Thompson’s curiosity kills boredom
By Mike Moore, Carthage College
Somewhere, photo evidence of Professor Wayne Thompson lecturing probably exists, but he’s in no hurry to unearth it.
His oratory skills aren’t what earned him the 2014 Distinguished Teaching Award. In letters nominating the associate professor of sociology and criminal justice, students instead zeroed in on his guidance in highly practical research projects.
“The students are actively generating the knowledge. They’re not just sitting there like zombies, taking notes,” Prof. Thompson said. “Wow, that’s a thrill for me.”
Through the Carthage Office of Research and Evaluation Services (CORES), Prof. Thompson and his students work with churches, social service and criminal justice agencies. Almost always, a gap in the data needs to be plugged.
In the latest study, they’re assessing senior programming needs in Kenosha County through focus groups, in-person interviews, and questionnaires. With a particular focus on elderly rural residents, the students will recommend programs to create — as well as the preferred frequency, location, marketing, and transportation options.
It’s a self-sustaining enterprise. Prof. Thompson trains a core group of students, like Brooke Hamer ’14, and they manage a larger force of student data collectors.
Ms. Hamer got to experience both roles in an expansive study that has examined the departure of congregations from national church bodies. She coordinated about 10 students who conducted phone interviews of Presbyterian pastors, after doing the legwork herself on the ELCA portion of the project.
‘I don’t know where I would be without him’
Ms. Hamar first met Prof. Thompson in 2013 when taking his Sociology of Religion class. Barely a year later, as she headed off to a graduate program in Catholic studies, she credited him for transforming her worldview.
“I don’t know where I would be today without him,” said Ms. Hamer, of Mahtomedi, Minnesota. “Everything I look at, I see in a sociological way now.”
Branching off from the congregation study, she completed a senior thesis analyzing the decline of Catholic nuns in the country. The project, which included face-to-face interviews throughout the Midwest, drew awards from Ms. Hamer’s academic department and division.
Having worked on the research staffs of three different Christian denominations earlier in his career, Prof. Thompson often gravitates to religious topics. He considered the late Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Catholic priest, sociologist, and popular columnist and author, his mentor.
His network of contacts has broadened greatly since he joined the Carthage faculty in 1998. Among other projects, the research team has evaluated counseling services at the Kenosha County Detention Center and surveyed residents about invasive species on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation.
“I’m a super-curious person,” Prof. Thompson said. “I want to know what’s going on with people.”
Fellow staff and faculty members regularly draw on that expertise, too. For example, CORES conducts evaluations of the astronomy education programs that Professor Douglas Arion and selected students offer in partnership with the Appalachian Mountain Club. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, the summer programs are held in the northeastern states.
“Coming from a sociologist, it’s pretty clear we’re doing real evaluation, so it has helped our reputation with the NSF,” Prof. Arion said. “Using the data to improve our efforts shows it’s a good use of the government’s money.”
Prof. Thompson’s mother, Jeanne (Stroberg ’50) Thompson, earned her teaching certification at Carthage’s Illinois campus and enjoyed a long career as a second-grade teacher. He followed her lead, taking classes at the Kenosha campus in the 1970s before completing his degrees elsewhere.
The potential to use his applied research skills lured him back. A past president of the Wisconsin Sociological Association, Prof. Thompson knows it’s rare to find these kinds of studies at a small college.
The projects provide a two-way benefit. Students refine their research skills and present findings in peer-reviewed journals and at professional conferences — including one this October in Indianapolis. The clients receive important data, often for no charge.
“I don’t view the students as an impediment to my research,” Prof. Thompson said. “I view them as the only way to get it done.”
Prof. Thompson received the College’s Distinguished Teaching Award at the inaugural Spring Gathering on March 20, 2014. His wife, Gladys Hollant, and daughters Lea and Noelle attended.
Since 1967, the Carthage Board of Trustees has given out the award, which recognizes teaching excellence at Carthage. The judging committee is composed of students and former recipients.
In brief remarks, Prof. Thompson quoted widely, ranging from Paul McCartney to Martin Luther. He thanked his fellow Carthage employees and especially the students.
“They are the engines that lead the train,” he said. “My job as the caboose is just to pull up the wheels and make sure we don’t fall off the tracks.”