Legend: The story of Distinguished Professor Paul Baker
Distinguished Professor Emeritus Paul Baker is willing to go the extra mile, challenge the status quo, and lead by example.
Baker started his academic career at Illinois State University in 1965 as an assistant professor of sociology. His passion centered on teaching undergraduate students, and he radically changed the standard class lectures to accommodate the needs of every student. Whether it was 20 students or 240 students, Baker offered a variety of learning options, including independent studies, small group projects, and regular lectures.
“I gave a damn because no student should be treated to a multiple-choice exam or memorizing a lecture they didn’t get right or a textbook which they are going to sell once the semester is over. I never used a textbook unless I was forced to by the book rental system in my early ISU years. My whole career was dedicated to challenging conventional teaching practices.”
His passion to teach differently took Baker to several universities like the University of Chicago, Purdue University, and the University of Illinois as a visiting professor. Researching and training teachers to teach differently, especially on imparting critical-thinking skills to students, Baker was considered a national expert in this area. With several research articles and federal grants to support his research, Baker took on this challenge to equip college teachers to be better in what they do. With college students struggling both to read and think at the same time, a major issue according to Baker, he obtained federal grants and collaborated with scholars to help students transform their reading to become truly literate and informing. Baker conducted more than 35 workshops all over the U.S. training college teachers. A profoundly gratifying career indeed!
President Samuel Braden came to Illinois State from Indiana University where he established a “Living-Learning Center” in one of the residence halls. He asked Baker to develop a living-learning center at Illinois State. Yet another turn in his career was when Baker earnestly transformed boring residence halls to living-learning centers. He worked with residence hall staff and several faculty members to establish a two-year experimental interdisciplinary program that combined sociology, history, cinema, and literature in the Tri-Towers residential complex. He and his family moved into Tri-Towers, where he taught all of his classes and led many informal sessions with undergraduate students. He challenged the traditional setup of residence halls and incorporated seminars and classes to turn them into truly learning centers. Engaging students in unconventional ways was his specialty!
In 1985 Baker changed departments to become a professor in EAF where he trained principals, superintendents, and higher education administrators. During his first two years in the EAF Department, he sought out opportunities to do informal fieldwork in public schools throughout Central Illinois. That is where he identified a critical issue in schools—for many adults and students, schools were not interesting places to spend eight hours. Baker turned his attention to school improvement where mindful engagement was a growing need. He emphasized authentic learning in which teachers move away from standardized textbooks, mindless testing, and memorizing.
He points out the tension between teaching and testing. A time when school reform conversations were heated, with ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test) and NCLB (No Child Left Behind) taking root in U.S. schools, Baker researched mindful engagement in which teachers are no longer shackled by testing pressure, compromising good teaching. Baker challenged the dilemma of school reform. According to him, the collegiality of teachers drives the curriculum and instruction. He developed his own model on how teachers can authenticate learning. His quest for school reform did not end there. Several studies were published, and Baker directed more than 50 dissertations on different aspects of school reform.
With such a spectacular career, he always felt the need to give back. He has mentored many individuals throughout his career. Between undergraduate students, graduate students, colleagues, faculty and teachers, Baker is known for his sound advice and guidance. Professor James Palmer and Associate Professor Dianne Renn are his mentees! Baker started the LEADS Program Scholarship, which is a K–12 program that provides money to graduate students and local schools to fund research-based school improvement initiatives. He used his retirement savings to help fund the LEADS Endowed Fellowship. Baker worked with several colleagues and students on this grant even after his official retirement in 2001.
So, who mentored Baker? Who made him the extraordinary person he is? Baker attributes his growth to the late Dean Emeritus Ben Hubbard. Hubbard showed Baker how to be both an Illinois State professor and someone who helps guide and develop local schools. Hubbard was a statewide leader in that field, a very distinguished scholar, and a friend. Another mentor was Don Kachur, assistant to the dean. He helped with his first applied research in school improvement. Under his guidance, Baker set up building better schools symposia to enable schools that were really improving to attend a two-day conference at Illinois State. Baker explicitly thanks several of his EAF faculty, colleagues, network of researchers, wonderful teachers, and outstanding professors for being such wonderful people to learn and work with.
Baker is known for making positive contributions to the EAF learning community and has distinguished himself nationally as well. His career path has taken an extraordinary trajectory, following closely with his “Give a damn principle.” Starting his second career in 1985, Baker has contributed extensively to both higher education and K–12 for over 33 years. “I never lived within the conventional ISU shell. Moments of teaching and learning were scattered throughout Illinois and beyond,” said Baker.
He received the highest recognition by the department by being inducted into the EAF Fellow Society. He still is active in his personal life. Apart from reading and taking long walks, Baker has taken a deeper interest in politics and has begun to work in new settings of interfaith dialogue with the great religions of the 21st century.
“When you take a job and don’t know why you are there except for a paycheck—then you don’t give a damn. So, go give a damn!” Baker said.