Get to Know: Dr. Glenn Willis


Dr. Glenn Willis

Alicia Stavitzki, Reporter

   Religious studies professor Dr. Glenn Willis, who joined the university in September, never imagined that he’d be in the position he’s in today.

   As a teenager, Willis was not interested in theology. He loved baseball.

   “You’re responsible for your piece of the team, but it’s also about participating with others. I was a pitcher and I always enjoyed the feeling that no matter what had happened in the previous play, I now had a new decision to make. I could create something new, regardless of what happened before,” said Willis.

   His interests expanded when he was 12 years old. He was  watching a baseball game with his younger sister in their living room full of books, and he decided to read one because the game was slow. The book, written by a Hindu author, sparked his quest for knowledge of religion.

   “The book was asking fundamental questions about what it means to be a human being and especially what it means to be educated. It asked, what is education? Is it really just about getting jobs and certain types of skills, or is it about developing ways of questioning who we are and what we’re here for?”

   Willis said his teachers had never raised such questions in school. Willis grew up in Richland, Washington, the place where the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II was made. People of Richland, he said, were scientifically oriented, and the town was the home of many engineers, chemists and physicists.

   “Four of my friends from high school have PhDs in physics. This was the type of educational context that I grew up in, and it was not very ‘me’ focused. I found myself increasingly attracted to traditions and authors that were discussing issues of what it means to be a human being capable of more than just technical understanding,” Willis said.

   Willis further expanded his knowledge by traveling during his undergraduate years.

   “I traveled to approximately 20 countries. Although I had this youth in this very scientific hometown, I started becoming interested in questions of meaning, commitment, trust and faith,” he said.

   He studied in Europe, Africa and Asia.

   Willis would not have continued to study religion if he had not met people from traditions that embodied peace, and he didn’t believe he would encounter them in the American context. After college, he went to China and traveled by bicycle through Sichuan Province and then Hunan Province. He went into monasteries, without any understanding of what Buddhism is. There he encountered monks meditating and chanting.

   “They were so peaceful. They seemed to be on a completely different wavelength than the wavelength I had been on as a student, where I was anxious and concerned about my wellbeing. I didn’t know where I fit in the world, and these people seemed to be so at ease with themselves, and I thought, I want to know what’s happening that put that person in a position to be completely accepting of themselves in the world around them,” he said.

   Willis also served as a hospice counselor for a year, and he realized that he wanted much more theological knowledge, so he attended Boston College for his PhD and decided to teach.

   “There’s not as much difference as you might expect between hospice counseling and teaching on the collegiate level. In both cases, people are concerned with meaning but may not know how to access it. People are searching for what the meaning of their life has been or will be, and people are still looking for community,” he said.

   Willis said he found that intellectual curiosity is sparked by art.

   “People in my classes will notice that I will bring in poems or show artwork. Those kinds of things are ways in which I am trying to imagine for myself what the outcomes of those human commitments may be, and also invite my students to imagine them, so that we don’t go through an educational process just thinking that it’s only about getting jobs,” he said.

   Willis said people can discover meaning by growing self-knowledge.

   “If you can accept imperfection in yourself and the world around you, and remain committed to yourself and the world around you, you are going to have a good life. I also think that developing relationships that are sustained face-to-face, not just through social media, with people that are not just like us are often going to be where we learn the most about ourselves,” Willis said.