Dr. Maria Struble Challenges Students, Self

Dr. Maria Struble describes herself as more conscientious student than oracle of political science dogma.

Struble was born in Bulgaria and grew into an academic career that led her across Europe and the U.S., as the liberating nature of learning kindled her love for the classroom experience. As a Political Science professor at Western, Struble says she tries to support inquisitive minds and encourage students to reconsider the ways powerful social forces shape our lives.

“I like to find where politics hides in places you wouldn’t think to look for it,” she says.

Her most recent writing examines the relationship between politics and mountaineering – specifically the conquering of Mt. Everest. She asks, “How does attempting to climb the highest peak in the world and commodifying the mountain construct a particular view of authentic freedom?”

Summiting Everest, she argues, celebrates individual achievement at the expense of community. And getting the right college education shouldn’t be as strenuous or as specific an achievement as climbing 27,940 feet.

Struble says education is a public effort, with public results. Modern liberal arts education can prepare students for the “real world.” But students often come to college with more questions about themselves than answers. This is where critical thinking skills, and the ability to think in terms of the mechanisms of social power can be legitimizing.

Power, like potential, hides in every student. The trick to teaching, Struble explains, is recognizing the importance of the dialectic environment and the exchange between student and instructor.

“I am really passionate about conversation, dialogue and thinking about the consequences of our actions – for ourselves and those less fortunate – and the decisions we make,” she says.

Since the classroom is a safe place to try on new ways of thinking – a kind of analytic dressing room – Struble focuses on student-centered teaching, counting herself among her students.

 “Teaching is just a really fun way to challenge what I think,” she says. “I find a lot of value in what I do, because I want to move beyond inculcated ways of thinking. I want you to think in an undisciplined way. Challenge me. I’m not some kind of an authority on anything just because I have a PhD.”

In the classroom, Struble breathes life into Political Science. She encourages lifelong learning in her students. She tries to make every class session a rigorous and engaging inquiry into what makes us tick as a society. She plays devil’s advocate, challenging students to analyze, take intellectual risks and root out subtle assumptions. This becomes a theatrical approach to learning, based on the performance of reason.

“I think students are shocked by my level of energy,” she says. “My goal in going to teach is to have fun and to really impart engagement. I don’t teach to get paid. I really love this stuff. I can’t teach any other way than really loving this stuff, and I want you to love it, too. I want to stress students out of this self-imposed mode of duh.”

Such apathy, she explains, stifles the natural human passion for learning.

Marginalized populations fascinate Struble. Her doctoral thesis explores how refugee poetry illuminates the relationship between bearing witness to the experience of being displaced from one’s home. Both the student and the refugee share the predicament of having been marginalized by institutional authorities who define them. In an informal paper on the promise of liberal education, Struble states that, rather than focusing on teaching, repetition, and discipline, an instructor “can also be viewed as a [facilitator of the] process of creative transformation of knowledge, of bearing witness.”

Too often, going to school involves being quiet, orderly and regurgitating an instructor’s lectures. Such skills, Struble explains, help students earn good grades and stay in line. But they do little to build critical thinking or authentic individuals.

“We all get enmeshed in this culture of how to be successful and how to elicit compliance in people,” she says. “Modernity has its way of eliciting compliance without us even realizing it.”

In seeking an education, we prevent ourselves from using what we learn, she says, while “education is treated as a means to an end, when it should be an end in itself. “

The culprit is stasis. In struggling to see who we already are, we blind ourselves to who we could be.

Struble lives in Gunnison with her husband, Darren, and their two small children, Damien and Miro. She is the faculty supervisor for Western’s National Model United Nations team, as well as the Politics Club. She serves on the board of her son’s school and volunteers in the community whenever she can find the time. She says she enjoys reading science fiction when not engaged in scholastic theatrics.

Profile by Rebecca Ingram Bryant. Photograph by John McKeith.