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Joe McCaffrey: 'A Teacher's Teacher'

Joe McCaffrey, PhD

July 2012

By Susan Flansburg

Joe McCaffrey, PhD has finished tidying his third floor Ambrose Hall office and is now making a latté. A plaque on his bookshelf commemorates "The most inspiring professor I have ever had." A ceramic monk bank warns, "Thou shalt not steal." Across the room, St. Francis shares space with a pack of Galway cigarettes and a bottle of Glenlivet scotch, near a framed photo of McCaffrey's son.

"I gave up cigarettes and alcohol 33 years ago," the former Dominican monk notes. He has settled into a leather recliner that looks comfortable if inconvenient: he has to reach down to the floor to pick up his latte.

Meet one of the most beloved professors ever to command a St. Ambrose classroom.

Dedicated to creating-as McCaffrey is quoted in a 1982 Des Moines Register article-a "healthy skepticism in students so they will recognize garbage when they see it," McCaffrey provokes, prods and coaxes his students into a love of learning.

"When you get done with Joe's class, you're like, Aristotle! Yes!" Mara Adams '82, '95 MPS, PhD, says, laughing. "I took ancient philosophy with him and his enthusiasm was contagious. The thing with Joe is, he pushes you enough that you learn something about yourself in the process. He helps you be the best version of yourself."

Randy Richards '71, PhD, agrees.

"I took as much McCaffrey as I could," he says. "Ancient philosophy, medieval, metaphysics. He's peerless. The breadth and depth of his knowledge is astounding."
The longest-tenured member of the St. Ambrose faculty, McCaffrey arrived as an instructor in 1964 and teaches business as well as philosophy. He also has served as an assistant dean, associate dean for curriculum, academic dean and dean of the graduate business administration program.

Twice, he left St. Ambrose for administrative positions down Brady Street, as president of Palmer Junior College from 1977 through 1979 and as vice president of academic affairs at Palmer College of Chiropractic from 1991 to 1992.

Yet, McCaffrey always has found his way back to the front of a St. Ambrose classroom, where, in the estimation of Aron Aji, PhD, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, he has earned the honorable distinction of "a teachers' teacher."

Fellow faculty members like Richards, a professor of philosophy and business, and Adams, a professor of theology, continue to learn from McCaffrey. A colleague of 38 years, Richards says he sometimes lingers by McCaffrey's classroom to hear him lecture from the hall.

"He's the real deal," Richards says. "I've taught in a lot of places and I've never experienced anyone better, especially in lecture. He makes philosophy more grounded in places and ages than anyone, using a wonderful mix of abstract principles and concrete examples."

The concrete examples come from chreias-"personal life stories"-that McCaffrey gathers about philosophers during his worldwide travels.

"Philosophy isn't just a study of abstract ideas," McCaffrey says. "It's also about context, and chreia provides context. Two-thirds of the Gospels are chreias. We understand lots about Christ because of the chreias, the personal details.

"I go to a lot of countries that nobody goes, to walk the ground the philosophers walked. I went to Hippo, which is now Annaba, in Algeria because I wanted to go where St. Augustine was bishop. It was desolate, barren. It gave me a sense of Augustine's experience. I've gone to Tunisia, Carthage, Lybia. Lybia has marvelous Roman ruins. You bring that back to the classroom, show pictures and maps."

McCaffrey is motivated to engage students at such a deep level, he says, because he is planting seeds.

"You want them, 10 years from now when they walk into a bookstore, to be comfortable picking up a challenging book and enjoying it," he says. "That's what liberal arts education is. It's seeds that are being planted for the future. As teachers we have to make it as interesting as possible, so that the seed takes, you know."

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