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Student Survival Guide: Extracurriculars

What teachers do when they're not teaching you
By PHILIP EIL  |  September 27, 2014

RIDING THE WAVE Fruzzetti. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

Brown University turned 250 years old this year. Its College Hill neighbor, The Rhode Island School of Design, was founded in 1877. The University of Rhode Island was founded 15 years later, in 1892. Providence College will arrive at its 100th birthday just three years from now, in 2017.

In short, Rhode Island has old schools. And as long as students have been coming here to learn about Plato and plate tectonics, they’ve been wondering what their instructors do in their off-hours. Today, the Phoenix is happy to report that we have answers — wave-riding, bug-eating, goth/postpunk-guitar-playing, NRA-aggravating answers. As it turns out, all we had to do was ask.

Read on to learn what a handful of Rhody-based professors do when they’re not standing in front of a classroom, talking to you. (Note: in some cases, these answers have been edited for length or clarity.)



Most students think of their professors as nerds. This is mostly true, but we are nerds in interesting ways. Outside of my job, I am really busy with traveling, exploring the great beers of this country, hiking, rooting for the Oregon Ducks, and watching movies — especially old westerns, Hong Kong gangster films, film noir. Silent movies are especially amazing and I love showing them in my classes.

My main outside activity is writing about politics and history at the blog Lawyers, Guns, and Money []. Mostly I write on the issues I feel passionate about —the labor and environmental movements — but I write about whatever I feel like, ranging from historical images of dead horses to my disdain for ketchup.

Mostly it’s been great. I have a lot of readers. I have the ability to play a small role in defining the debates on the issues I care about. I can take local labor union stories and broadcast them to a much wider audience, including on Twitter [@ErikLoomis]. On the other hand, after the Sandy Hook massacre, there was a right-wing campaign to get URI to fire me after I harshly criticized the NRA on Twitter. So that was fun.

I did learn one thing though — death threats are overrated. Don’t recommend getting them.

But at least my life stays exciting!



When I’m not teaching, I play guitar and bass in two different goth/postpunk bands. I play guitar in the Dirge Carolers, with my wife Heather (keyboards) and Chris Harnois (bass/vocal). The act is a sometimes-tongue-in-cheek goth band with an eclectic sound, ranging from ’80s-style proto-goth (e.g. Joy Division), to blues, cabaret, electronica, and hard rock.  

I also play bass guitar in November Party with Dorian James (vocal/guitar/keyboard) and Mike Rebeiro (guitar). This band creates original music with reference to the genre of ’80s alternative and synthpop. Influences include Siouxsie and the Banshees, Psychedelic Furs, Echo and the Bunnymen, and the Smiths.

From a music-culture perspective, I always liked that goth music focuses on art, literature, and culture. There aren’t a ton of songs about getting drunk (e.g., George Thorogood), or getting even with your ex through property damage (e.g., Carrie Underwood) as you might find in other genres. For me, goth, which grew out of punk, was a sublimation of the rebellious, rough-and-ready political activism of the original punk scene, into an aesthetic rebelliousness, which, ironically, rebelled against punk by writing music more infused with traditional musical theory. You don’t need to know much about music theory to write loud, pulsing songs, but to achieve the kind of rarefied atmosphere required to get something more spooky or ethereal across, you need to know how not to jar a listener out of the mood by breaking too many of the rules of music.



I’m an astrophysicist, and I study exploding stars and how we can use them as probes of the early universe.

What do I do when I’m not teaching? Some of my time is spent looking at stars that exploded billions of years ago. These explosions (gamma ray bursts, or GRBs) occurred so long ago and far away that the light from them is just reaching us now. GRBs are detected by their brief burst of gamma radiation, but fortunately gamma radiation is blocked by our atmosphere. So we rely on space-based satellites, such as Swift [collaboratively launched in 2004 by NASA and several European countries], to locate these bursts for us.

When Swift detects a burst, I get a text message on my phone including the approximate location in the sky. Then I need to find a telescope. I’m a member of several telescope collaborations in the northern and southern hemispheres, so chances are good I can find a telescope to borrow for an hour or two in order to take a look at the GRB before it quickly fades away. These telescopes can be run on-site, remotely (over a computer), and some telescopes even respond robotically to triggers from the Swift satellite. By looking at the GRB in different color filters, I can attempt to figure out the composition of the galaxy in which it exploded. This can tell us quite a bit about galaxy evolution in the early universe, currently a difficult topic to probe.

I’m [also] the faculty advisor for RWU’s Astronomy Club, so I’m out with various small telescopes at least once a week, when weather permits.



I am the original and continuing faculty advisor for, [as] they’ve named themselves, the Johnson & Wales University Wave Riders Surf Club.

I had never surfed until about eight years ago, [when] a student of mine — we were having a discussion in class encouraging the students to spread their wings, try new things, not be afraid to take chances — asked me, “Well, what’s something you’ve never done that you’ve wanted to do?” Fair enough. Turn the tables; that’s OK.

And I said, “I’ve always wanted to
go surfing and maybe sometime I [will] try.” [Later,] a young lady in the class, who had been wanting to start a surf
club at the university needed a faculty advisor to make it an official club, approached me and said she would teach
me how to surf if I would be their faculty advisor so they could be a real club. And

I said, “Yes.”

So, having lived 35 years without ever having surfed, I went out, the kids taught me, and I’ve been the advisor for the surf club ever since. Typically, when we do lessons — and the place where I was taught — is [Middletown’s] Second Beach. Another place we go to is Narragansett Town Beach.

[Surfing is] difficult to describe, even for someone who makes his living with words, like myself. It feels as though the entire ocean is picking you up and you and the wave are enjoying this moment together and you’re going for a ride toward the shore. It’s an incredible sensation. It’s peaceful and exciting at the same time. It’s really something.

I’ll go on record as saying the Surf Club would be the coolest club on campus. It’s hard not to look cool with a surfboard on your car, even on top of my station wagon.

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