From Cornfields to Campus: Brett Ingram Teaches With Style

Early Monday afternoon, while relaxing in a comfortable chair on the fourth floor of St. Mary’s South, communication professor Brett Ingram admitted that there are much worse fates to have. Earning a doctorate is not an easy task, and the list of career options is limited. Nevertheless, Ingram went for it.

Ingram grew up in rural Pennsylvania, in a modest community of blue-collar Americans, and was surrounded by influences of education from an early age—his father taught in the physiology department at Pennsylvania State University.

Ingram spent his summers running through cornfields with his BB gun in hand, keeping out a watchful eye for any circling hawks who might be preying on his little dachshund, Emily.

“That was a bleak way to spend a summer,” he said.

In elementary school, Ingram was a scrupulous researcher, letting his unique passions not only consume him, but drive him. “I would become obsessed with things—just to name a few—like crustaceans, or submarines, or, you know, architecture,” he said. “Ancient Greek architecture. And my mom would take me to the library and let me go.”

He was also a voracious reader, which supplemented as well as spearheaded many of these interests—it was his love of books, rather than travel, which served as his initial introduction to the East Coast. Ingram poured over his parents’ paperbacks on the Kennedy family, and was especially intrigued by glossy, vivid images of Massachusetts.

Ingram remembers saying to himself, “You know, someday, my life’s going to look like that. I’m going to move to New England and wear khakis and penny loafers without socks, and tweed jackets, and strut around, and go out on my friends’ boats. And it’s weird…that was when I was eight and all of that has come true somehow.”  

Now a professor in Boston College’s communication department, Ingram takes pride in his traditionalist approach to teaching—he doesn’t use PowerPoint or Canvas. Instead, he wants to have conversations in the classroom. Much like his own adolescence and youth, he longs for the days when students took the time to simply sit down—whether it be on their mattress-padded twin in Medeiros or at a two-person table in Mac, and read.

He longs for the days when students took the time to sit and read. “In the ’90s, I found that even your average [student], even if they weren’t English majors or oriented towards literature, most people had five to 10 novels in their dorm rooms,” Ingram said.

Ingram remembers a time when students devoured full articles of The New York Times, and after, spent hours talking about the world. Ingram recognizes the rarity of that archetype in today’s technological age, and because of that, he tries to incorporate the here and now—the happenings of the world—into his classroom. “The theories I’m teaching now aren’t confined to academia—this is a map for everyday living. My classes are very grounded and personal,” said Ingram.

For Ingram’s dissertation, he investigated the impact of rhetorical influences before people became aware of the command of language. His studies were inspired by questions that had concerned him from a young age—questions like: How do people get stuck in their ways? Why?

Studies in the humanities tend to suggest that the answer to this question points to the imagination, but the majority of studies abruptly end there. “I wanted to know where the imagination lives…and it lives in flesh,” said Ingram. Upon this epiphany, Ingram engaged in a new dissertation in the field of neuroscience.

He received his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and he admits that BC is very different. Of course, there are the obvious, explicit distinctions—UMass is a public, secular university with an undergraduate enrollment twice as big as the private, Jesuit BC—but that wasn’t exactly what Ingram was getting at.

Five years into his teaching career here, Ingram feels confident in attesting to the good character of BC’s students. He can tell that the majority of the University’s students aren’t attending just on principle. They aren’t simply seeking to make money or to mechanically put on a white button-down shirt with Monday’s traditional red-and-blue-striped tie. Students come to “ask the big questions,” and to be made more acutely aware of present issues and current events. “The students at heart have a sense of goodwill,” Ingram said.

One either endearing or irritating practice of BC’s students—depending on how you look at it—noted by Ingram is their unfailing inclination to hold open doors for their fellow Eagles. “The tradition—it’s an annoying tradition, but they mean well—where someone holds the door for you and you’re 40 feet away … I noticed it happened for everybody, all the time,” he said.

The righteous characteristics that lay behind those gestures—no matter how trivial they may sometimes seem—contribute most directly to Ingram’s sound faith in the courteous and curious student body. The fact that everyday, BC students continue to choose kindness, embodied in gestures which may seem small but resonate in a big way—that makes all the difference.

“He teaches about the art of persuasion, all the while persuading his students about their own reality,” said Chris Ferrari, MCAS ‘20.

Ingram still fears, however, that the future of the world is heading for a slow demise, as it is passed to the hands of the comparatively indifferent youth who will soon be the ones running it. Ingram compared the future state of the union to boiling a toad alive. One can keep increasing the heat of the water the toad is in as long as the temperature is increased very slowly. Believe it or not, the toad will just sit there, stationary, and allow itself to be boiled to death.

“I kinda think this might be happening to America right now,” he said. “What I fear is the surprising lack of engagement with the larger political world among young people these days,” Ingram said, emphasizing that the millennial generation “is living through the most intense and pivotal moment in American history since 1968 right now … maybe more so.”

Being aware of this fact is key, and because the country as a whole is taking in 30-second chunks of information, “We are operating according to team loyalty and emotion,” Ingram noted. He largely disagrees with this method of living, as doing this is upsetting and even dangerous. Ingram fears that the downsizing of politics to entertainment in this way is an easy gateway to authoritarianism. Whether we want to admit it or not, it’s happening, and “we should all be restling to get to sleep at night.”

Photo by Kaitlin Meeks / Heights Editor

February 14, 2018