Editor’s Note – This is the first in a series of occasional profiles of UCSB’s teachers. These stories will explore teachers’ lives, personalities and careers and, we hope, allow students to see their teachers as more than just faces at the front of the crowd in class.
Professor Giles Gunn will go to almost any lengths to get his point across.
He loves teaching so much that one day two years ago, the quiet, easygoing professor shocked Global Studies 1 students and fellow Professor Mark Juergensmeyer by riding a BMW C 1200 CE motorcycle into the Engineering I lecture hall to make a point about the internationalization of art, using the motorcycle’s design as an example of the fusion of two distinct styles: Italian futurism and art deco.
“I was using it as an example of modernist and postmodernist design,” he said. “I did it because when I lectured on modernism, my students’ eyes glazed over, and I wanted to show them how profoundly styles of design are derived from the arts and how the arts influence the way our world looks, or at least what we like to look at in our world.”
Gunn said he had to sneak the motorcycle through the building’s long corridor quietly so nobody could stop him before he reached the class.
“My students thought I was out of my mind, but about 50 male students asked to ride it out of the lecture hall after class,” he said. “Most of the female students were afraid I was going to start it in class – which I had to do anyway in order to get it out of the building.”
With his warm, easygoing manner, Giles Gunn does not seem like the kind of guy you would expect to come riding into class on a motorcycle; rather, he is eloquent and articulate, with a worldview obviously influenced by extensive reading and international travel.
Professor Gunn was not always so well-traveled, though. Born in Evanston, Ill. in 1938, he spent much of his life in the suburbs of Chicago, where he attended the public schools and “didn’t like it terribly well.” In the seventh grade, he got his first introduction to California, living in the San Fernando Valley for a few months and attending San Fernando Junior High.
“That was wild …. It took me two months to simply find my class in agriculture because I didn’t know there was such a thing,” he said.
After moving back to Illinois, this time to Highland Park, he “did a bit better,” attending Highland Park High School, where he was a star on the diving team, placing sixth in the state.
He earned his B.A. in English at Amherst College in 1959, after which he was chosen as an Amherst-Doshisha Fellow to teach English at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan for the 1960-61 school year. It was the first of many overseas excursions and the start of a lifelong passion for teaching.
“It took me from a fairly provincial Midwestern kid, even with an education at a prestigious East Coast university, and it blew open my eyes to the rest of the world,” he said. “The effect was not only to show me more than the very limited horizons I had previously, but it helped me to see how the United States and its cultures looked from the other side.”
While living in Japan, Gunn took the opportunity to tour most of southeast Asia, including a stint in Vietnam, during which he spoke to American military officials, including Gen. Lionel McGarr, who is best known for advising President Kennedy to avoid involvement in the war between the Vietnamese and the French.
“It was just as our commitments were deepening, and I saw firsthand how badly mistaken we were to become involved, thinking we could win what was, in effect, an anti-colonial war,” he said. “I learned this from senior military commanders.”
After returning from teaching in Japan, Gunn attended the Episcopal Theological Seminary for a year, returning home to the University of Chicago, where he earned his M.A. in 1964 and his Ph.D. in 1967.
Twenty years ago, he married his wife, Dr. Deborah Sills, a UCSB alumna now teaching history of world religions at Californian Lutheran University. He has two children: a 34-year-old son, Adam, who lives in Santa Barbara, and a 19-year-old daughter, Abby, who is a sophomore at UC Irvine.
He has since returned to Asia twice, toured Africa and Europe and completed a trip to Istanbul last spring. He is planning to travel to Taiwan later this academic year.
“We do like to travel, because it broadens your horizons, because you get to see yourself from a perspective different from your own, and furthermore, it puts you in a kind of conversation with so many more interesting issues and meanings than you normally encounter.”
Gunn is the author of five books and is currently working on a new book tentatively titled Ideas in a World of Terror, discussing morality and the war on terror.
“I’m very interested in ethical issues and questions raised by such things as the spread of global violence, the emergence of a new age of terror and the devastations of experience that so many people suffered in the century just passed,” he said.
He said teaching is exciting for him now because the scope of his work has expanded, and his longtime interests are a part of current events, which he gets to teach in Global Studies 1.
Gunn has been teaching for over 40 years and has watched the student body change over time. He loves engaging in conversation and debate with his students.
“The ’60s were one of the most exciting times in my life when I was teaching in the University of Chicago,” Gunn said. “My students were extremely alive and receptive to current issues and ethics.”
Sophomore global studies major Nick Miluso, who is in Gunn’s Global Studies 1 class, said Gunn’s lectures are “interesting,” but complained about the length of the lectures, which he said “go nonstop from the beginning to end.”
“He’s a motivated speaker and he’s excited, so he gets his students excited.”
Gunn said he feels an obligation to pass his knowledge and enthusiasm on to undergraduate students.
“Senior professors have a special responsibility to teach lower-level classes,” Gunn said. “Too many refuse to teach and this a forfeiture of a teacher’s responsibility.”
Gunn said he encourages students to be conscious of their actions but to enjoy life.
“Take the world seriously,” he said. “It’s more various, fascinating, fragile and treacherous than most of us understand, but there’s so much to enjoy and to learn.”
Professor Juergensmeyer, who has been friends with Gunn for 10 years, said he knew of Gunn for many years before working with him because he is “famous” for being one of the foremost figures in the country in global and international studies. Juergensmeyer said he admired Gunn’s dedication to his field.
“He’s very enthusiastic; he’s very committed to teaching,” Juergensmeyer said. “He does a zillion things at once and I don’t know how.”
In addition to regularly teaching Global Studies 111 and 1, which he is teaching this quarter, Gunn is the director of global and international studies, the chair of the Global Studies Program and chair of the American Cultures and Global Contexts Center.
As for plans for life after teaching, Gunn says he has none.
“I love what I do and I can’t imagine ever not doing it.”