Featured alumnus: Dr. John Norris (’84)

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Dr. John Norris, a UD alumnus, returned to the university to teach future alumni. Photo credit Killian Beeler.

Alumnus Dr. John Norris (BA ’84) received his undergraduate degree in theology from the University of Dallas and was valedictorian of his class. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. from Marquette University. He has taught in UD’s theology department since 1991. He is a former director of the Rome Program and is the current associate provost for UD.

Q: As an alumnus, what initially drew you back to want to teach at UD? Over the years, what have you come to see as your personal role in fulfilling UD’s mission?

A: To be honest, I was not seeking a job at UD. Like many UD alumni, after a great educational experience at UD, I was nevertheless glad to seek out new lands. My path back to UD was rather serpentine. I finished my Ph.D. in December of 1990, when I was working part-time at Marquette University. A job opened up in the spring of 1991 at UD for a semester, as Fr. Dionne went on sabbatical relatively unexpectedly. The theology department admin put my CV in front of Fr. David Balas, the chair at the time. I ended up with the position, and there was the possibility that after a semester, I might be sent off to teach in Rome for a year. Fr. Dionne regrettably died three weeks into his sabbatical, so I ended up continuing on for another year full-time.

I ended up teaching a year in Rome, and after that, I was made Director of the Rome Program for another two years. During that time, I received a tenure track position, and I have been teaching at UD since that time.

The first years of teaching at UD convinced me of the great joys of teaching at UD — remarkable students, first of all, and such great fun and intellectual camaraderie. It immersed me once more in my core education, allowed me to reread and recapitulate it.

My own role in fulfilling UD’s mission now relates to helping UD faculty understand our mission from the inside out. As a new affiliate faculty member hired mid-year, [I] did not receive formal mission mentoring. Now I have the privilege of working with our new faculty to introduce them to our mission, to the missions of our four colleges and schools, and to the quirks and perquisites of our community from Groundhog to the Cowan legacy.

Q: What are some timeless characteristics of UD that have not seemed to change since you were a student?

A: The students’ insatiable desire to learn remains one of the fundamental joys of being at UD. We truly earn our reputation as the Catholic university for independent thinkers.

Q: Throughout your professional life, you have studied and taught theology. Was there a specific experience at UD, maybe your Rome semester, that influenced you to choose that discipline?

A: My first theology class was Western Theo Trad in Rome. Dr. Michael Waldstein was our professor, and he was one of the most inspiring teachers I ever had. He lived out his vocation inside the classroom and outside with his family. Students raised complex questions and challenged the texts, and his responses always took student concerns seriously and offered intelligent responses meant to further the conversation, never to shut it down.

At the time, I was still an undeclared math and science student. My father had been diagnosed with colon cancer my first week of freshman year and had undergone surgery over Thanksgiving break. He seemed stable when I left for Rome, but by the time we returned from the Greece trip, his cancer had spread to [the] lungs and brain, he had suffered strokes and was only able to communicate at the level of a 5-year-old. Augustine’s Confessions led me to consider a Christian vision of life and death at an intellectual and spiritual level, which helped me to grapple with my father’s illness. When my father died two weeks after I returned from Rome, I was as prepared in grace as I could have been. The succor I experienced reading the Confessions with Dr. Waldstein and my classmates made me want to share such an experience with others.

 

Students, are you interested in speaking with Alumnus Dr. John Norris and/or learning more about the study of theology? Contact Alumni Relations at udalum@udallas.edu.

 

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