Mosaic / February 8, 2017

Performing professor explains his process

Trying to balance a life of education and art isn’t easy, though somehow Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Ben Farrer has found a way to make it work. Since coming to the United States from his work at the University of Leeds in West Yorkshire, England, he has become one of the top environmental voices on campus, and also a regular face at the Beanhive open mic. Farrer sat down to explain how he is able to pull it all off.

The Knox Student: How did you decide to become a teacher and how did your music playing affected that decision?

Ben Farrer: The music started first. I’ve always loved it and started to learn to play instruments when I was 13 or 14 years old. Most of it came from my sisters’ learning to play as well and I wanted to be better than they were. They stopped after a couple years and I never stopped. I’m a Hufflepuff, I never stop!

I’ve started to play a few new instruments lately, like a harmonica and a violin that I really need to start playing. The teaching side of it was a bit different. My exam scores were never very good and I was going through some personal growth. It wasn’t until my final year at the University that I decided that I was enjoying academics. I needed to start doing my own things outside of the classroom, that helped a lot.

TKS: How would you compare the learning style at your university to the methods here in the U.S.?

BF: To my knowledge, there aren’t any liberal arts schools in Britain. I might be wrong, but when I was thinking about where I wanted to go, I didn’t hear of any schools like that. It was something like a conveyor belt. I didn’t feel like I had much choice as to where I would go, and the teaching style reflected that.

You don’t get to take any classes outside of your major. If you know what you want to do, it gets you there much faster, but many people don’t know what they want to do. That’s the biggest difference for me.

TKS: What drove you into the environmental field of study?

BF: Climate change is always something I’ve cared about. It seems to be one of the biggest threats facing our planet and one of the biggest things I can work on to make a difference. Toward the end of my university career, I was able to tailor my studies toward things I cared more about. It led me into politics and environmental politics.

From what I know, it comes down to the developed countries that cause the problems, so America and European countries. It’s also them who will fix it. In order to understand it all, you need to know the politics.

TKS: Where did you find time to develop the musical side of your life?

BF: I’d always had a guitar with me. It’s difficult to find time in communal living to play, but I feel as though I’ve always found time to play at least an hour a day. I was difficult to live with, and it’s not a source of joy for anyone but for me most of the time.

When I first came to America, I didn’t have my guitar and I couldn’t handle it. That’s when I started to play the harmonica, it’s something, some sort of noise. It’s not a question of finding of time for it. I need it, and I need to find time for it before I find time for anything else. I can’t imagine not finding time for it.

TKS: How does the balance of teaching and playing mingle with one another?

BF: Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. I only have the one personality, and a lot of the same things I write music about are what I teach about. It all fits together. I’m quite good at teaching, enough to make a career out of it. I don’t think the same could be said about my musical ability.

At a certain point, you need to understand that no one is interested in that side of it. Separation has to come in the feeling of it all. I could write a song about something I care about, but I can’t always teach that. If something is wrong, music can be a self care thing. Rather than showing up to class and infecting everyone with my depression. Sometimes, America makes me want to scream, and music help me channel it.

TKS: Why did you decide to move to America?

BF: America is still the biggest economy and I still think people here don’t’ realize how much other countries want America to take the lead. Nothing will happen with climate change until America jumps first. It’s up to people here to push the politicians to do it. I also love to travel, but I only really speak one language, so it was either here, Canada, Australia or New Zealand.

TKS: Does Galesburg and Knox pull the musical side out of you more?

BF: To an extent. Galesburg is an interesting place. There’s a lot of things to write songs about: the crows, baked. I’ve imagined many other places where I’ve felt less comfortable to be myself than Knox. One of the things we are better at is allowing people to express themselves. I benefit from that because there are other faculty that play music and other students and people are open about it. It lets me express my music and feel like people want to hear it. If I wasn’t in these people’s lives, I wouldn’t talk about my music at all.

TKS: What are your long term goals for each part of the balance, music and teaching?

BF: At Knox, I feel like my long term teaching goals are to just keep learning. I’ve already learned so much from the people who are here. One of the best things about this job is that every year you meet new people and learn new things and as long as that keeps going, sustaining it is a goal. For music, recording with a full band and in a proper studio. I’ve never had a full band that I’ve played with for a long time, I’ve been moving around so much. I’m always in other peoples projects, but they aren’t in mine. If in a year from now, I could have a full project with a full band, that would be a really nice thing to have.

Mitch Prentice
Mitch Prentice graduated in 2017, majoring in creative writing and minoring in journalism. He volunteered for TKS his sophomore and junior year, and worked as Mosaic Editor his senior year. He has interned alongside Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune and runs his own website.

Tags:  Ben Farrer environmental studies music

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