Meet the Professor: Chris Merrett, Community and Economic Development

Meet the Professor: Chris Merrett, Community and Economic Development

Next fall, WIU will begin a new master’s degree program in Community and Economic Development. This new program will combine online learning with in-person class sessions and hands-on learning opportunities. The program is being offered through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA). We sat down with IIRA Director Chris Merrett to learn more about the program – and about him.merett

Chris Merrett is a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada. He earned undergraduate degrees in geography (University of Western Ontario) and political science (Lake Superior State University), before earning a master’s degree (University of Vermont) and Ph.D. in geography with a focus on regional development and international trade (University of Iowa). He loves to travel and learn about new places, and geography was a natural discipline to help guide these personal and professional intellectual pursuits. Chris has been married for 25 years and has two children.

Since working at the IIRA, his love of geography has evolved to embrace local community and economic development, which is a kind of applied geography. As IIRA director, Merrett oversees a university-based research, outreach, teaching, and policy development unit comprised of 40 community development faculty and professionals. In addition to his management role, he teaches courses in Community Development, serves on the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council, is current chairperson of Rural Partners, and has raised more than $6 million in external grant funding to support community and economic development outreach and research, including a $200,000 USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant for the IIRA.

His current research focuses on cooperatives and community development. Merrett co-edited two books on this topic, including A Cooperative Approach to Local Economic Development (2001) and Cooperatives and Local Development: Theory and Applications for the 21st Century (2003). He has also published in a range of journals on topics such as value-added agriculture, cooperatives, rural land use, social justice, and rural community and economic development.

In summer 2015, Chris participated in his fifth RAGBRAI, (The Des Moines Register’s Great Annual Bike Ride Across Iowa). This is a 7-day, 500+ mile ride across Iowa. Each night of the ride, participants camp out in a rural Iowa community. According to Chris, “It is a great way to see the rural Midwest while enjoying rural community development (and hospitality) at its best.”

Chris took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself.

Q: What course(s) do you teach?

Chris: I teach several courses on the WIU campus including Principles of Community Development,” Rural Geography, Geography of the United States and Canada, and the History and Philosophy of Geography. The course I have devoted most energy to over the past half-decade has been Principles of Community Development, which enables me to link my theoretical interests in what makes communities thrive with concrete projects in rural Illinois.

Q: What are you most looking forward to in the new Master of Arts in Community Development program?

Chris: For more than 25 years, the IIRA has been delivering award-winning technical assistance to rural communities across rural Illinois and beyond. We have also published literally thousands of peer-reviewed journal articles, books, technical reports, and other essays. Teaching has been an important, but secondary, part of our mission. Our faculty members have always devoted a significant amount of energy to teaching courses in economic development, rural sociology, marketing, and geography, but have done so in other departments. In other words, our teaching efforts have been dispersed across several departments outside of the IIRA. By offering a graduate degree through the IIRA, we can offer our teaching expertise in a focused, concentrated, and coordinated manner which will increase our ability to share our expertise in community and economic development.

Q: What are you passionate about?

Chris: Professionally, I am passionate about how universities can serve as catalysts for social change, including community economic development. Public universities such as WIU have resources to help small communities identify their assets and deploy them in more effective ways. It is gratifying to see towns make meaningful change with assets and leadership skills developed from within their community.

At a personal level, I love to ski, bicycle, read, and spend time with friends and family.

Q: Favorite thing(s) about WIU?

Chris: There are many great things about WIU. It’s location in west central Illinois is just lovely. WIU is not like other larger public universities that are located in, but somehow separated from, their host regions. WIU is not just located in a rural region; it is deeply integrated into the region and hence is shaped by the culture and needs of the region. WIU also has a great faculty with a collaborative mindset. Our M.A. degree in CED, while hosted by the IIRA, has many opportunities to take great courses in other departments such as recreation, park and tourism administration; economics, geography, political science, and business administration. Great colleagues in the IIRA and partner departments help make WIU a great place.

Q: What is your favorite quote?

Chris: I have several quotes that are all related to community development in one way or another:

  • Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living. — John Dewey
  • A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm. — Henrik Ibsen
  • Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration. — Thomas Edison
  • Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee, and do not try to make the universe a blind alley. — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Q: What is your favorite place?

Chris: This is a good question. I have several “happy places.” First, I love my summer cottage in Northern Ontario. It is located on clear, northern lake, with loons, moose, and bears in the surrounding forests. I also love rural roads in the Prairie State, when I am on my bicycle. The blue sky, green fields, goldfinches, farms, and gently rolling hills, make for a bucolic, enthralling scene.

Q: What are you reading right now? What’s next on the list?

Chris: In preparation for an upcoming course, I am currently reading Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen and The Price of Civilization by Jeffrey Sachs. On my bedside table, waiting to be finished is Capital by Thomas Piketty. It addresses the growing income inequality of capitalist economies in the 21st century.

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Professor Gruver gets down on ground-level with local students

Find out how Professor Joel Gruver and a graduate student from Western Illinois University recently guided students in an interesting community service project in this article in the McDonough County Voice.

McLeod featured in a major magazine

Congrats to Western Illinois University Assistant Professor of English professor Charles McLeod, who was recently featured in Poets & Writers magazine in an article about the somewhat unconventional path to publication of his novel, American Weather. The book is available from Amazon.co.UK, and was released earlier this month.

McLeod is also a popular professor at Western. Best of luck to Professor McLeod up on the release of this exciting new work of fiction!

 

 

Award-winning research: a family tradition

One of the high school students featured in a story on WSIL-TV yesterday (March 28) is pretty lucky when it comes to having a dad who can help with homework, so to speak.

WSIL, a TV station in southern Illinois, profiled some of best high school students in the state, who had gathered at Southern Illinois University over the past weekend for the 33rd Annual Junior Science and Humanities Symposium. One of those students was Macomb High School senior Prem Thottumkara. As the story explains, students delivered presentations based on their summer research projects and a written thesis, and one rule for the symposium was that “students must conduct their experiments and research under the watchful eye of a mentor.” This student didn’t have to look too far to find a scientist who could guide his work. Prem happens to be the son of WIU chemistry professor Vinod Thottumkara (who goes by T.K. Vinod). As the story says,

Thottumkara said he is glad that his mentor is his father because it makes asking questions an easy task, even if the answer is not what he wants to hear. “I can say, “hey dad, how does this work?” and he’s quick to give me a response and even when there’s something he knows I should know yet, he’ll say “this is advanced organic chemistry, you don’t need to know this yet” Thottumkara said.

And Prem’s participation in the Junior Science and Humanities Symposium is just another chapter in the family history of father-son collaboration. Professor T.K. Vinod even earned a patent on a project that was initially sparked by his elder son during a junior high school project. Learn more about Professor Vinod here.

picture of Professor T.K. Vinod with his son and other students

Professor T.K. Vinod with his son Arun and other students (2005)

 

WIU professor interviews guitar gurus

With his blue sneakers and his AC/DC and Spinal Tap wall décor, music instructor Matt Warnock, 32, is sometimes mistaken for a student at WIU.

“A student yelled at me one time when I was taking an amp from a classroom because he thought I was stealing it,” he laughed. “He said, ‘Hey, you can’t do that!’ and I said, ‘Yes, I can.'”

Warnock began teaching at Western while he was simultaneously working on his doctoral degree. For the last six years, he has not only taught at WIU, but also brought noted musicians to campus, organized the International Guitar Festival at WIU, and toured and played with other musicians in Brazil. And recently, he added yet another role to his resumé: editor-in-chief of Guitar International.

(more, below the photo)

photo of Matt Warnock

Matt Warnock with his Paul Reed Smith guitar

As an interviewer and editor for this online publication, Warnock has had the opportunity to meet musicians he admires, including Ace Frehley of KISS and Brian Aubert of Silversun Pickups. The web magazine, in addition to providing tips for guitar players and headlines from the music biz, also features interviews with guitarists ranging from Kenny Wayne Shepherd to Eric Johnson to Carlos Santana. Even Eddie Van Halen‘s name is among the list of featured interviewees.

“In the Rock History class that I teach at WIU, sometimes a student will ask me how I know this or that about a certain musician,” Warnock said. “I’m able to say, ‘Because I asked them about it.’

So how did such a busy professor get into the music-writing business?First of all, though his guitar expertise and academic credentials may be in jazz, he Respects the Rock.Warnock, raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada, grew up listening to 60s and 70s-era classic rock by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, and Led Zeppelin. He started playing guitar when he 15.

“My school offered science or a guitar class, so I chose guitar,” he said. “I knew pretty much right away that I loved it.”

He took private lessons in rock and blues, and then classical guitar, but it wasn’t until a high school teacher began to mentor him that Warnock caught on to jazz.

“He played saxophone in a band, and he started bringing me to gigs around town when I was pretty young,” Warnock said. “Not a lot of kids were interested in jazz, but I was one of the rare ones, so he kind of latched on.”

From there Warnock went to McGill University in Montreal—”kind of our jazz mecca”—to study jazz performance.

“I think the improvisation was what drew me to jazz,” he said. “Growing up listening to rock and blues from the 70s… jazz was a difficult version of that. I kind of always liked a challenge, so that drove me towards it initially.”

Warnock continued his love, and formal study of, guitar by enrolling at Western Michigan University, where he was a teaching assistant as he pursued his graduate degree. It was when he moved to Champaign (IL) to attend the University of Illinois for his doctorate that he made his first foray into music journalism. Like many magazine writers, Warnock got his start by contributing to a magazine he knew inside and out. A longtime reader of Just Jazz Guitar magazine, Warnock decided to e-mail the editor with a sample of his writing.

“They liked it, so I started writing for them,” he explained. “They would mail me books, DVDs, and CDs to review, and then I started writing lessons on how to play certain things.”

Before long, Warnock was contributing interviews with artists, including John McLaughlin, a guitarist who played with Miles Davis and Grammy-winning John Pizzarelli. While continuing to write for this quarterly publication, Warnock finished his doctorate degree and decided to expand his writing portfolio even further.

“I realized that I would have more free time now that I’m not in school, so thought I should fill that time productively,” Warnock said. “I Googled about 100 magazines or online websites that accept contributions, sent stuff to about 25 or 30 of them, and then five or six started having me write for them. I wrote a few things, and eventually kind of settled on writing for one, which was called Modern Guitars. I thought as a freelancer I could use it to leverage my reputation as performer and teacher, and maybe get more experiences. And I love to write.”

But eventually the company partners split, and one partner started a new magazine. That hardly signaled the end for Warnock’s side career:

“Because of my writing history with him, he asked me to jump on board. Now I co-own a publishing company.”

Today, Warnock finds that artists’ press people call him and request that he interview their artists. He is granted full press access at events and has his travel expenses covered for his stories. And he’s interviewed some of his childhood heroes, like Robby Kreiger of The Doors. Earlier this fall, Warnock covered a large guitar-maker conference in Washington, D.C.

“I got to try out amps no one else has seen, and hang out with rock stars for four days,” he said.

Among them was Orianthi, a young female guitarist who had been Michael Jackson’s guitarist on the tour just before he died.

“She was cool,” he said. “I’ve had to the chance to do some pretty cool stuff.”

And in the meantime, the web publication is gaining readership in Europe and several English-speaking countries, and has a readership of approximately 65,000 readers and 700,000 page views per month. “It’s grown pretty significantly,” he said. “And because it’s online-only, we can do a lot of things we wouldn’t have been able to do with a traditional print magazine.”

For example, the medium requires much less turnaround time between the date an interview is conducted and the time it’s published. The publication also focuses on posting shorter pieces frequently, rather than take the time required to invest in a lengthy feature.

“They’re more timely that way, and we can get them out more quickly,” he said.

And as for those features, Warnock still has plenty of heroes with whom he’d like to secure an interview. So who would he most like to meet?

“Probably Jimmy Page,” Warnock said. “I have a lot of questions for that guy.”

Students purchase more than $300 in groceries for local food pantries

If you happened to shopping for groceries at a local store yesterday, you might have gotten in line behind a group of shoppers with six carts, and who were trying to calculate their expenses with a calculator—but they were actually working for a great cause, not just holding up the line!

[More, after these photos]

photo of WIU Management students with food donation

photo of Management class delivering food

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, nine WIU freshmen and their instructors shopped together at a grocery store in Macomb, filling carts with more than $300 worth of groceries including canned vegetables, peanut butter and other staples.

But it wasn’t to stock up their own residence hall rooms for the winter months.

Beginning in late October, students in four sections of Management 125Y, Business and Technology in a Global Society—a class offered through Western’s First Year Experience (FYE) program—sold 50/50 raffle tickets to benefit local food pantries. These nine students (above) volunteered to take the proceeds to the store and purchase groceries for disadvantaged families in the area. And as the holiday season approaches, this project was in addition to the Black Student Association’s ongoing Thanksgiving Basket Project, in conjunction with the annual Cans Across America Drive.

Instructors Jeri Harper, Becky Mahr and Cathy Onion came up with the idea for the raffle project.

“Considering the current economic climate, the students involved are receptive to the idea of giving back to the community they live in,” Mahr said. “Since a majority of today’s businesses stress social responsibility, this project prepares students to volunteer and assume an active role in making a difference.”

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