Dr. Charlotte Thomas, Professor of Philosophy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, spent her undergraduate career at Mercer. In 1994, Dr. Thomas joined the faculty and continues to make her mark on the University. In this Q&A, she shares her thoughts on her transformative experience as a Mercer undergrad, her reaction to receiving the Joe and Jean Hendricks Excellence in Teaching Award and her future hopes for the Great Books Program.
Tell me about your time at Mercer as an undergraduate?
I was one of those students who showed up to college not really having a plan. I knew I was interested in the Great Books Program when I came to Mercer. When I was looking at colleges, Mercer only had a Great Books Program for a year or two, so it was brand new and people were excited about it. I actually thought I wanted to be an engineer and at that time, you could be an engineer and do the Great Books Program at Mercer. I thought that it was kind of amazing that I could read books like that and I could also get a degree in engineering. When I came to Mercer I was absolutely all over the place. I did computer science, I didn’t do engineering, but I did science. I did math. I was really interested in psychology. I took Christianity classes. I was a pretty curious student, and I’d go and ask questions. My professors would say, ‘You know, you really should go talk to Dr. Trimble about this.’ He was a philosophy professor at the time. I remember clearly in psychology really wanting to know more about Young and Freud, and they would say ‘You should go talk to Dr. Trimble about that.’ I remember in Christianity class wanting to talk about the problem of evil, and they’d say, ‘You know, you should go talk to Dr. Trimble about that.’ So I did. I went and talked to him. I declared my philosophy major in the fall of my junior year, even though my schedule was totally already filled up with philosophy classes because I knew that I’d found my home. So I did philosophy in two years and I went straight to grad school. Once I found where I needed to be, it all fell into place really quickly. I was also getting involved in other ways on campus. I was the news editor for The Cluster. I was on judicial, and I was on the Honor Council.
You recently won the Joe and Jean Hendricks Excellence in Teaching Award. What was your reaction to receiving the honor?
It’s the honor of my career. Simply put.
How did you know the Hendrickses? What was your relationship with them like?
Joe was just, in general, a remarkable human being and incredibly important to me. When I was going through that transition between my sophomore and junior year, I showed up and just sort of dove into philosophy and a lot of other things like the newspaper. But I was struggling with my southern identity, as well. I’m from Florida, but my family is very much southern. I was struggling with all of the baggage that comes from being a white southerner with an old southern family. I was not raised in a racist household, but it’s all still there. It’s all still cooked into the system. It’s all still cooked into preconceptions. I was struggling with that. That summer, Joe Hendricks wrote letters with me – handwritten letters – all summer long. He suggested some books for me to read, and I was reading them and writing him letters and talking it through. He was a busy man with a lot of students and a lot of work to do beyond the University, and he just took me on. I was Joe’s TA. He was very important to me. I met Jean through Joe. I was very much not just involved with Joe on campus, but they invited me to family events and I actually became a part of their church. When Jean retired and moved back to Macon, I spent a lot of time visiting with her. Both of them, with every breath they had, were committed to Mercer students. They were committed to Mercer being a transformative place for students and a place where Mercer students got involved in the project of making the world a more just place. To have that be a part of my experience, a deeply defining part of my experience, and for me to be the recipient of the award, all of it comes back together for me and it does mean the world.
In what ways has Mercer changed and grown since you have been here?
I actually think Mercer is a better place now. And in many ways, actually. I think – I know – on average the students are stronger. Mercer has always been a place that was committed to having diversity in the student body. And we did back then, too. Joe was a really important part of that. But we’re better at that now. The students are sort of becoming more ready, I think, to really take full advantage of what’s offered here. And we really continue to be increasingly committed to all kinds of diversity. Most faculty members are incredibly committed faculty members. Most courses of study are really thoughtfully constructed. And in that way Mercer is just better, so I’m proud of it. I do miss the old guys. I don’t think we would be where we were if we weren’t standing on the shoulders of giants, but I’m not nostalgic. I wouldn’t want to go back. I think where we are is better than where we were.
Your specializations include ancient philosophy, moral philosophy and philosophy of art and literature. Are you currently doing any research or special projects?
I just published a book on Plato through Mercer University Press in the spring. I’m presenting a paper that I’m very excited about in a couple of weeks. I’m presenting it at the American Political Science Association. The paper compares an episode out of Thucydides’ History, which concerns the Peloponnesian War. It compares this episode from Thucydides’ History to what’s going on with Hong Kong and the PRC right now. I have a couple of side projects that are spinning off of the Plato book, but my real big ambition, my sort of longer term thing, is to do a project on Homer.
As a student, professor and now director of the University’s Great Books Program, what role do you see it playing in a Mercer education and what is your vision for its future?
I tend to think that grassroots change is more powerful than top-down change. I don’t think real change happens when somebody that has a little bit of power tries to impose their ideas on people, so my vision as a sort of a leader is to look around at who’s doing interesting things and try to support them. And also look around at challenges that I think we are ready to face for whatever reason and encourage us to face them together. Right now, the Great Books Program is working on including more women and people of color to the curriculum. Everybody’s completely on board and embracing that. But the other thing we need to do is think about the othering that has happened at different moments in history and the way that tradition has dealt with that. So even though the Great Books Program has work to do on every level, I think what we also need to do as a part of this process is tune into these other kinds of constructs of otherness and the way that they’re already in the program and how our digging in deeply into them will help us also make sense of the way that othering is achieved in contemporary culture. So I do have big ambitions, but I think it’s already happening. It’s already there.