Written By: Martin Nemec
The first installment of “Getting to Know your Professors” stated that the best teachers make students feel like they are a friend. This statement is still as true as ever. Teachers have to be able to relate to students. If the teacher is mean and embarrasses students who have questions, they aren’t going to want to ask questions. The teacher also has to have the right amount of discipline to keep students focused on the subject matter.
I decided to continue where I left off and I chose another great teacher to interview for this post. I will post the information in a form that is easy to read.
Dr. Thornton is a professor at the University of North Florida and teaches in the Communication department. His “Law and Ethics of Communication” class is extremely difficult and requires a large amount of studying and reading outside of class. His tests that consist of nothing but essays and short answer questions have the power to make students shake in their boots. Thornton’s syllabus also ranks as one of the scariest syllabuses I have ever read.
Despite all of that, Dr. Thornton is one of the nicest and most wonderful human beings you will ever meet. It is easy to see he makes his class hard to prepare students for the real world. He’s also the first professor to tell you if you’re not fully committed to the major, to do yourself a favor and switch to something more interesting. He cares about students and he wants to see them succeed. He is always willing to stop and talk with students about anything. He never acts annoyed or inconvenienced and that is something truly remarkable when you consider how busy he is. Another great thing about Dr. Thornton is his laugh. You will quickly come to enjoy it and his constant jokes and chuckles have the power to light your day and make you smile from even just the shortest conversation with him.
He has a wealth of experience that he is willing to share at any moment. He has a great personal story for every subject discussed in his class. You can see the passion and the fire in his eyes when he talks and it’s a magnificent thing to experience.
Brian Thornton was born on Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and stayed there until he was two years old. Since his father was in the Air Force, the family moved every two years. Because of that, Thornton has lived in a plethora of places, which include Japan, Ohio, Illinois, Boston, among others. The last place his family moved to was Hawaii and his father liked it so much that he retired there. He was in fifth grade when his family moved there.
His favorite childhood memory was learning how to surf. When he moved to Hawaii, he had never surfed before. He said a guy down the street would load all of the neighborhood kids in his van and drive to the beach. Thornton said there would always be a big tent and people would make food so he and the other kids would surf for a few hours, then come and eat a little and go back out in the water. Another favorite memory was when he saw his dad smile in Hawaii. He said he never saw his dad smile until they moved there. His dad really loved Hawaii.
His least favorite job was a job at a fish packing plant. He had to cut the heads off of fish and he described it as being very gross and messy. Even worse, Thornton said the fish were still alive before he cut their heads off.
“First off, I knew there was something funny because they give you a raincoat,” Thornton said as he chuckled. “I asked, ‘What’s the raincoat for?’ and he said, ‘You’ll see.'”
Thornton said he never envisioned himself being a teacher. He spent his whole life gaining the tools to be a great reporter and he enjoyed it, but after twelve years of doing it, he said the lifestyle was starting to lose its appeal. He explained how being a reporter is unpredictable and you can be called in the middle of the night to cover events. He also said that the hours are much longer than the traditional job and it is simply exhausting when you aren’t young anymore. He thought about what else he could do and he decided he could teach other people how to become journalists.
Thornton received his undergraduate degree at the University of Hawaii and his Master’s degree at Wichita State University. Finally, he received his Ph.D. at the University of Utah. After teaching in Illinois and Texas, his teaching career brought him to UNF.
Like I did with Dr. Fadil, I asked Dr. Thornton what his favorite thing about teaching was.
“I like the idea of giving people a chance,” Dr. Thornton said. “I think we as teachers are in the business of helping people make their dreams come true so that’s kind of a neat thing.”
He also said he enjoys the immediate feedback he gets from students. When he used to write articles, he would send them in and that would be the end of it. With students, he can see if his message is reaching them and it is a rewarding experience.
Then, I delved into the more casual questions. Thornton does not care much for sports except for the ones he participates in. He actually has a black belt in Karate. He also loves surfing and surfs every morning before school. He even wanted to be a professional surfer as a child. He also does T’ai Chi every morning after he surfs and he described it as a “moving form of meditation.” He said it is very peaceful and relaxing. He strongly recommends trying it to everyone.
He doesn’t play video games except for when his four grandchildren come to visit from Missouri. His three favorite foods are from Hawaii. The first is called Poi, which he described as the Hawaiian version of grits but made from the taro plant. The second food is “Lomi Lomi Salmon,” which is chopped up salmon, onion and other things. Thornton likes mixing it with the poi. The third food he mentioned was malasadas. He said they were basically balls of dough that were deep-fried and covered in sugar.
Dr. Thornton laughed as he explained how although he comes from a long line of Irish drinkers, he is allergic to alcohol and can’t drink it. The desire to drink and be cool when he was younger got him into trouble as his body made him pay for it. He joked that since his family has been full of alcoholics, his body said no and stopped it from carrying on.
His favorite color is dark blue. When he was young, he used to make his own dark blue surfboards by finding fabric of that color and wrapping it in fiberglass. When I told him my favorite color was royal purple, he said people couldn’t wear that color where he grew up in Hawaii unless they were Ali’i, which means they descended from the ancient Hawaiian chiefs.
His favorite genre of music is Blues and he thoroughly enjoys Robert Johnson, Son House and Muddy Waters. He is a huge fan of the Blues artists from long before he was born. Dr. Thornton used to have a Blues band called “Mississippi Blues Band.” His favorite genre of movies is mystery and he especially loves the “Film Noir” era of movies. “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “The Maltese Falcon” are two specific movies he named. As far as TV shows, Thornton likes “CSI” and “Body of Proof.” He laughed as he talked about “Hawaii Five-O” and how the characters will be running down a street and the scene will change to a location on the other side of the island, but the audience can’t tell. Thornton detects it because he grew up there and he finds it funny.
His favorite animal is the cat. He said he always had dogs throughout life but his wife loves cats and she won him over. If he had to recommend a book for journalists, he chose “All the President’s Men,” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which details the Watergate scandal. For life in general, he recommended any book about T’ai Chi or meditation, but he admitted people might not enjoy the idea of it until they get older.
Thornton said the weirdest thing that involved him happened when he lived in Texas. He was doing T’ai Chi in a park and someone called the police and said he was doing weird things. When the policeman arrived, Thornton explained what he was doing and described T’ai Chi to him. Strangely enough, the explanation was so good, the policeman actually started doing T’ai Chi with him at that park on a regular basis.
When asked for advice for Journalism students, Dr. Thornton thought to himself for a few moments and then gave a great response.
“Most young people should not go straight from high school into college,” he said. “I think they should do something else (for a period of time first.) I think most young people, especially boys around the age of 18 aren’t ready. College can be a very serious and life changing experience and you have to take it seriously.”
As much as young people hate to admit it, this is true with a large amount of early college students. Sometimes you truly don’t know what you want until you’ve stepped back from school and worked a real job.
Finally, Dr. Thornton gave some advice to everyone about life in general.
“We should be lifelong learners,” Dr. Thornton said. “We’re always learning and that’s what gets me excited. In the morning, I get up and I say ‘I’m going to learn something new or do something new today.'”
And like always, Dr. Thornton finished the quote with his famous and heartwarming laugh.