This semester I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on Dr. Gary Browning’s course on the writings of Leo Tolstoy. Dr. Browning is a retired professor who is volunteering at Southern Virginia University during the 2014-2015 school year. I’ve always just loved Tolstoy’s writing, or as my sister likes to say, I fangirl over him — not sure what that’s supposed to mean — so I couldn’t turn down the chance to attend the class to learn more. It’s been a complete pleasure. Dr. Browning’s mastery and understanding of the literature is so enlightening. I can hardly wait to start his course on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels next semester.
The other day, Stephen Taylor and I stopped by Dr. Browning’s office to sit down with him and ask him some questions about his background and his experience at Southern Virginia.
Q: What is your background in academia?
Dr. Browning: I received my bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University, master’s from Syracuse U, and Ph.D. from Harvard U. All of my degrees were in Russian language and literature. I taught at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Penn. for two years. Then I taught at BYU for 31 years and retired in 2006.
Q: Can you tell us about important life experiences outside of your profession?
Dr. Browning: I’m sure the greatest experience was serving as a mission president in Russia from 1990 to 1993. BYU made it possible for me to have a three-year leave and then return to teaching. After retirement, my wife and I spent eighteen months as a volunteer service couple at the BYU Jerusalem Center. Students at the Jerusalem Center not only spend time in the classroom, but also to travel around the country and see very important archeological, historical, and cultural sites. We were included as guests on these excursions.
Joan and I also led several BYU student performing groups and BYU Travel Study programs on tours in eastern Europe, mainly Russia. This was an exceptionally fine way to meet and learn from people in their own environments. We’re certainly not experts in music or dance. We were tour directors and, basically, made sure the travel arrangements and accommodations were satisfactory.
Q: How have these experiences changed your teaching?
Dr. Browning: These programs not only enriched our lives, but gave us broader perspectives on opportunities and problems in the world. They were very enlightening. The more one can experience the world, the more depth one can bring to the classroom.
Q: How did you decide to come teach at Southern Virginia University?
Dr. Browning: I had occasionally read about Southern Virginia University from the time it was founded. It seemed like such a good idea to have a university on the East Coast that fostered LDS ideals and offered a high quality education. I met a few people who had come here as students or volunteer professors and heard enthusiastic reports. I’m not a millionaire, but I hope through volunteering to make as least a small contribution.
Q: How did you decide on what courses to teach while you’re here?
Dr. Browning: The choice mainly was made on the basis of what courses I like and teach the best. While my proposals needed to be approved, I had an opportunity to recommend courses. I enjoy teaching a range of courses, but above all I am passionate about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Southern Virginia gave me the possibility to focus on these two great masters. Now I’m thrilled to be reading and discussing with fine students enlightened and ennobling masterpieces written by the masters Tolstoy and Dostoevsky!
Q: What has your experience in the classroom here been like?
Dr. Browning: I can honestly say that I’ve been very impressed with the students. They’ve been engaged. They’re very fine intelligent students, responsive to culture and literature. The discussions and exams have shown that these are capable students. I don’t have large classes; they are more like seminars. That’s exactly the environment I like to teach in. It’s been an invigorating experience!
I also found my Southern Virginia colleagues to be very warm and welcoming. They’re outstanding both in academics and as human beings. They’re devoted to the idea of Southern Virginia University really being an exceptionally fine institution and they’re willing to work hard to realize that dream. It’s a great environment. The professors and staff here are willing to sacrifice for the institution and the students, and they do in countless ways each day. I’m inspired by their devotion.
Q: At a glance, why should students want to study Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?
Dr. Browning: First, whenever one studies great literature, you learn an immense amount about the culture and ideas which the authors represent. Moreover, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are among the finest thinkers with deep religious insights. I believe anyone who wants to explore the really big questions in life — the meaning of life, an understanding of innocent suffering, the battle between good and evil influences, the qualities of happiness, especially in marriage and family, the role and meaning of death — can find stimulating insights through reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And that’s what I’ve found so intriguing and rewarding, to get deeply into great thinkers’ experiences, minds and spirituality.
(Post by Alec Johnson ’14.)