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Too cool for school: Four area professors with classes you don’t want to miss


One of the best things about being in college is meeting new and interesting people. Getting to know your fellow students is essential to your college social life, but what a lot of students forget is that professors can be just as cool as their peers. That's why we've searched the local campuses and found some of the most interesting and unique professors around, and provided a peek into their lives in and out of the classroom. Keep in mind that we couldn't include every awesome professor (this guide would be endless), so ask around and see who's the cream of the crop at your school.

Music man

UR prof brings rock 'n' roll to the classroom

John Covach is laid back, friendly, and well spoken. You'd never guess that he's UR's own rock star. Armed with a guitar and a passion for popular music, the UR music professor and chair of the music department at Eastman School of Music is getting students to appreciate and understand hit songs in a whole new way.

            Covach is somewhat of a legend on campus. In addition to his class load, he plays in several local rock bands -- 60's cover bandthe Smooth Talkers, Genesis/Peter Gabriel tribute The Waiting Room, Pink Floyd tribute Heroes for Ghosts, and Yes tribute Going for the One among them --and hosts the weekly "Rock Radio" show on WRUR FM 88.5 every Thursday at 7 p.m. and Friday at 4 p.m. On the show, Covach plays everything from 1950's cuts all the way to current hits, and provides historical context to give listeners a better framework for understanding popular music.

            Covach's classes include "History of Rock 'n' Roll" and "The Beatles," and are some of the most popular at UR -- he had 235 students enrolled in his "History of Popular Music" course in one semester. But he says he's surprised at just how successful they've been over his four years at UR.

            "You know, I really scratch my head sometimes," he says. "The idea that somebody would want to take a class that specializes in music, almost all of which had become famous and fallen out of style before they were even born, is crazy to me."

            Recent UR graduate David LeBlanc says he became a music major because of the classes he took with Covach. LeBlanc says he was impressed by Covach's extensive knowledge of rock music, but more impressed with the way Covach teaches it "with a mixture of vigor, passion, and a laid-back attitude," he says.

            "He's not just a scholar who read a book about this stuff. He lived through the prime of rock music and really knows his stuff," LeBlanc says. "A lot of students walk into his class thinking it'll be an easy A, but walk out thinking critically about music."

            And that's the ultimate goal for Covach. "It's a little bit of a bait and switch," he says. "Students show up because they think they're going to hear fun factoids about a band they listen to all the time, and they end up actually learning how to think about music intellectually and critically."

            Fellow UR lecturer and Smooth Talkers band mate Jason Titus says Covach is always focused on making things student oriented. "He's got a pretty good handle of striking a balance of what students are interested in and what's best for students," Titus says. "The fact that he's a top-notch guitarist doesn't hurt his credibility either."

            Covach says being able to play the guitar in class gives him instant cache with his students -- especially non-music majors. "For some reason, non-musicians think anyone who can play an instrument has magical powers," he says. "It's entertaining and it's something that doesn't happen in their science or writing classes, so it helps keeps things lively."

            Covach's reputation extends far beyond the classroom. Before he taught at UR, Covach was a Fulbright scholar in Vienna, Austria, in the late 80's, and did post-doctoral work in philosophy under Charles Bambach at the University of Texas-Dallas. He's written a textbook called "What's That Sound?", which he uses in his classes, and is one of the most sought-after rock music experts in the country.

            "John is kind of a big deal," Titus says. "In the study of popular music, he's probably one of the top people in the country, which I don't think students realize. And that's OK. He's so laid back and approachable; students really respond to that and want to learn things from him."

            But Covach says he's constantly learning from his students too. He's an expert on all things classic rock, but admits his students are more familiar with the current music scene than he is. And he's OK with that.

            "It's a perfect exchange -- I turn them on to music from my generation, and they keep me updated on what's going on in music today," he says. "The only problem is, I'm afraid I'm going to run out of room on my iPod soon!"

PULLQUOTE: "Students show up because they think they're going to hear fun factoids about a band they listen to all the time, and they end up actually learning how to think about music intellectually and critically."

Getting back to his roots

Geneseo ecology prof teaches from travel and experiences with nature

By the middle of his junior year at ConnecticutCollege, Gregg Hartvigsen still wasn't happy with his major, and he felt himself floundering. So he did what any unsatisfied college student would do: he dropped out, sold all his belongings, and hitchhiked across the country.

            With just a sleeping bag and backpack, Hartvigsen walked out of his parents' house, went straight to the highway, and stuck out his thumb, hoping a friendly passerby would take him somewhere new. Over the next two and a half months, he traveled about 10,000 miles cross-country and got the real-life experience he was looking for.

            "I wanted to live a little more deliberately," he says. "Being a vagabond was a very formative experience for me. You're forced to learn things about yourself that no other situation can possibly teach you."

            It wasn't until he called the hills of Boulder, Colorado, his home that he realized he had found his passion: ecology. "I would go hiking and notice trees growing differently on different hillsides, and I would think, 'Huh. I wonder why they're doing that,'" he says. "To put it simply, I was just happy when I was questioning things in nature."

            Hartvigsen eventually decided to go back to school, and graduated with a bachelor's degree in environmental science. A few years later, he earned his masters in zoology. Now a professor of biology at SUNY Geneseo, Hartvigsen is bringing his real-life experience and passion for nature to a new generation of college students.

            "What's really rewarding about teaching for me is getting students excited about things they never dreamed they'd be interested in," he says. "It's the best feeling in the world when students tell me that they thought that a course in ecology was going to be really boring, only to discover it can be fun and interesting."

            Hartvigsen teaches a variety of traditional science courses at Geneseo, like "Biological Statistics," "Biological Data Analysis," and "Principles of Ecology." But one of his more popular classes is less typical. In his "Six Degrees of Separation" class, which is designed for first-semester freshmen, Hartvigsen has students examine the dynamics of social networks. And though Kevin Bacon has never made a guest appearance in the class, Hartvigsen says his students are psyched to research networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and to see how their group of friends develops over the course of the semester.

            "I try to get students to really think about their place in the college and how that changes over time," he says. "Students seem to like the course because they get to think about themselves, and I like the course because it's related to my research." Hartvigsen's research interests include everything from how online social networking can affect global cooperation, to the shifting deer populations of Western New York.

            Students don't seem to mind the demanding workload of Hartvigsen's classes, especially since he tends to take them on trips outside the classroom to expand their studies. Traveling had such an important impact on him when he was younger that he believes in getting his students into the field to discover more about themselves and the world around them. Hartvigsen has taken students to destinations like the Adirondacks, Galapagos Islands, and Ecuador to study the ecology of new environments. Next year, he plans to take a small group of students (sorry, biology majors only) to Belize for a two-week mini-course.

            Even though he's a professor now, Hartvigsen still likes to relax by playing tennis and guitar and just enjoy life. "I've learned a lot since my college days and I've certainly grown as a person since then," he says. "But at the core, I'm still the same easy-going, fun-loving, nature freak I was back then."

PULLQUOTE: "Being a vagabond was a very formative experience for me. You're forced to learn things about yourself that no other situation can possibly teach you."

You have 1 New Friend Request

Naz professor examines Facebook from sociological perspective

"Go home and go on Facebook." Not too many professors will encourage their students to spend hours perusing the popular social networking site for homework, but Kim McGann, assistant professor of sociology at Nazareth, says she regularly asks her students to log on for her classes.

            "There's so much that can be said about our society and how we function through sites like Facebook, and the Internet in general," she says. "I want them to think critically about what we're doing. It's good for them to draw examples from their lives, but I want them to be able to take it out of the context of their lives and apply it to sociology too."

            In addition to teaching a senior seminar about relationships and technology (that's where the Facebook assignment comes in), McGann also teaches many of the department's core classes, like "Intro to Sociology" and "Social Problems," and some more unique classes, like her "Marriage and Relationships" class (which, despite popular misconceptions, is not a marriage or relationship counseling class, she says).

            It's only her third year at Naz, but McGann is no stranger to teaching. She's taught at Finger LakesCommunity College and SUNY Geneseo, and worked as a TA for a few courses while earning her master's degree at RutgersUniversity and her Ph.D. at SUNY Buffalo.

            Sociology kind of fell into McGann's lap when she began her junior year in college and was forced to pick a major. After waiting in a huge, long line to register for classes (back in the day when registration wasn't an online process), she was told she still hadn't declared her major. "I hadn't really thought about it too much, and I asked if I had to decide right then and there," she says. "They said I didn't, but if I came back, I'd have to wait in that huge, long line again. So I just sort of picked sociology."

            The decision wasn't as random as that story might suggest, she says. McGann took several sociology classes that sparked her interest in the subject. One assignment in particular -- a reading about abortion and the sociological reasons why people feel the way they do -- helped her make up her mind.

            "It's not that it changed my mind, but it made me understand why a group of women would be strongly for abortion and why others would be strongly against it," she says. "And that was so cool to me. Anything that can take an issue that is that emotional and make me understand where other people are coming from, without necessarily agreeing with them, is so interesting to me."

            In the same vein, McGann likes to spice things up by keeping the topics and readings relevant and interesting to students. Her classes read articles with titles like "The Rise of Viagra" and "Becoming a Marijuana User" (which she says is focused on classic sociology rather than an actual how-to guide). "I never worry that they're not going to do the readings," she says. "It's criminal to bore your students. I try to always keep them engaged."

            Amanda Santamour, a recent Naz grad who took several classes with McGann, says she always looked forward to the assignments and McGann's classes. "She's not into lecturing at all. She likes to make class more interactive," Santamour says, adding that McGann was one of her favorite professors.

            And it's easy to see why. McGann is a true performer, always gesticulating with her hands and arms to make a point and keeping her voice engaging and friendly. "I'm always the first to crack a bad joke," she says. "Being a professor is like being Jay Leno with a Ph.D."

            Theatrics aside, McGann wants her students to become seriously engaged in an area of study she says is generally mistaken as a negligible subject. "Sociology is like a big buffet of interesting topics," she says. "You can sample a little of this, a little of that, and really keep things fresh and interesting."

PULLQUOTE: "It's criminal to bore your students. I try to always keep them engaged."

Outside the box

Professional cartoonist teaches RIT students to sketch their own comics

Ever gotten bored and doodled in class? Jason Yungbluth is one professor who doesn't mind. Yungbluth, an adjunct professor at RIT and full-time comic-book artist, teaches introductory and advanced courses in cartooning, and he encourages his students to think outside the box -- or frame, as it's called in the comic world.

            "Of course I want my students to draw well, but it's more important to me that the storyline is different and unique," he says. "I certainly appreciate comics that are well drawn, but it's more fun to read something that's intelligent and witty."

            Yungbluth's fascination with cartooning started at a young age with traditional superhero comic books like Superman and Batman, and as he grew, so did his comic book collection, and his love for the art form. It's in his blood too: many of his family members (his father, grandfather, and uncle to name a few) were all professional cartoonists.

            Yungbluth has achieved some fame for himself as a cartoonist -- a few of his comics have appeared in Mad Magazine -- but Yungbluth says he's more interested in doing long-form storylines.

            "I always wanted to be a newspaper comic strip artist, but at the same time, I wanted to do a funny gag strip. I wanted to include some more crude humor and I wanted to do a strip that I was happy with and proud of artistically," he says. "Newspapers don't allow me to do that."

            So he decided to do his own thing and publish his own stuff. Some of his more popular comics include "Deep Fried," an off-color comic that parodies and mocks anything and everything geeky, and "Weapon Brown," a look into the world of a post-apocalyptic Charlie Brown. Yungbluth publishes both comics regularly on his website,, but has also published a handful of comics.

            Doing both projects, he says, allows him to strike a balance between doing cartoon-y sketches with some rude humor and a superhero-like action strip with a more detailed and constructed storyline.

            Yungbluth says that with the way the publishing market is shifting to the web, he expects Web comics (hopefully including his), to prosper in the future. He says that unlike newspapers, websites are more consumer-oriented and can get away with more crude humor.

            And crude humor is something his students don't mind, he says. "I'm not saying everyone needs to do jokes about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll," Yungbluth says. "But it's not something I would object to. I want my students to do the kind of humor they want to do, but I also want them to be intelligent about it and understand comedy. Like why some punch lines work and others don't."

            Yungbluth says being a professor was not something he had in mind, and the teaching job at RIT was spontaneous. A friend of his was originally teaching the cartooning classes, but when he moved, RIT called Yungbluth and asked him to start the next day. "Teaching is something that sort of just fell into my lap," he says. "I love it, though. Seeing students succeed and just get it. When that little light bulb finally goes off in their mind and they get excited about what they're doing, that's what I love about this job."

            Even though it wasn't in his plans, Yungbluth says he intends to stick with teaching for a while, as long as it doesn't stifle his creativity as a comic book artist. And although he's admittedly not the most famous cartoonist in the world, he's still striving to put out his best work.

            "I strive to be the person doing the most funny, the most shocking, and yet still the most true and genuine comics I can do," he says. "As long as I can do that, the fame, the money, all that stuff doesn't matter."

PULLQUOTE: "I want my students to do the kind of humor they want to do, but I also want them to be intelligent about it and understand comedy. Like why some punch lines work and others don't."

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