Tyler Junior College professor Jae Jerkins believes there’s no better time than now to learn about his area of expertise.
Jerkins joined TJC in 2012 as professor of philosophy, ethics, humanities and world religions.
“We’ve always had a need for ethics,” he said. “Knowing about our neighbors who are different from us has been important since the founding of our country, and it continues to be an important aspect of American society now.”
Today, within a world so connected by technology, he said the need for mutual understanding is even greater.
A Florida native, Jerkins completed his undergraduate work at the University of Central Florida and attended graduate school at Florida State University.
He’s earned two master’s degrees: one in humanities with an emphasis on religion, and one in the history and philosophy of science; and he is currently working on his doctorate in the philosophy of religion at The University of Texas at Dallas.
“I have master’s degrees in both science and religion, so I’m a weird fit,” he said. “I enjoy the conversation between those two features of our society.”
He encourages taking world religions and ethics courses not only because he feels they help to build a better world, but because they also provide individuals with the tools necessary to be part of much-needed solutions.
“Everyone wants things to be better,” he said. “Everyone wants a strong economy, a peaceful society, and for everyone to have plenty — all of these kinds of things; but you can’t do that sitting at home by yourself and not stepping up and helping, or by observing and not getting in there.”
He continued, “What is that saying about how 90 percent of life is just showing up? If you show up, you should also know how to be aware of and interact with people who maybe aren’t like you. For example, if you have a Muslim client, you’re not going to order the bacon. If you have a Catholic client, you might order the fish on Friday out of respect.”
He added, “If you’re just going to close your eyes and say, ‘I don’t know anything about Chinese culture, or Christians as a non-Christian, or Jews, or Muslims, other than what I’ve seen in the movies or newscasts,’ you’re going to be at a disadvantage against the person who does know about them.”
He uses that example as a segue to his philosophy classes.
“Critical thinking is our stock in trade,” he said, “and the philosophy courses are where you’re going to get your best access to that. Critical thinking is a toolset that you take into the world to recognize — when you get information — what is good information and what is bad information, and how to make a decision based on that information. We have plenty of actors in our society who would be very happy to take advantage of those who lack those critical-thinking skills: in the media, in entertainment and even the guy down the street trying to sell you something.”
Jerkins enjoys teaching his students to hone those skills by learning to listen, ask questions and arrive at educated conclusions.
“I would say on Day 1, Week 1 of my philosophy class, I want my students to understand these two things when I’m teaching critical thinking: 1) that you need to learn to think for yourself; and 2) that expertise exists.”
He continued, “We’ve had a fundamental loss of trust in expertise in our society; and now more than ever, I think we need to come back to this idea that the academy matters, that intellectualism matters, and that such a thing as expertise exists in our society.”
This past academic year, Jerkins received the Thomas H. Shelby Jr. Endowed Chair for Teaching Excellence Award. The award is part of TJC’s Endowed Chairs for Teaching Excellence program in which TJC professors nominate and reward their peers who demonstrate excellence as educators.
Dave Funk, TJC honors program director and art professor, was one of Jerkins’ colleagues who wrote a letter recommending him for the award.
“Jae is a remarkably compassionate and insightful teacher,” Funk said. “As a professor, he values intellectual inquiry and creates a safe space where students can ask questions. Jae studies philosophy and religion on his own time, following his own academic passion and expanding his resources and perspectives for his students. He does, of course, treat the study of philosophy very seriously; but he has a gentle, humorous and wonder-filled way of making it approachable and relatable.”
Of the award, Jerkins said, “The words I would use to describe it are ‘validating,’ ‘encouraging’ and the kind of thing that, honestly, anyone who wrote those letters could have or should have won. I don’t think of myself as standing above anyone else here. I see myself as being part of a team of people who lift each other up.”
He added, “I’ve found myself in the company of people whose very identity is invested in the idea that TJC is a place where good things happen, and we are actively constructing that together in East Texas.”