Stephen Carroll: Profile of a Very Curious Person

Stephen Carroll has worn many different hats in his life—high-end clothing designer, Chinese chef and bartender, to name a few—but teacher is the one that really stuck. He’s been an English professor for almost 28 years, 12 of which he’s spent at Santa Clara, encouraging students to be curious.

Carroll began his college career at UC-Berkeley and loved college so much he refused to declare a major, deciding instead to take whichever classes looked interesting to him.

“At the beginning of every quarter, I would get the course catalog, which was the size of a small phone book, and I would just read through the whole thing and circle all the classes that I thought were interesting,” Carroll said. Then he checked his work schedule and figured out which classes he could take based on the times, and those were the classes he would take.

Carroll took a wide range of classes in different departments, including music, art, math, geography, statistics, linguistics, rhetoric, English and history. “I got an amazing education because I took classes in everything,” he said.

Carroll catches up with a former student, Meghan Degnan, at The Hut.

Carroll catches up with a former student, Meghan Degnan, at The Hut.

After two years, Carroll began receiving letters from Berkeley telling him he had to declare a major. He ignored them. After four years, Berkeley blocked his registration, refusing to let him take any more classes until he declared a major. So Carroll declared three majors: rhetoric, sociology and history.

“I wound up becoming a rhetoric major because I got C’s on my first two papers in college,” he said, “so I knew it was something I needed to improve. It was a challenge.”

So how did Carroll end up an English professor? Initially he thought law school was the place for him. After graduating with his triple major in 1984 after six years at Berkeley, Carroll was accepted to Boalt Law School at UC-Berkeley. He’d written a 100-page thesis on constitutional interpretation, and specifically picked Boalt because of its reputation as a more philosophical law school. But after sitting in on a few classes, Carroll realized it wasn’t for him.

“I absolutely loathed the classes because it was all about how to follow rules, and how to follow procedures, and I’m not interested in that at all,” Carroll said. “I want to know the philosophy, the theory, why it’s this way and not that way, and how do you fix these things. But they were just like, ‘Okay, this is the order you have to file forms in,’ and I decided I don’t care about any of this.”

He withdrew from the school and got a job selling suits at a men’s clothing store across the street from campus. As a back-up, Carroll also began training as a Chinese chef, which he continued for about two and a half years.

Meanwhile, within a year after he’d withdrawn from law school, a woman showed up in the men’s clothing store: Carroll’s former TA from a Shakespeare class he’d taken at Berkeley. She asked him if he’d be willing to help out with an argumentation course at Berkeley that she’d been involved in, and Carroll agreed, assuming he’d act as a TA and hold office hours every week.

“I showed up the next day to sign the paperwork, and turns out I was going to be teaching a section of this class, and class had started the previous week,” Carroll said. “So we were already a week behind and this was one of the classes I had done worst in in my college career, so I knew I needed to study a lot right away.”

Carroll rose to the challenge, studying and planning for his class’s first meeting in just a few days. The first class went well, and Carroll realized that teaching was what he wanted to pursue. He applied to graduate school at Berkeley and while waiting for his acceptance starting taking classes through the UC-Extension, which allowed him to finish his masters in just one year.

But Carroll credits another, more poignant moment as his real epiphany about teaching. He was sitting in the TA’s office one afternoon and noticed a woman walking back and forth outside. She was waiting for her TA to show up, but Carroll offered to help instead. She asked him to help her fit some ideas together for a paper on Stephen Crane’s The Open Boat.

Coincidentally, Carroll had taken an oral interpretation of literature class shortly before, and had done a performance of The Open Boat for his final project. “I knew it inside out, sideways, backwards, I knew everything there was to know about The Open Boat,” he said.

The woman said she had two ideas, and really wanted to say them both, but couldn’t figure out how to connect them. It was obvious to Carroll how the two pieces fit together, and he asked her questions to lead her to the same conclusion. After the second question, all the pieces fell into place, and Carroll said she started talking a mile a minute.

He never saw the girl again. “She’s just a person who appeared randomly out of the blue, but that was the moment that I knew I needed to be a teacher,” Carroll said. “The look on her face when all of those things fell into place, that’s when I was like, ‘This is what I have to do.’”

At Santa Clara, Carroll’s made a name for himself as a teacher who goes above and beyond what’s acceptable into what’s exceptional.

“The reason his teaching style is so unique is that nothing we talked about in class was a waste of time,” stated Christine Pearson, a Santa Clara graduate who took Carroll’s grant writing class.

Carroll is engaging in the classroom, talking quickly and enthusiastically and constantly asking questions. He’s known for his signature Hawaiian-print shirt, colored slacks and boater hat.

Stephen Carroll grilling ribs at a class BBQ.

Stephen Carroll grilling ribs at a class BBQ.

There’s another way Carroll goes above and beyond that of the average professor: during week ten of his classes, he’ll organize a class barbeque, where he’ll barbeque Texas-style ribs and portabella mushrooms for any vegetarians. Carroll estimates he’s had about two barbeques per quarter in the past 11 years; that’s 66 class barbeques.

Carroll has three pieces of advice for students, and it’s advice he lives by.

#1: “Learn first how you learn best.” Carroll says we know a lot about how people learn and what’s effective, but the majority of students don’t make the most of their time. Carroll’s not big on time-wasting, and he says instead of highlighting, re-reading, and studying notes, students need to practice studying the same way they’re going to be tested, which usually involves asking and answering questions.

#2: “Discover what you are capable of.” Carroll says too many people look for the easy way out and never find out that they’re capable of far more. He says that when you work really hard on something you didn’t think you were capable of and you succeed, there’s no other feeling like it.

And, finally, #3: “Be curious.”

— Sarah Ebbott

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