editorial writer, Corty worked for two years as a technician at a psychiatric hospital, conducted research on methadone, completed post-doctorate fellowships in human sexuality and neuropsychopharmacology.
“It’s the only 23-letter word I know,” said Corty, who also has written three books on statistics, published dozens of articles and won awards for both teaching and academic advising.
Now, at 62, Corty finds himself in a new position. In April, he was named as the director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Behrend.
His vision and drive are viewed as key attributes.
“Eric is passionate about the role of the humanities and social sciences in developing students who can respond to complex issues and problems, embrace diversity and adapt and prosper as society changes,” Chancellor Ralph Ford said. “I am confident in his ability to advance the school and position its graduates for success across a range of disciplines.”
It was a job the Delaware native knew he wanted after serving as interim director for about two years.
But it’s a position that carries with it some challenges at a campus best known for its engineering and business programs. While the 80 faculty members in the school of humanities teach about a third of all classes at Behrend, many of those are general education requirements. And many students don’t arrive in those classrooms until their senior year as they scramble to complete graduation requirements.
The humanities division offers 10 majors and has an enrollment of 416 students, less than 10 percent of Behrend’s total enrollment of about 4,600.
Corty hopes to see those numbers rise.
At the same time, he’s focused on ways to build on Behrend’s reputation as a center for plastics education, while finding ways that classes in the humanities can create more well-rounded graduates.
His most immediate plans call for an expansion in the role that artwork can play in and around campus buildings. Major installations already hang in the Kochel Center, where the Corty has his office. He hopes to expand the school’s open lab concept by matching Behrend students with community groups working on art installations.
A more defined goal calls for the creation of a position for a plastics artist in residence. Corty envisions that spot being filled by an artist who works in plastic who would come to Behrend and take classes in plastics engineering, while creating art from plastic.
“My fantasy is to turn Erie into the plastics art capital of the world,” he said. “I think if we had a plastics artist in residence, in two or three years there would be people coming to see that art, people would see they could get cheap studio space here, we could have galleries.”
Corty has other dreams.
He’s taken, for instance, with the idea of setting a new standard that would ask students to declare a major in one division, such as engineering or business, as well as a minor in another division, such as humanities.
“Imagine an engineering major, with a minor in Spanish. Wow,” he said. “I think it’s a really ingenious idea. It gives you a whole new language — the jobs that would open up to you.”
That’s a statement that recognizes a new reality on college campuses: With college costs and student debt rising, parents and students are focusing as never before on college majors that lead to well-paying jobs.
“I was very lucky,” Corty said. “I had no pressure to go to college to get a career. I went to college, I read a lot of books, took courses that interested me. It never occurred to me to leave college with a career.”
Corty, who said he knew finding his place might take time, makes an unapologetic case for an idea that has fallen from fashion, the notion that the value of an education can’t be measured in one’s starting salary.
“We (in the humanities) tell stories about people. Storytelling is a pretty ancient art that is very basic,” he said. “We bring a basic warmth that resonates. Not everyone resonates to it, but everyone needs it.”
Recently, Corty said, someone suggested to him that colleges should charge less for a liberal arts degree than an engineering degree because it was worth less.
“I take great umbrage to that,” he said.
Not only does Corty see great value in subjects such as history, literature and psychology, but in the end, he said, the financial rewards have a way of evening out.
He said a recent study shows that 10 years after graduation the employment rate is virtually the same for liberal arts majors and those who pursued other studies.
“The employment rate is the same, the job satisfaction rate is the same. There was a salary difference of about $3,000,” he said. “That’s pretty modest. I just think it takes liberal arts students longer to find their jobs.”
Corty spoke several times during an interview this past week about what seems to be an overarching goal, the idea that students need to find where they fit in.
Some students come to college with plans to do one thing, but discover it’s a bad fit.
Corty said he’s hoping some of those students might find a home in the Humanities.
By the same token, he said, “I’m happy to send someone up to engineering if that’s where they fit.”
Corty, who has taught and written about how to quantify and measure things like intelligence and empathy, knows that enrollment will be one measure of his own success.
He’s determined to raise those numbers while helping more students see the value of the courses taught by his faculty.
“You learn to think,” he said. “You learn to tolerate grayness, take in information and communicate information.”
Does Corty ever feel like the odd man out at a school with well-known business and engineering programs?
“I don’t care if people are in engineering, humanities, science or whatever, so long as they are doing what they like and have meaning in their life,” he said.
Information from: Erie Times-News, http://www.goerie.com