In too many places, Mike Veseth says, college classes are like ATMs.
“They’ve become transactions,” he says. “Students turn in papers and get grades. If that’s all it is, then there’s no relationship that’s going to grow.”
Chances are no one will ever describe one of Veseth’s classes that way.
For 35 years, the popular University of Puget Sound economics professor has used a distinctive personal approach, getting to know students individually and finding unusual – some might say bizarre – ways to help them learn and grow.
He teaches complicated international economic theory in classes about soccer and wine. He demonstrates educational principles through juggling and has been known to set heavy economic theory to music, encouraging students to sing and dance to the “Gross Domestic Polka.”
Veseth’s approach has earned him the adoration of hundreds of UPS students over the years. Today, his fame goes national.
Veseth flew Wednesday to Washington, D.C., and today will accept the Washington state Professor of the Year Award from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
It’s a prestigious, competitive award, bestowed each year on professors who demonstrate “extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching.”
Veseth learned about the award last week, but was asked by its sponsors to keep it a secret until today’s announcement.
On Tuesday, in his office on the UPS campus, surrounded by books, soccer paraphernalia, wine bottles and juggling balls, Veseth seemed slightly embarrassed by the award.
“It’s a nice recognition of a lifetime of effort,” he said. “Personally, I’m pleased because of what it says about my students. My own mentors helped me so much, it makes me proud to think I contributed that to my students.”
Student testimonials figured into the Professor of the Year selection process, and the students who wrote in support of Veseth were lavish in their praise. Some went so far as to say he changed their lives.
“I was a prickly, argumentative and contrary student,” wrote Kirsten Benites, who graduated from UPS in 2003 and now lives in London. “Regardless of whether he personally believed my arguments, he taught me how to defend my position in a logical way.”
Theater artist Seema Sueko, who graduated from UPS in 1994, said she was a shy student and that Veseth’s popularity initially intimidated her. That feeling quickly disappeared, Sueko said.
“He transformed me,” she said. “He gave me a voice and laid the foundation for me to excel.”
Veseth is an instantly likable guy, with a muff of gray hair around his bald head and a big friendly smile. He picks up a soccer ball and acts as if he wouldn’t mind spending a few minutes tossing it back and forth.
He was born and raised in Tacoma, and his family background is classic for the area: A father who migrated out from the Midwest after military service in World War II.
His dad was a blue-collar worker at the old Hooker Chemical plant on the Tideflats. Veseth graduated from Lincoln High School, where he was the editor of the school paper, the Lincoln News.
He attended UPS as an undergraduate and got his masters and doctorate in economics at Purdue University.
With his Ph.D in hand, he came straight back to Tacoma and a job at UPS. He’s been there ever since, except for brief teaching posts at the American Institute on Political and Economic Systems in Prague, Czech Republic, and Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy.
Now he lives with his wife, Sue, just three blocks from the UPS campus. He walks to work.
“I’m a lucky guy,” he said.
Veseth is most famous for his teaching, but he has other academic credentials.
He co-founded and directs UPS’s International Political Economy Program, an innovative interdisciplinary approach to the study of international and global problems.
He’s written several books, including “Mountains of Debt,” “Selling Globalization” and “Globaloney: Unraveling the Myths of Globalization.”
A new book, “Wine Wars,” due out next year, is based in part on globalization issues his students explore in his popular class, “The Idea of Wine.”
Why wine? And why soccer?
Veseth lights up at the question. It goes to the heart of his teaching philosophy. Both are accessible subjects that students don’t have to struggle to work up an interest in, and they open up worlds of topics including racism, nationalism and marketing.
His excitement is contagious.
UPS Academic Vice President and Dean Kristine Bartanen put it this way: “Being an outstanding teacher is not just what Mike does, it’s who he is.”
Rob Carson: 253-597-8693