Humans of UD: Dr. Culp

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Photo by Peter Burleigh

Dr. Jonathan Culp, director of international studies and associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas, is occasionally described by students on social media as the Matt Damon of the politics department. 

“There’s about a six-figure difference between the two of us,” Culp noted. 

Although Culp himself can see the similarity, he never heard anyone make the comparison until he was attending Boston College for graduate school. 

“When I went to college, it was right around the time that “Good Will Hunting” came out, and one of the things I find baffling is that… I never heard anyone mention the resemblance until I lived in Boston,” Culp said.

Culp grew up on Bainbridge Island outside of Seattle, Wash., where he spent his high school years playing guitar in punk rock bands. 

“One of the nice things about punk rock is that you don’t have to have any talent or skill to have a band,” he said. 

Culp still enjoys punk rock, but his kids usually make him turn it off. 

“Every once in a while I put on something I like, and they will say ‘ahhh turn that down!’” he said with a chuckle. 

Culp has six kids, with the oldest being 12 and the youngest being one and-a-half. All of his children are homeschooled and vastly prefer classical music to their dad’s punk rock. 

The tumult of Culp’s divisive music tastes also reflect his chaotic educational experience, as he transferred three times in his undergrad years.

During his senior year of high school, Culp attended Seattle Central Community College, which he was eager to note is on the southern border of CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone). After high school graduation, he attended Evergreen State College for a year. 

In the late 90s, Culp transferred again to the University of Washington, where he was a comparative literature and history double major. 

While at the University of Washington, one of Culp’s professors defected to the West from Bulgaria in the 1980s. 

“I had this strange professor who was a Bulgarian ex-patriot, a guy who fled Bulgaria during the Cold War and had to negotiate for the release of his wife and children,” Culp said. “His name was Mr. Nikolai Popov. He was a James Joyce and Samuel Beckett specialist, and I took a comparative literature course with him.”

Culp complained to Popov about the lack of course selections at UW. Popov recommended that he check out St. John’s University in Annapolis, where Culp eventually transferred for the third and final time. 

“When I had him [in] summer of 97, he was looking at colleges for his daughter, which was how he knew about St. John’s College,” Culp wrote. “I’d never heard of it. The only college that ever tried to recruit me was Hillsdale, which is pretty funny considering that I was an anarchist at the time!” 

Admittedly, Culp was never really a whole-hearted anarchist. 

“It was how I thought of myself before I started trying to think systematically about politics,” he wrote. 

After Culp graduated from St. John’s College, he worked for the MIT Press for a year before a friend recommended Boston College for graduate school. 

“My grades were pretty bad in college, so I just applied to the MA program hoping I could sneak my way into the Ph.D. program,” he smiled. “And it worked!” 

However, Culp isn’t encouraging UDers to follow in his footsteps. “I sometimes tell my students that no one should imitate the way I’ve gone through life,” he said. 

Culp met his wife, Dr. Natalie Culp, while they were both grad students in the political science program at Boston College; they have been married for fifteen years. 

With his wide range of educational experiences, Culp has compassion for students facing the cost of a liberal arts education. 

“I sympathize with students because college costs a lot of money, we are in uncertain times, even more uncertain times right now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s responsible to say something like, ‘Oh just trust us, this is good for your soul – that will be $30,000 please!’” 

“You’ve got the world and your life here, and you’ve got these books and these questions up here. How can you have it make a difference? How can you justify spending so much money in order to get it? I think it’s a legitimate question to struggle with,” Culp said. 

Nevertheless, Culp sees the value of a liberal arts education.

“It’s not an ‘either/or’ choice, ‘I can study something practical and make a good living or I can read Shakespeare’ or whatever those two things are, they are not mutually exclusive.” 

“Sometimes the best way to learn about ourselves is by actually seeing what other people think we are, because sometimes we are too close to ourselves to really understand ourselves,” Culp said. 

“There’s a way in which a liberal education can serve to broaden your perspective and expose you in a more systematic way than just reading a book in the evening would. To expose you in a more systematic way, to challenge us on how you think things are by inhabiting the different perspectives.” 

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