Poster Professor For Interdisciplinary Learning
By Erica Levi Zelinger
Assistant Director of Communication, Pennoni Honors College
August 25, 2014 —
If Lloyd Ackert, PhD, had been given a career aptitude test when he was a high school student, the checkboxes measuring skills, interests, and values would never have produced the varied, sometimes bizarre, but surprisingly fitting list of jobs held by the son of a farm girl from Maine and a fern-picker from Vermont.
Russian cryptological linguist specialist. Turkey leg-griller. Ice cream truck driver. Professor. Air force crewmember.
It makes perfect sense that Ackert, 52, a member of the teaching faculty for the Department of History and Politics, also serves as the Faculty Fellow of Pennoni Honors College’s Great Works Symposium. Each year, the GWS offers four courses (one each term) examining a single broad issue from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.
Ackert is the poster professor for interdisciplinary learning: he is formally schooled by University of Minnesota’s Individually Designed Interdepartmental Major program; The Institute for the History of Natural Sciences and Technology in St. Petersburg, Russia; The Johns Hopkins University; and Yale University in the history of science, evolutionary biology, ecology and Russian language and area studies.
But he is also schooled in life.
As a 17-year-old high school graduate with only average grades in math and science, Ackert says, he was too immature for college. Too undeveloped to know the route he wanted to take.
So he followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Air Force, where he was tested to see what he was good at. Ackert was told he had a keen ability to learn new languages. He earned his first title: cryptological linguist specialist.
He spent 47 weeks in Monterey, California, learning the Russian language. He moved on to technical training in Texas and got his top-secret security clearance. He parasailed in water survival camp. He spent two weeks learning to survive in the woods of the Northwest. He endured concentration camp training. And then spent three years in Alaska as a crewmember of an aircraft that flew along the Soviet coast, monitoring Russian military transmissions.
“What did I glean from all of this?” Ackert asks jokingly. A good friend. An Air Force buddy from Minnesota convinced him to return with him to the University of Minnesota. It was there, Ackert decided, he would become a writer.
“One of my great influences was Hunter S. Thompson. I read everything he wrote, which is not a good mix since he was a radical and I was in the Air Force.”
But all around him, life continued to happen. It took Ackert nine years to finish his undergraduate degree. With little drive or focus, Ackert says, he compensated by working really hard at his jobs. He drove an ice cream truck in Minneapolis and parlayed that into a management position in which he pioneered the trend of selling turkey legs at concerts and large events, even working the grill himself.
But then he met a philosopher of science who was running an ice cream pushcart.
And he was ready for a life beyond turkey legs and ice cream.
He returned to UMINN and discovered the school’s version of Pennoni Honors College's own custom-designed major, which let him tailor a program to his own interests.
At the end of his senior year, he returned to Russia for a year for advanced Russian language study. He found himself drawn next door to the Russian Academy of Sciences, where conversations with scholars in the history of science led to life-long friendship and mentorship.
“Much of my life has happened by happenstance,” Ackert says. “I’ve been lucky to make very real connections in a community of people who had my best interests at heart.”
Ackert’s flight pattern then took him back to the U.S., to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, to Yale in New Haven and finally, nine years ago, to Drexel.
“A lot of life happened along the way,” Ackert says.
In 2008, Ackert was asked to guest lecture as part of the Great Works Symposium’s course on The Mechanical Body. That turned into being part of a course, which turned into a faculty advisor position. Now he’s helped design four of the Great Works courses, including the Search for Extraterrestrial Life, Celebrity Science, and Supernatural Science this fall, which will explore anything from the paranormal to Superman to zombies and the golem. He’s toying with ideas of future courses in comedy and survival.
“These classes are interdisciplinary, but that term seems so hackneyed,” he said. “They allow you to look at the boundaries, the borders between reality and fantasy, truth and whatever the alternative of that is. Fact and fiction. There’s often a gray area and you can use cultural tools to explore it.”
This summer, Ackert is teaching three courses, working with a graduate student on her independent study, mentoring a STAR (Students Tackling Advanced Research) student, developing the curriculum for his new Honors Colloquium on Soviet Science, and gearing up for a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia to do Drexel admissions recruitment.
And that’s not including his hobbies and interests.
Ackert is two years away (an optimistic deadline, he jokes) from publishing “The Cycle of Life,” a collection of short biographies that tell the history of a holistic thought in ecology from the romantic period up to the late 20th century. He lives part-time on a sailboat in Philadelphia (and is constantly tinkering with its mechanics), is remodeling and lives the rest of the time in a 150-year-old Dutch farmhouse in Upstate New York with his wife and daughter, does woodworking, makes beer, and studies the Ackert family’s genealogy, which is how he became the chair of the 44th Annual Ackert Family Reunion.
Ackert likes to stay active — tinkering, reading, building, brewing. He says he’s been referred to as a workaholic, but he just thinks of it as keeping busy. “I got tired of bonsai trees,” he says. “You clip it and wait two years.”
He wasn’t always so driven, so focused, and he finds himself challenged by that.
“That’s why I like to work so hard,” he says. “I compensate.”
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