Northern Kentucky University Regents Professor Robert Wallace was in one of the first groups of professors to teach at NKU.
Brief history of NKU
Founded in 1968, NKU was the youngest state university in Kentucky. NKU started as a community college in Covington called the UK Northern Extension Center.
The school then moved to its current home in Highland Heights and became known as Northern Kentucky State College in 1972. In 1976 NKU gained university status.
Early Years at NKU
Wallace received his PhD in English in 1972 from Columbia University. That year he began teaching at NKU.
That year six american literature positions were available in the country, according to Dr. Wallace. NKU was the only interview he had.
When Wallace came to NKU, only two buildings were on campus: Nunn Hall and Regents Hall.
“Everything else was a pasture and a farm,” Wallace said.
The campus was always changing with new buildings and new curriculum. The campus added seven new buildings in the first six years.
“We had the opportunity to build the curriculum from the ground up and we could invent the courses,” Wallace said.
Wallace has designed some courses to explore student or personal research interests, including a class about literature and painting after a student asked him to teach it.
He became interested in Women’s basketball after his student, Nancy Winstel, begin to play. Winstel would later become NKU Women’s head coach from 1983 to 2012.
After NKU’s second Division II National Championship he wrote the book 13 Women Strong: The Building of a Team about the NKU women’s basketball team.
“[The women’s team] are a pretty darn good metaphor for the school,” Wallace said. “Starting from nothing and just getting better each time.”
Literature and the arts
Wallace is an expert on the author Herman Melville. Melville’s most famous work is Moby-Dick. He is the past president of the Melville Society.
For 22 years Wallace has taught courses about Melville and the arts, but the class now only focuses on Moby-Dick.
He has published four books and many articles about the topic and curated many exhibitions.
“I am so lucky that my research correspond with my classes,” Wallace said.
He was also recently selected to take part the 38th Voyage of the Charles B. Morgan. More than 300 scholars applied, according to Wallace. He was one of 79 selected.
The Charles B. Morgan is a whaling ship that has been recently restored and will make one final voyage before it becomes a permanent exhibit in the Mystic Seaport Museum.
Wallace was selected to participate because of his past research.
“People here in Highland Heights can do high level research without going to Harvard,” Wallace said. “There is no end to what can be achieved [At NKU].”
Wallace said his position as Regents Professor has given him time to devote to research as well as teaching.
“Being at Northern has given me freedom to explore questions asked by inquisitive students,” Wallace said.
One question sparked 20 years of student creativity and interpretation.
Fred North, a former student, asked if he could turn in a piece of artwork instead of a final research paper.
Wallace continues to give students the option to submit a piece of artwork or a research paper.
“Many of my students said they haven’t done anything creative since the fifth grade and that almost made me cry,” Wallace said. “I just think of all the students who have came through here and what they have they achieved. I think that is the most satisfying thing for a teacher.”
Many of the pieces line the walls of his office. Wallace can remember the students who created each one.
Wallace said “I can remember these projects more than research papers because there is more of the person in them.”
He is currently working with a Emma Thompson, junior BFA art history major, to curate many exhibitions of artwork for Spring 2015.
“When he asked me, I said ‘are you kidding me of course I will,’” Thompson said, “It was such a huge deal for me.”
The first collection of artwork is inspired by Moby-Dick. This collection will show at the Covington Art Gallery it will also will be at the Library Archives.
During the exhibits, there will be a two day reading of Moby-Dick and a guided tour to showcase other Moby-Dick inspired pieces around campus.
The second collection features art inspired by the poems of Emily Dickinson. This one will show in Steely Library.
“I just wanted to show that anyone can be an artist if you have the passion and work hard enough, you can create something beautiful,” Thompson said.
Wallace and Thompson are trying to create a catalog of all the artwork. Thompson estimates there is over 100 Moby-Dick inspired works and the catalog will cost $4,200 to print.
All money for the catalog is being raised through grant money. The grant money will also pay for the photographer and possible installation fees, according to Thompson.
“I just think of all the students who have came through here and what they have they achieved. I think that is the most satisfying thing for a teacher,” Wallace said.