Bringing diverse experiences to the higher education industry as an entrepreneur, manager, researcher, and teacher, we learn why Toby believes in making a difference one student at a time. Successfully merging his interests in humanities, innovation, entrepreneurship and technology, Toby creates innovative organizations that prepare the next generation for the workforce.
Toby has devoted his life and career to teaching and establishing international networks of students and professionals to facilitate cross cultural interactions. Currently, as Associate Professor of History at Wheaton College and Visiting Professor of History at National Taiwan University, Toby specializes in Christian-Muslim relations and enjoys bringing humanities, entrepreneurship and technology to the forefront of education.
Toby credits his success in building start-up organizations that address issues in higher education to his professional training as a teacher. As the Founder and President of the Spain-North Africa Project, an international network of researchers producing interdisciplinary knowledge of the Mediterranean, and Co-Founder of the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities, he provides innovative products and services to reach students around the world.
An avid traveler and foodie, Toby’s international experiences have allowed him to be effective and understanding in diverse settings. He has lived in the United States, Syria, Taiwan, and Spain; traveled to 32 countries on five continents; and developed language proficiency in Spanish, Arabic, French, Portuguese, and Chinese.
LEARN MORE ABOUT TOBY’S WORK AND CRITICAL LEARNING MOMENTS:
TELL US ABOUT YOURSELF. WHAT ARE YOU PASSIONATE ABOUT AND WHAT MOTIVATES YOU?
We’re each a mix of our backgrounds, and I have an unusual life spanning Taiwan, the United States, Syria, and Spain. Living “in-between” these very different places makes me appreciate the richness and diversity of life. I’m passionate about connecting disparate parts of the world in myself, in others through teaching, and in my profession – by finding ways for the humanities, sciences, and technology to work together to make a better world.
WHAT IS YOUR CURRENT ROLE AND ORGANIZATION AND HOW DOES IT RELATE TO THE WORK WE DO AT MICHELSON RUNWAY?
Creating content, engaging audiences, training students for changing workplaces, and understanding how knowledge builds communities are several ways my work relates to Michelson Runway. As a professor at National Taiwan University, I teach Middle Eastern and Spanish histories to a public eager to learn about these parts of the world. In Asia, I’m helping establish an international association to advance research and knowledge of the Mediterranean world. As a co-founder of the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Humanities at Wheaton College in Massachusetts, I develop ways to use humanities studies to teach students critical professional skills. I’m also researching how technologies like genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are changing the way humankind reproduces itself biologically and socially.
WHAT DID YOU DO PREVIOUSLY THAT HAS PREPARED YOU FOR YOUR CURRENT LEADERSHIP ROLE?
Teaching in the classroom trains you to distill your thoughts down to the essential point and communicate it as clearly as possible to a group of people. Running a classroom is like mobilizing a variety of talented individuals, managing their different ideas, finding persuasive solutions, and bringing the people and solutions together in dynamic and inclusive ways. These skills prepared me to establish and lead my own organizations.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED IN THE EDUCATION/EDTECH SPACE; TELL US ABOUT A PIVOTAL EXPERIENCE THAT HELPED GUIDE YOUR CAREER TO WHERE IT IS NOW?
I’m always looking to collaborate with others – to bring together different talents, learn from and direct them toward problems, and have fun finding solutions. Conducting specialized research can be a very solitary experience. Years after finishing graduate school and becoming a professor, I attended a summer institute in Barcelona. There, I worked almost 24/7 with dozens of researchers on understanding how Muslims, Jews, and Christians interact in the Mediterranean world. More than just work, we bonded by sharing hot, mosquito-filled dorms without air conditioning, taking midnight swims at the city beach, trying out great Catalan food, and celebrating Spain’s victory in the World Cup. At the end of the summer, we had formed a new community and established the Spain-North Africa Project. This innovative organization develops knowledge about how Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in the western Mediterranean and shares this information with a world increasingly in conflict. Through these experiences, I realized how much collaboration can spur my professional goals and I’ve been building new institutions that address issues in higher education – together with talented colleagues – ever since.
HOW IS YOUR WORK CLOSING THE OPPORTUNITY GAP/ACHIEVEMENT GAP?
I believe in the individual and making an impact on a one-on-one basis. Having worked in a variety of educational settings from large public universities to small private colleges, I think individual commitment, time, and effort can make a big difference. I’d be thrilled to see technology find a way to facilitate or bridge this kind of personal intensity and dedication that help students grow.
IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO START YOUR CAREER OVER AGAIN, WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY?
I would let myself go down more paths, find more outlets for using the languages I love to learn, and seek out more mentoring.
WHAT IS YOUR DEFINITION OF EQUITY AND HAS YOUR WORK CONTRIBUTED TO MORE EQUITY FOR STUDENTS?
When working with students, I believe every person has a unique potential. It is my job to help them learn about themselves, express their points of view, identify their talents, and make use of them. There’s nothing quite like the “ah-ha” moment when you see students recognize they’ve accomplished or learned something that’s important to them.
WHAT PROMPTED YOUR INTEREST IN SERVING AS A MENTOR TO EDTECH ENTREPRENEURS AND WHAT SPECIFICALLY EXCITES YOU ABOUT THIS INITIATIVE?
Education makes a direct impact on individual lives, and individuals shape the society around us. The students we educate today will make choices in the future that will affect all of us. It’s vital they have the breadth and depth of knowledge, as well as the critical thinking and social awareness, to make the best decisions possible. I’m excited that Michelson Runway edtech entrepreneurs are looking for new, effective ways to help a variety of learners build knowledge and skills. I’m also excited to help find ways for education to be more accessible and affordable in the future.
PLEASE SHARE A QUOTE THAT HAS GUIDED YOUR PERSONAL/PROFESSIONAL PATH.
No favorite quote, but there are mantras that are always in the back of my head. When thinking about ideas or a project, I ask: what’s still missing? How can I take this further? How do I connect this with other ideas and people? These questions direct me on a path to find answers, create something original, and engage others.
WHO IS YOUR ROLE MODEL/MENTOR, AND WHY?
There are several mentors and role models I will always be grateful for. Ira Lapidus at U.C. Berkeley, my first Middle Eastern history professor, asked a question that has stayed with me for many years – how did different peoples come together to form a community (for example, the early Islamic empire)? Anthony Grafton at Princeton University and Teofilo F. Ruiz at UCLA, two of the most accomplished and beloved historical researchers of their generation, are models of collaboration and humility. Others come from sports. Justine Henin, the professional tennis player fought for every point and hit an intense one-handed backhand. Her matches and interviews say so much about her will to compete against bigger, stronger opponents. Shelley Devine, the founder of Evolve Bootcamp in Boston, helped me make it through intense workouts with firm yet supportive coaching. She taught me to jump into new situations and build the strength and confidence to work through them.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE TOP THREE SKILLS NEEDED TO BE A SUCCESSFUL ENTREPRENEUR?
- Joy – to try out new ideas and approaches, and to let yourself have fun with what you are doing and producing.
- Humility – when something needs doing, get it done without waiting for others or expecting praise.
- Synthesis – to bring together different ideas, to connect them and create something greater.
DESCRIBE ONE FAILURE THAT YOU HAVE TURNED INTO A GROWTH OPPORTUNITY.
Liberal education in many different disciplines seems to be on the wane. And yet this type of education trains students to continuously learn and to learn broadly, including fields that haven’t even been imagined yet, a crucial skill to have in the world’s fast-changing economy. To take on the challenges facing liberal education, I co-founded the Wheaton Institute for the Interdisciplinary Studies. The institute harnesses humanities subjects, in conjunction with the sciences, technology, and policy, to train students on how to absorb knowledge, learn critical analysis skills, present information in effective verbal, oral, and visual formats, and to persuade others through well-honed arguments. Taking on challenges to liberal education, we developed an institute with a unique mission of deploying the humanities to help our students engage with the twenty-first century.
WHAT’S YOUR MORNING RITUAL?
I wake up and do a morning exercise routine. Then I make breakfast and read the news or listen to NPR. It’s important to be centered in my own body and mind before engaging in the day’s work.
WHAT’S THE BEST CAREER ADVICE YOU’VE TAKEN AND OFFERED?
Taken: Make a given situation work. By thinking along these terms, you stay true to who you are, to your principles, and to what you are looking for, even when faced with challenges. As a result, your sincerity comes out, and others respond to that.
Given: Think about your career in holistic terms. How does your work help you grow as a person? How does it help you gain experiences that enable you to evolve as a person? How do you connect these experiences to other areas of your life?
WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN YOU AREN’T WORKING?
I love traveling both in the countryside and to cities. When I’m traveling, I try to taste new foods and I look for markets and supermarkets to get a sense of local ingredients and products. Food is an intense and incredibly enjoyable way to learn about other peoples and communities.