Tutor Eric Poppele (SF89) on the Power of the St. John’s Lab Program

September 12, 2019 | By Rebecca Waldron

Tutor Eric Poppele is leaving his position as Lab Director this year to return to the classroom full-time.

Tutor Eric Poppele (SF89) is an alumnus and the outgoing Director of Labs. Here, he talks about his experience of the lab programs as a student, tutor, and as lab director and shares what he hopes to see for the St. John’s lab program going forward.

What was your experience of the St. John’s lab program like as a student?

My freshman lab was with John Cornell. It was so fun to explore all these things that we think we know the answers to: What is a type? What is a species? How are these things related? How do we measure things? The freshman lab program at St John’s opens up ideas—ideas that might just be taught dogmatically at other schools—to real thought, and inquiry, and experience. That first year, I realized everything was a question—[one] we could pursue together, with our hands, with our eyes. The information didn’t rest on authority, it rested on examination and deliberation. I kept the notebook from that class for years and years because it reminded me of that experience.

I was a lab assistant my remaining three years as an undergraduate. [It] was like an extra perk. I got to have my own keys to go into the rooms and try things out. I remember senior year, a friend of mine and I went in to do the speed of light experiment on our own, late at night. I don’t know how many nights we did it or how late we stayed up, probably most of the night. It was just the two of us, in the dark, measuring a little dot of laser light reflected on a screen. It was so rewarding to ask a question on our own that wasn’t part of a class assignment. It wasn’t a question of getting the right answer. For me, that’s part of the spirit of the St. John’s labs.

The lab has the same open-ended, rich feeling for me as the rest of the program. What does this line in Greek mean? What are we to make of this mathematical proof? What is Kant saying here? They’re open-ended questions whose answers depend not on authority, but on us. Of course, there are better and worse answers; maybe, in some cases, there are answers we would call “right.” But the lab lets us do that questioning with our hands and our eyes. It represents this interesting twist on the St. John’s program: What does a physical encounter with the world or an object mean? What does a physical answer mean? I got so excited from that sort of inquiry, and I got so much confidence about my ability to do it that I went from St. John’s into a graduate program in engineering.

How did you end up back at St. John’s after graduate school?

After graduate school, I worked as an environmental engineer for a while and then went back to school to get a PhD. While I was there, I realized I was really interested in becoming a teacher. I took a class called “Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.” It was eye-opening to me because up to that point, I had thought I was successful in grad school because I was smart or good at math. That semester made me realize how much I had learned at St. John’s, how much it had influenced the way I think about the world, the way I think about questions, the way I think about what school is for. I realized part of the reason I was successful in grad school was because at St. John’s, I had learned how to ask a question and how to pursue a question that I didn’t know the answer to.

At St. John’s, we learn how to wrestle with ideas and we learn how to use other people’s reflections on our ideas to see ourselves better. We become bigger than we were as freshmen by learning to hear others’ responses, learning to use them as a mirror that gives us insight into our own strengths and weaknesses. That can’t happen in a big lecture hall. So I thought, if I was going to teach engineering I wanted to find a school where I could have smaller classes. And there just aren’t that many. That’s how I eventually ended up at St. John’s.

Can you talk a bit about your experience as lab director?

The previous directors, Bill Donahue and Hans von Briesen, had both done a remarkable job in the labs. I think what everyone wanted from a lab director was just for that to continue. One of my interests in the labs that turned out to be overwhelming in terms of time was the lab manuals. We were mixing together original source material with practica, tutor notes, and commentary. We don’t do that anywhere else in the program. The other issue was that the materials were often old photocopies, some were blurry. The mere look of these things belied their importance and depth.

Bill Donahue had started the process of digitizing some of these texts that had just been photocopies for years, and I took that a step further. I asked the dean to appoint a lab manual advisory committee because I had some strong ideas about what I thought ought to be done to the lab manuals, but I also realized this is not the sort of thing you can just let one person do. We needed to consider how we organize the manuals, how we structure supplementary material, what the student sees and how it affects them.

I’d been really excited for a few years about the possibility of putting together a source book [of] source texts from the labs. I kept running into the difficulty that if we’re going to do a source book, then we still have all the supplements and practica. It occurred to me to put all the supplementary things together in a three-ring binder. Now things like practica and tutor-written supplements are insertable and removable. There are also sections in the binder for the students’ notes. The idea is that that notebook develops over the course of the semester or the year. Along the way, I’ve also been trying to digitize more and more texts. I think I digitized close to 2,000 pages of source texts. This is where I put a lot of my time as lab director, proofreading these digitized texts and improving the quality of them.

What are your hopes for the lab program going forward?

Sometimes outsiders can look at what we do in the lab program as old science, or narrow science. I think what we do here is broad and fundamental science. I’d like to see us find ways to be more confident in asserting to others that what we do is important work for the sciences, work that’s sometimes neglected at other institutions. I’m proud that St. John’s studies a concept like phlogiston, because we’re wrestling with the question of what makes a concept useful. What makes an idea plausible? What leads us to reject an idea? Lavoisier came up with this new idea that you can actually weigh things, even gasses. Then you don’t need phlogiston anymore. Even though it’s been superseded, we still study phlogiston because we want to understand the kind of thinking that makes phlogiston a useful and plausible theory. And then we want to see the kind of thinking that makes another theory supersede it.

I think Carl Sagan said back in the 1960s, something like, “What makes us think that today’s science is incontrovertibly true?” And it’s true! Today’s science is wrong. It doesn’t mean these things are all completely wrong. But it means they’re incomplete. And sometimes being incomplete is radical, like the change between Newtonian physics and relativistic physics. Newtonian physics is still true as an approximation. We still use it, but again, it’s been superseded even though we still call it true. What will happen to our current theories? I think it’s important for science to understand this kind of trajectory that we trace at St. John’s. Otherwise we risk thinking we’ve arrived at the final answer.

There are scientists who look at what we do and recognize it as being real scientific training. St. John’s attracts some of those people. Llyd Wells, a tutor in Santa Fe, and Susan Paalman in Annapolis are both scientists who came to St. John’s because they were disappointed with research universities and what they saw as a failure to teach people what research and what science is. Some years after he had been here on the faculty, Mr. Wells and I had a conversation where I said, “You know, I think the best training for being a scientist doesn’t happen in the lab class. It happens in seminar.” And he agreed.

In seminar, sometimes you put an idea out and you have to wait and see what happens to it. Seminar is rather disappointing if you leave believing what you believed when you walked in. It’s most enthralling when at some point you see something that you hadn’t seen before—not only hadn’t seen before but weren’t capable of seeing before. You have to get outside of yourself to find something new. That’s what a research laboratory is like. It happens much more slowly, but we’re asking the same question, “Is this what you are? No? Okay, I’m going to have to watch you for a while. How about ... this?” And that back-and-forth work is trained in seminar. It’s only when we’re in the realm of the unknown that something new can be discovered. You can collect data, you can publish papers, you can write all sorts of things without ever actually learning anything. But to discover something that was unknown is what real research is about. And that’s what’s seminar is about.

On paper, it may look like St. John’s students graduate with deficiencies if they’re trying to go on into the sciences. But I think that there are these hidden advantages that St. John’s students have: techniques of inquiry, figuring out what the real question even is. I think our experience is, for the most part, that when St. John’s students get into businesses or graduate programs, those outsiders realize that St. John’s graduates are weird and different in a way that can be really good.