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Faculty Profile – John Lancaster

John Lancaster

This year, the College of Liberal Studies celebrates 55 years of providing inspiration and a place of belonging for lifelong learners. To commemorate this accomplishment, however, it is necessary to understand where the college began. John Lancaster, one of the earliest contributors to the CLS faculty, provides insight on how far the college has come since its beginning in 1961.

John Lancaster learned early that he would be a microbiologist.

A lover of history and literature, Lancaster had thought he would be best suited for teaching high school history until his brother returned home from medical school with an important trinket in hand: a microscope.

“The microscope showed me things that I had never really imagined existed,” he said. “I made the decision at that point to go into microbiology and began pursuing an academic career in the discipline.”

Lancaster earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degree before arriving at OU in the 1960s to become a professor. At that point, every major decision Lancaster made throughout his life had been a conscious choice meant to bring him closer to teaching microbiology. He knew exactly what he wanted and took the necessary steps to achieve it—until his work with CLS made him realize just how much there was left to learn.

It Started With An Idea

CLS didn’t exist when Lancaster arrived at OU, at least not tangibly. It was little more than a dream of Thurman J. White, the College of Continuing Education’s dean at the time, to provide continuing education opportunities to Oklahoma’s working population. But White’s dream took hold and advances would quickly be made in creating a new degree program with a new purpose and format.

“Up to that point, all of the continuing education programs were supplemental programs,” Lancaster said. “They were meant to give somebody the chance to enhance their ability to function in their chosen field of work, but they didn’t lead to a degree. We did have correspondence courses conducted through the mail for individuals who were already working. There was some background in that kind of system for classes, but there was no degree program until the College of Liberal Studies came into place.

“The program at CLS was based on the Great Books type of degree program that the University of Chicago initiated. It was certainly new to this campus. Departments were asked to provide faculty for the college, but a lot of them didn’t want to share faculty when they weren’t quite sure what the college was, just yet. It was assumed that a student would only use correspondence courses out of necessity and there wouldn’t be too many of them on their transcript. That was one of the reasons traditional departments were concerned about a program that, as far as they could see, was all correspondence.”

At that time, OU drew its faculty members primarily from academia. Each faculty member hired by the university would have come up through a traditional program with highly focused, discipline-oriented training. This is far from the practitioners, experts and integrated thinkers many universities seek today.

“Then, the idea was you would be trained to participate in your profession,” Lancaster said. “You were not really educated in the sense that Plato would have considered somebody to be educated. There was no sense of broadening.”

White’s insistence on providing a learning alternative for adult students who were looking for a broad-based education made CLS a top priority for George Lynn Cross, the university president at the time. OU organized a committee comprised of one representative from each department in the university to help make CLS a recognizable name on campus.

“The first semester I was here I was appointed to that committee essentially as a throwaway appointment,” Lancaster said. “It was a responsibility in the job description for service to the university.”

Lancaster hadn’t yet realized just how big an impact CLS would have on him and the way he viewed education.

Liberal Studies’ Rise to Prominence

John Lancaster at the blackboardThe CLS program was different from other programs in more ways than format and student population. Its purpose was to educate students deeply and broadly and to expose them to various ways of thinking. To do this, CLS brought in the best faculty members from each department on campus and asked them to integrate all of their expertise cohesively in team-taught courses. The experience was entirely new for faculty members at the time, and it gave professors like John Lancaster a new way to view what it meant to be educated.

“I had history courses, I had literature courses and I had scientific courses, but each of them was taught by a person who was just as immersed in one discipline as I was in mine. So there were never any of these courses that would let me see how reading Faulkner would interface with being a microbiologist. I could see how reading Faulkner would help me better understand the history of the South and the sociology of the South, but I didn’t really begin to appreciate that until I started teaching for CLS.”

The team-teaching format gave Lancaster a better sense of how his discipline, microbiology, fit in the larger picture of the hard sciences. It inspired him to teach his students how to think deeply about the subject matter and what they were learning.

“As a faculty member teaching a team-taught seminar to a group of students who expected an interdisciplinary approach, I was pretty much forced to see how my discipline would interface with whatever discipline it was I was team-teaching with,” he said. “If I was teaching with the physicists, I would consider it my responsibility to show how physics is an important, even an essential foundation, for understanding questions of biology. And I would do the same thing with chemistry, the history of science and so on.

“As professors, we were able to listen to people who understood their disciplines,” he said. “We could ask questions, and they could ask us questions. We were, in essence, forced to see our own discipline in a different context than had been true any time before. Because of that, we were able to develop a program that produced highly educated individuals. A person who came out of that bachelor’s program in liberal studies was much better educated than any student coming out of the on-campus programs simply because they were forced to look at the big picture rather than the narrow focus.”

A Promise for the Future

Lancaster with facultyFifty years later, Lancaster still teaches with CLS and considers his experiences with students his most rewarding achievement. Although he has held many positions at the university, and has a list of accomplishments longer than the length of this magazine, he still believes helping students find their “aha!” moment while learning is one of the best.

“What I consider the most important achievements have not been just personal achievements but achievements that I have accomplished with other people,” he said. “A particularly good seminar experience would be one of the things that always sticks out in my mind as something that I contributed to that was very important.”

Lancaster did not set out to change the world. He simply did what he loved and found that the result of his effort contributed to something much larger than himself.

“I just enjoyed doing it! I never really looked on myself as being a world changer. My mission was always to provide students with the means of making their own life changes, rather than me being a life changer or world changer on my own.”

With the help of professors like John Lancaster, CLS would later become the first credit-granting continuing education degree program OU offered for non-traditional students. Today, it offers 10 degree programs and is the fifth-largest college at OU, but the CLS mission remains the same. The college wants to provide students with the means to realize their potential, become better versions of themselves and, above all, never stop learning.

Mary Wuestewald
Mary Wuestewald specializes in digital and content marketing at OU Outreach. In 2015, she earned a master's degree in Strategic Communication from OU’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication. She currently contributes to Insight magazine, the CLS blog and CLS social media efforts.

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