Saying CLS professor John Duncan has led a colorful life may be an understatement. From long and intense careers in martial arts, to being the chief agent in the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics (OBN), Duncan’s interests have taken him on a lifelong adventure of discovery.
After Duncan finished one of his many careers with the OBN, he turned his attention to academics, earning his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1998. In his spare time, he also enjoys astronomy, writing poetry and playing jazz guitar. Goal setting, however, has remained central to every endeavor he has embarked upon—a passionate way of life that he insists is the most valuable lesson he can teach in the classroom.
Duncan began practicing judo at the age of nine. Delving into the philosophy, athleticism and artistry of this sport, he learned about the importance of goal-setting and attainment at a young age. He also realized hard work enabled him to make his goals a reality. “Visualize your future self as a motivator to achieve,” he recommends. “This serves as a stepping stone to achieve even more in the future.”
By the mid-1970s, Duncan intensively applied his understanding of goal-attainment and hard work, becoming the head instructor at Allen Steen’s East Dallas dojo. Later, he opened his own school in Plano, Texas. During this 10-year stint of his life, Duncan maintained a rigorous training schedule, beginning each morning by running 10 miles and training well into the afternoon. He would fit college classes into the short time before the two evening karate classes he instructed. He joked that he missed out on a lot of television during this phase of his life.
While Duncan had taken various college courses, he hadn’t pursued a degree earnestly until he made it a goal. He dropped out of competitive martial arts and focused his attention on education. “It was time to set another goal,” he said. He moved to Denton, Texas, where he attended the University of North Texas.
In Denton, he studied English and philosophy, graduating cum laude in 1978. That same year, he moved to Norman after receiving a graduate assistantship in philosophy. “My interest was in a German philosopher named Edmund Husserl, who was studying the nature of human consciousness,” he explained. “His work was very influential in the early 20th century, and OU had a couple of world-renowned proponents in this area of philosophy.” By 1980, Duncan received his Master of Arts in philosophy, writing his thesis on “Husserl’s notion of the ‘life-world.’”
After leaving OU, he joined the Norman Police Department (NPD).
“Back then, I really didn’t know what I wanted to be,” he recounted. “I was still very much a person motivated by adrenaline. I knew I was comfortable with confrontation, so I looked at becoming a police officer. I guess that the police career appealed to my need to live ‘on the edge.’ As it turned out, I fell in love with police work, and especially with tactical things like marksmanship and raid planning. I guess that I just extended my martial arts interest to include these things.” Duncan was able to combine his comfort with opposition with a deep-seated need for goal-attainment and hard work.
By 1986, after being on the Norman SWAT Team and serving as a narcotics investigator at the NPD, Duncan went to work for the OBN and Dangerous Drugs Control — the police equivalent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and had a very successful career.
Beginning as a field agent, Duncan worked in conjunction with other drug enforcement task forces throughout the U.S. and later in Eastern Europe. During his time with OBN he began focusing on clandestine laboratory investigations and in 1987, he participated in an effort to codify a method of raiding drug labs, in which agents wore protective HAZMAT gear. Later in the 1990s, he consulted for several eastern European governments, helping them devise legal systems and law enforcement strategies to break away from former Soviet Union and KGB methods. During his career with the OBN, he authored many grants and legislative acts, including the first Oklahoma Chemical Precursor Act, which was later adopted by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance, as well as the Pseudoephedrine Control Act in Oklahoma. Duncan was also a founding member and president of the Association of Oklahoma Narcotics Enforcers—a group dedicated to providing national-caliber training to those working drug crimes in Oklahoma.
Despite his many achievements in law enforcement, Duncan had never given up on his goal of earning a Ph.D. in philosophy. He began taking night classes while serving as the chief agent for the OBN and finished his Ph.D. in philosophy in 1998. He also completed post-doctoral work in psychopharmacology at the OU College of Medicine, becoming a clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. He continues to teach first-year medical students about how unregulated street drugs affect the human brain.
In fall 2007, Duncan retired from the OBN and began teaching as a full-time professor for CLS, focusing on the Criminal Justice degree programs, as well as for the OU Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Reflecting on his own struggles of working full time and earning a degree, his mentorship to the students at CLS solidifies the college’s mission of continuing education through lifelong learning.
“It has been great working here, especially teaching classes to students who are working,” he said. “I understand their struggles with balancing family, work and school and still finding some time to sleep. I love my students, and I have a deep respect for them and what they are doing!”
Duncan’s multiple careers allow him to bring a host of interdisciplinary knowledge and very unique experiences to CLS students. More importantly, however, is the common thread that runs throughout his life endeavors—goal setting and hard work. This synergistic philosophy he adopted and began applying at an early age remains central to his teaching in the classroom. He summarizes, “As far as martial arts go, the goal-attainment philosophy and practice have helped me during my entire life. Set goals and work hard! Assess and modify! Stay positive! Cut yourself a little slack here and there!”
John Duncan is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary and cultural studies at the College of Liberal Studies, focusing on criminal justice programs at the bachelor’s and master’s levels. Read more about CLS degrees at cls.ou.edu.