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Leming to deliver fall Mellby Lecture

By Amelia Schoeneman '12
November 8, 2010

After writing his first textbook on dying, death, and bereavement, St. Olaf Professor of Sociology Michael Leming had an experience that fundamentally changed how he thought about teaching and learning.

“The book’s purpose was to train others to work with those experiencing grief or death,” Leming recalls. Yet outside of caring for his grandfather, he had never actually practiced the concepts he wrote about. After the text was published, Leming was invited to volunteer at the Northfield Hospice Program. “I realized the difference between knowing and doing, my own limited practical knowledge, and even the disconnect between my academic work and my personal life of service to others,” he says.

Leming will share this and the many other things he’s learned in nearly 40 years of teaching when he delivers the fall 2010 Mellby Lecture. His talk, titled Praxis Makes Perfect, will focus on what he believes is the most important part of education. The lecture will take place on Tuesday, November 16, at 7:30 p.m. in Buntrock Commons, Viking Theater. It will be streamed live and archived online. A reception will follow in the Viking Theater lobby.

One of the nation’s foremost experts on dying, death, and bereavement, Leming’s research has primarily focused on the sociology of religion, the sociology of the family, and social thanatology. He has also devoted much of his career to studying and teaching about the people of Asia, most notably Thailand. In his experience, Leming has found that the most valuable learning takes place outside the classroom. “Putting knowledge into practice is how a person can take understanding past the theories,” he says.

Leming has made acting on what he has learned and learning through doing a way of life. For his research on Chinese and Asian family structures, for example, Leming lived among the people he studied. “By applying what I’ve learned and studying in a cross-cultural context, I feel like I’ve brought meaning back to my academic work,” he says.

Now he provides students from across the country with the same opportunity to engage with their studies through the Spring Semester in Thailand study-abroad program he developed in 2001. Every spring, the program places 30 undergraduates in internships and other service-learning opportunities in Thailand, as well as in academic classes on Thai language, art, and culture. In their internships, students often lead English classes and discussions at the Buddhist University in Wat Suan Dok. At Nikki’s Place, or the Agape Home, students help care for orphans affected by HIV/AIDS. Baan Phonsawan is a boarding school for Thai children who would otherwise live in poverty, and program participants aid in teaching and mentoring the youth.

Leming sees the program as a way for students to build relationships and give back. “Everyone needs a vision to serve,” he says.

While teaching has been Leming’s vocation, community development and service to others are his passion. He has led efforts to raise money to build water systems, churches, and three schools in Karen, Lahu, and Akha villages in Thailand, and the success of these projects inspired him to work on bringing a performing and visual arts center for the disabled to Thailand. His tenacity was rewarded with a $6.9 million grant for the project from the Thai government.

Leming's goal in his Mellby Lecture is to use his own experiences to illustrate that anything is possible through engagement and involvement. “When you serve, everything adds up,” he says. “So why not try it?”

The Mellby Lectures
The annual Mellby lectures are named in remembrance of St. Olaf faculty member Carl A. Mellby and were established in 1983 to give professors the opportunity to share their research with the public. Mellby, known as "the father of social sciences" at St. Olaf, started the first courses in economics, sociology, political science, and art history at the college. He was professor and administrator from 1901 to 1949, taught Greek, German, French, religion, and philosophy, and is credited with creating the college's honor system.

Contact Kari VanDerVeen at 507-786-3970 or vanderve@stolaf.edu.