John T. Kirkpatrick

Excellence in Teaching

Director, Justiceworks; Research Associate Professor of Sociology
College of Liberal Arts


Photographed on August 31, 2004, under the Memorial Bridge, Portsmouth, N.H.

 

John T. Kirkpatrick

It is Tuesday morning in a small, decrepit physics auditorium, and the tables are turned. All eyes are on Ted Kirkpatrick. This 8 a.m. class should be sparse (it is still early in the morning for college students); at least there should be the sounds of stretching, or yawning, or feet shuffling, but how could you, really? Think of the things you’d miss: in the first 15 minutes of this introductory criminology class, Kirkpatrick has read at least a dozen crime headlines from around the world that he has Googled before class: stolen body parts, identity theft, prostitution, hate crimes, execution, stabbing, and crimes so horrific in their details, they cannot be written here. The students, of course, love it.

“Kirkpatrick is, like, better than caffeine,” whispers a student behind me.

A sociologist, Kirkpatrick has taught at UNH for 20 years, and is the associate dean for the College of Liberal Arts. He has done research in prisons throughout the United States, with a particular focus on women who kill. He prefers, he says, “the dark underbelly of the human condition…the study of the outsiders. People are driven by their better angels, not the darker angels,” he says. “Even murderers are ordinary people under extraordinary pressure.”

He is, he says, “an unobtrusive observer of people,” and he watches them all the time: in Venice, in Budapest, on the strip in Vegas, in Portsmouth’s Market Square, in Murkland Courtyard. Kirkpatrick is the one in the Ray Ban sunglasses, smoking a cigar and drinking a Diet Coke. Sounds odd, but he’s always very well dressed.

“I am not a nature kind of guy,” Kirkpatrick says, “I learned my skill from my mother. We would be at the beach, or at the grocery store, and she’d nudge me and say, ‘Hey, look at that guy over there.’ When you start as a kid,” he says, “you get pretty good at it.”

While his specialty is the dark side, he also is an expert at watching college students. In his role as teacher and associate dean, he has talked to a lot of students. And as he puffs on his cigar, he watches them pass through Murkland Courtyard between classes. He can guess if they are first-year students or upperclass students. “The first-year students are so much themselves,” Kirkpatrick says, “the way they move, the way they dress.” Upperclass students, particularly sophomores and juniors, take on all the trappings of UNH: UNH hockey sweatshirts, UNH baseball caps. Most seniors, Kirkpatrick believes, begin to become themselves again, not looking like who they were when they arrived, but who they will become.

And he cares very much about who they will become. Over the many years he has been at UNH, Kirkpatrick has been sometimes a thorn in the side of staff who work in student affairs and student life. He is passionate about students and their undergraduate experience, particularly in the liberal arts. But he holds them equally to high standards of behavior, and does not stay silent when student life issues are not confronted directly. He is invested in college students as if they were his own, and he already has three daughters and a new son. His care comes through in his one-on-one conversations with students as associate dean; it comes through, remarkably, in this large, early-morning lecture class.

The topic is the FBI’s annual Serious Crimes Index. Yet, throughout the 90-minute class, he peppers his lecture with the following ideas for them: it’s okay to be gay; it is not okay to riot downtown on a Saturday night; and perhaps the best lesson for a young college student in these times—if you’re drunk, and you’re not sure you have consent, “Don’t stray from decency.”

If it is true what his colleague, psychologist David Pillemer, says about one’s memories of college—that the first three months are the most memorable and will stay with a person for a very long time—then the students who are taught by Kirkpatrick leave his class on this morning just a little bit more toward becoming themselves.

 

—Kim Billings