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Syracuse University, College of Arts and Sciences

SU philosopher named Tolley Professor

Mark Heller to promote humanities teaching, curricular development

May 15, 2013, by Rob Enslin

The College of Arts and Sciences at Syracuse University is pleased to appoint Mark Heller G’84 as the next William P. Tolley Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities. An expert in metaphysics and epistemology, Heller has served as SU’s professor of philosophy since 2004. He takes over the Tolley Professorship, which promotes humanities teaching and curriculum development, from religion professor James Watts, who has held it since 2011.

“Professor Heller is a distinguished scholar and teacher who has made significant contributions to the humanities,” says Arts and Sciences Dean George M. Langford. “He understands the importance of the pedagogical process, specifically how it can impact intellectual exchange and discourse among philosophers and humanists at all levels.”

Gerald R. Greenberg agrees, pointing out that Heller is a mentor to graduate students and junior faculty members alike. “Professor Heller provides invaluable training in critical thinking and opportunities for role modeling and career advancement,” says Greenberg. “He is a source of support, encouragement, and trust—the very things that exemplify ‘social capital’ at SU.” Greenberg is The College’s senior associate dean for academic affairs and the humanities; associate dean of curriculum, instruction and programming; and associate professor of Slavic and linguistics.

Heller plans to use the professorship to organize a variety of events, including faculty dinners, first-year faculty gatherings, and a biennial humanities conference at SU’s Minnowbrook Conference Center in Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y. The initial theme of the faculty dinners, he says, will be humanistic perspectives on “knowing.”

“I plan to use the Tolley Professorship to encourage an interdisciplinary conversation about what knowledge is and how we come to have it,” says Heller, who previously served on the faculties of Southern Methodist and Northern Illinois universities. “Much of what we do as professors is discover and convey knowledge. A discussion of the act of knowing, from several different perspectives, will help us better understand and conceive our roles as scholars and teachers.”

Ben Bradley, associate professor and chair of philosophy, says this kind of engagement has earned Heller considerable popularity. “As a teacher, Mark frequently gets high marks from students, who comment on how engaging and entertaining he is,” he says. “As a faculty mentor and graduate teaching advisor, he is good about sitting in on colleagues’ classes, offering constructive feedback on their teaching, and providing general career advice.”

Students and colleagues echo these sentiments. Jeremy Dickinson G’12, a part-time philosophy instructor at SU and Heller’s first Ph.D. student, recalls clashing with him over his dissertation topic. “Even though Dr. Heller disagreed with my views, he helped me strengthen them,” says Dickinson. “Dr. Heller frequently told me that he just wanted me to have the strongest arguments for the position I held. I loved his way of teaching.”

Other students offer similar praise, citing Heller’s “original thoughts and ideas,” “equal fairness to every belief,” and “inclusiveness and collaborative spirit.” “Dr. Heller inspires free thought by encouraging open discussion between the class and himself—something that, I feel, is the best way to allow students to learn and enhance their thinking,” says one student.

Heller’s primary topics of philosophical exploration are the nature of things (i.e., ontology) and the nature of knowledge (i.e., epistemology). He is the author of the forthcoming All There Is in the Material World: An Ontology Without Physical Objects (Oxford University Press) and of The Ontology of Physical Objects: Four-Dimensional Hunks of Matter (Cambridge University Press, 1990). He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from SU.

The Tolley Professorship was established in 1995 to support the enhancement of pedagogical experience at SU and to maximize effectiveness in the classroom. Named for Chancellor Emeritus William P. Tolley, the position has benefited hundreds of tenured and non-tenured faculty members.