Faculty Spotlight: Warner Cribb, Geology

Faculty Spotlight: Warner Cribb, Geology

Dr. Cribb conducts a scientific experiment on the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer.

Today, the Student Voice is meeting up with Dr. Warner Cribb of the geology department to talk about volcanoes, desert expeditions, the Fishbowl, and giant science machines!  

Thanks for agreeing to the interview! So how did you become interested in geology?

I come from a family of geologists: both my grandfather and great-grandfather were geologists, so growing up I was very familiar with what geology was, and I learned a lot about minerals and rocks. I think part of it was just in my DNA. When I was an undergrad student, I actually started out as a chemistry major with the intention of becoming a doctor, but I decided to take a geology class as an elective. The professor was really, really good; I listened to her lecture for one day, and I just thought “This is what I want to do”. Also, I was an undergrad when Mount St. Helens erupted in 1980, and that really piqued my interest in volcanoes, so I dropped pre-med and went into geology. I decided that I liked the chemistry of rocks a lot better than the chemistry of people, because rocks don’t talk back to you (laughing).

You’ve done a lot of research with volcanoes! Do you have some cool volcano stories?

Well, I don’t work with active volcanoes. I thought about doing that at one point, but when I was getting out of grad school, there was a bad accident in South America where some geologists were killed at an active volcano, so I decided not to work on active systems. The coolest thing I do regularly with volcanoes is take a group of students to the Pacific Northwest, where we climb Mount St. Helens. We visit other volcanoes too, like Mt. Hood and Mt. Rainier, but St. Helens is cool because you can climb up the south flank of the volcano, stand on the rim, and look down into the crater. I’ve been going back for so many years–since the eruption in 1980–that I’ve been able to see the changes that have occurred. For example, there’s been a huge glacier form in the volcano since the eruption, and it’s been really cool to watch it develop. I love to go back and see the changes that are occurring.

At what point did you decide that you wanted to focus more on teaching than research?

I decided I preferred teaching while I was a PhD student at Ohio State. It’s a very research-oriented university, and while I was there, I decided that I wanted to go to a university where teaching was at least as important as research. Part of it was self-confidence; when you’re a PhD student in a huge research environment, it can be very intimidating. I didn’t want to deal with a super competitive environment, where it’s completely cutthroat and you have to deal with internal politics.  But I knew I was a good teacher and I enjoyed teaching, so I decided to move more towards teaching. I still do research, but I don’t do it at the rate that professors at some other universities do. 

It’s sometimes unusual to see a department chair teach general education courses, as you do! What draws you to introductory classes?

Teaching gen-eds can be frustrating because many students in the class are completely disinterested, but it can also be very rewarding. I do it for a couple of reasons. One, they’re not difficult classes to teach, because you can pretty much walk in the door and talk off the top of your head and fill up the hour. But I also think it’s important that department chairs with large general ed programs keep their nose in the general ed business, so that we know what’s going on in the lower-division classroom. Some administrators have no idea what goes on in intro courses because they don’t teach any. There’s no way you can truly identify with the experience of a professor teaching an intro class unless you’re teaching an intro class. That’s really why I do it; I think it’s important to know what’s going on. For example, in my class I’ve moved away from giving tests, but some professors in our department still do, so we’re working with different things to figure out what works best for our gen-eds. I think it’s important that I stay directly involved so I can help make that decision.

What are some things about you that your students don’t know? 

Well, I passed on the geology gene to my daughters, who are both geology majors. One has already graduated, and the other is still working on her degree. I live at home with my three dogs; I have two labrador mixes and one bull terrier mix that my daughter brought home and then left with me when she moved out. There’s not a lot to tell about me. I guess students might not know this, but the most important thing to me about teaching is having them enjoy my class. Like I said, I teach gen-ed to stay involved with it, but I still want students to learn things and have fun. Some days you just walk out of the classroom after a lecture and you think “Well, that went horribly.” And some days, you walk out and you think “Maybe somebody got something out of this class.” A lot of times you just hope that you’re getting through to somebody.

What’s your favorite class to teach?

My favorite class to teach is a class in igneous and metamorphic rocks, which is really what my background is in. It’s a class where students learn about how the rocks form and what happens to them after they form. They spend a lot of time in the classroom and the laboratory looking down the microscope at thin sections of rock, and to me it’s really fascinating. They also get to use this machine here, the Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer! It’s really cool!  

What advice would you give students about how to succeed in academic and professional life? 

I think the most important thing for students to understand is that if you want to be a really successful student, you have to go beyond whatever is expected of you by the professor. For example, if you’re in a math class, don’t just do the problems that you’re assigned, but push yourself into trying harder ones so you go beyond the basics. Dig deeper into the literature, read more, ask more questions. If you can get into a habit of doing that, you can be a better student.  Then when you go into the workforce, you’re going to intuitively go above and beyond, and that’s really expected of anybody who wants to be a successful professional. In this department, we really mentor our students to do undergraduate research, as much as they can, because even though most of them may not be research scientists, it’s still great experience. It encourages them to go out into the field and into the laboratory and figure out the answers to problems they may encounter. Many students just achieve to a certain level, and then they stop, but just being average is not okay; on any campus, you want to be better than average.

What’s one of your favorite college memories?

Well, geology students at Vandy have to go to summer field camps before they graduate. You spend about six weeks somewhere out West, in the desert, and you learn to make geologic maps, you write reports, and you collect data in the field. My field camp was in the Mojave Desert, and that was my first real experience away from the Southeast. We were basically a group of students who went out camping in the desert for six weeks! That’s probably the thing that I remember the most when I look back on my undergrad years.

Do you feel like working in the field brings out the best and the worst of people?

When you spend two to three weeks in the field with someone, you learn a lot about them. Some of it’s good and some of it’s not so good, but that’s really where you learn a lot about students: whether they can work together in a team, whether they can follow directions, whether they will obey rules, how enthusiastic they are about getting up at 5am in the morning and hitting the trail…it’s pretty hard, so you learn a lot about them while you’re out there. But last year, I took a group out to New Mexico, and it was flat out the best group I’ve ever had. They were awesome, enthusiastic, cooperative, and helpful to each other. So when you get really good groups, it’s a lot fun! 

What’s something that you wish you’d done differently in college?

I wish I had taken more courses outside of math and science, because all I took as an undergrad were math and science courses. I took Spanish for a couple of years, one psychology class, and one political science class, and that was it. Their gen-ed requirements at the time were very flexible about what students could take, so all the other classes I took were science or math classes. I never took any English or history. If I had to do it all over again, I would’ve taken more classes in liberal arts areas. I really regret that; I would’ve liked to round out my education better. Once you get into graduate school, your path is really set and you don’t have those opportunities anymore. You can’t really take any classes for fun as a grad student, so you should definitely do it while you’re an undergrad. 

How did you come to teach here at MTSU?

When I finished at Ohio State, I wanted to move back to the Southeast. I grew up in South Carolina, and I had been to school for four years in Nashville at Vandy, and I loved Nashville and the Middle Tennessee area, so I took the job here at MTSU. I started teaching here on January 1, 1993; I know that because I’m coming up on my 25th anniversary with MTSU! 

Do you like being the department chair?

I like certain aspects of being the chair, but I probably will not be doing it for much longer. I’ve been chair now to six years, and originally I said I’d do it till my daughter graduated Vanderbilt, and she graduates next summer. I said that when she graduated, I’d step down so that I’d have more free time to travel and go see my family. But we’re bringing the Environmental Science program into this department next year, so it’s important to me to see that through and make sure it all goes well. So there are some things I’d like to see through before I step aside, but the transition should be an easy one. Everyone in this department is on the same page, and it’s a relatively small and close-knit department.

The building we’re in now, Wiser-Patten Science Hall, recently reopened after extensive renovations. Are you liking it here so far?

I’m telling you, the science facilities on this campus are awesome! There was a national conference of geologists in Nashville this past week, and one of my colleagues brought a bunch of them over here to show them our facilities, and he told me that a lot of them just envy us. Our geology teaching labs here are absolutely awesome, and we’re really proud of them. We have a very supportive dean, and President McPhee has been supportive in funding our renovations here. One of the best parts about the building is what we call the Fishbowl, the big glassed-in main lobby where students can hang out and study. When the students nicknamed it, our secretary ordered these stickers with fish and bubbles on them that say “The Fishbowl”. You might see where some of our students have stuck them up around the lobby area, so next time you’re in the lobby, be on the lookout for one!