Dr. Rick Meadows: Learning Like a River
Rick Meadows, Associate Professor of French and Chair of the Division of English, Theatre, Communication, Music, and Foreign Languages, is not the most orthodox professor. He prefers games to lectures in his classes. He uses unusual discussion techniques and frequent visual metaphors. When describing the Liberal Arts, for example, where knowledge is amassed from a variety of sources, Meadows invokes a picture of the Mississippi River whose greatness is owed to the waters of many smaller tributaries. It is an observation uniquely applicable to Meadows who daily draws on a personal history of diverse experience to innovate in the classroom and enrich the lives of his students.
Meadows’ love of French developed early in his life as an outgrowth of his interest in American history. Raised in northern Virginia, he learned of French participation in the design of Washington DC and in the foundation of the United States. “I was interested in Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, their being ambassadors to France, and convincing the French to come into the Revolutionary War on our side.” He began taking courses in French at the age of twelve and continued through high school.
At The New College of Florida, in Sarasota, Meadows found new ways to learn and experience French, both in and out of the classroom. “There were a lot of French kids who would come over for the summer.” Meadows became close friends with many of them, playing volleyball and soccer on the beach, and practicing his French. Recently Meadows has reunited with some of those old French friends in Paris while visiting his six year-old daughter who lives there.
Rick Meadows earned a bachelor’s degree in French at New College and followed it with a master’s from the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. from Yale, both in French. After teaching at three other colleges, he came to Berea in 2002.
A naturally shy person, Rick Meadows started playing games in class as something of a coping technique. “If I get them up playing games and doing active things, then they’re the ones performing, they’re the ones on stage and not me.” His frequent visual metaphors originally served the same purpose. Over the years, however, Meadows began to see real value in these techniques for his students, and began to tailor them for the specific needs of language classes.
Games, according to Meadows, serve the need for repetition in learning language without feeling tedious. They also help with some of the frustration that students often feel. Learning a new language infantilizes students in a way. They have adult ideas to express, but only a few words to express them. “If you have to put up with those frustrations and be able only to express yourself like a child, at the very least, you should also have the advantages of being a child and be able to play games and do fun things.”
The world of Rick Meadows is not entirely Francocentric though. He is also involved in politics. Having never been active before, Meadows started donating his time to campaigns in 2003. The next year he was serving as a presidential campaign chairperson in Scott County. He was also very active during the 2008 presidential campaign season, which afforded the opportunity for Meadows and over fifty Berea students to attend rallies and even meet candidates personally. In 2010, Governor Beshear appointed him to the position of Fayette County Commissioner, and he won election to the position shortly afterward.
As with his other influences, Meadows does not view his political and policy experience as distinct from the rest of his life. Instead he has bent the experience to serve his students with General Studies courses on topics like poverty and development in sub-Saharan Africa and comparative study of U.S. and European public policy. Meadows, who once planned to major in economics, said, “you never know when something that seems completely unrelated from what you end up majoring in is going to help you tremendously in your career.”
For Rick Meadows this diversity of experience has proved invaluable. As with the Mississippi River he likes to describe, Meadows has benefited from many streams of experience. It is a process that Meadows recognizes as ongoing even now at Berea, thanks in large part to the College’s goal of transformative learning, which Meadows thinks applies as much to professors as to students.
“When we arrive here, we have not achieved everything. We have not become everything that we could become.” Speaking of the Great Commitments and the extraordinary history of Berea, he said, “There is a sense of wanting to live up to that and be worthy of it.” To Rick Meadows, like many members of the Berea College community, education is a way of life. It is about the community of diverse individuals and opinions afforded by Berea, and wanting to make the most of that community every day.