Sociology professor Dr. Stella Capek described her first time teaching in front of a class of 50 students as a “near death experience.”
To make matters worse, her first lesson was video-taped.
“It was one of the most revealing moments of my life because in the midst of being terrified, I discovered that I loved to teach. I was shocked and inspired at the same time,” she said.
Though her father was a college philosophy professor who specialized in the philosophy of science, Capek thought she was better suited to go into research, but she soon began to imagine a life as a teacher.
Raised in a humanities-focused tradition, Capek didn’t discover the discipline of sociology until a mentor suggested the field after she had completed her bachelor’s degree in 1975.
“I had real trouble picking a major,” she said, confessing that she had many academic interests.
She ultimately chose Soviet and Eastern European Studies, an interdisciplinary program that included language, literature, and politics at Boston University, where she lived in the school’s French and later Russian language house.
After graduation, she immediately left the country. She found a summer job in Switzerland, where she worked at a hotel, making beds and helping in the kitchen. She also had the opportunity to do a lot of hiking in the Alps. After the summer, she backpacked around Europe, staying in youth hostels and visiting Greece and the island of Crete.
The daughter of immigrant parents from Czechoslovakia, she also visited and stayed with family in the Czech Republic, whom she had seen every few years while she grew up, first in Minnesota and later in Hingham, Mass., 20 miles south of Boston.
A former classmate whose parents had moved to Kuwait suggested Capek visit the Middle East.
She went to visit and stayed for a year and a half, working as an English language editor for the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research, which had an academic library with sociology books.
“It was a wonderful experience, working with people from all over the Middle East and getting paid for all this wonderful cross-cultural learning,” she said.
Working in Kuwait, Capek studied sociology and Arabic, prepared for the GRE, and traveled to Iran, Egypt, and Afghanistan.
After a year and a half in the Middle East, she enrolled in a graduate sociology program at the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, where she earned her master’s degree in 1981 and completed her Ph.D. in 1985.
Capek received a teaching assistantship at the University of Texas and was subsequently awarded an assistant instructorship, where she taught her own introduction to sociology course, an interesting challenge, since she had never taken it as an undergraduate. She also taught courses at Austin Community College. After completing her doctorate, she taught at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, for one year as a sabbatical replacement before joining the Hendrix faculty in 1986, when she replaced retiring professor Dr. Ferris Baker.
“I definitely wanted to teach at a liberal arts college,” said Capek. “As a child, I practically grew up on the Carleton College campus and loved it. Later, as a student at both Carleton and at Boston University, I hugely preferred the small liberal arts setting.”
Her courses at Hendrix have covered a wide variety of topics, including sociology of the environment, food, cities, gender, medicine, and social movements, as well as social theory and research methods.
Originally half of a two-person department, she and her colleague Dr. Jim Bruce strongly advocated for the addition of an anthropologist.
“Who can imagine a liberal arts college without an anthropologist?” she said.
Hendrix now has two, Dr. Anne Goldberg and Dr. Brett Hill.
Along with fellow sociology professor Dr. Lisa Leitz, Capek now enjoys working in a four-person joint sociology and anthropology department “with good students and good creative folks in full-time roles.”
“To have sociology and anthropology together and offering that to students is great,” she said. “The nice thing is we can collaborate.”
Capek continues to grow in her discipline in spite of the demands of teaching at a liberal arts college.
“I came to Hendrix intent on being able to do research and writing, in addition to teaching, and determined to publish things I care most about,” she said. “And I’ve been able to do that.”
Against the odds, Capek has been closely involved in the national organization for her discipline, chairing the environmental and technology section of the American Sociological Association.
Most colleagues who are visible in the national community teach at larger institutions.
“One of the things that has made it better for me is that I’ve stayed in touch with a national and international community of sociologists,” she said. “I’ve found it easier to come back and deal with the intensity of Hendrix.”
Since arriving at Hendrix, Capek has pursued her interest in the sociology of sustainable design and social justice.
“That’s a big part of who I am here,” she said of her emerging interests and the ability to pursue them. “And we’re supporting it better now.”
Your Hendrix Odyssey: Engaging in Active Learning has created many opportunities for students and faculty, Capek said.
“The motto ‘Unto the Whole Person’ has always been there,” she said, adding that for years she has taught a lot of social justice and community-focused courses that always included an experiential or hands-on learning component. “What’s there now [with Odyssey] is financial support and visibility. Now students have more opportunity for support.”
Capek has been fortunate to see the impact of these experiences on Hendrix students and their lives after college.
“Having been here for 25 years, it’s really intriguing to see who our students turn into,” she said.
Capek was part of a team effort to develop a summer program in Costa Rica, which is offered every other year. Her contribution included a recent course in sustainable ecotourism. A committed participant in the College’s interdisciplinary environmental studies program, she also developed a course in nature writing, which is cross-listed in English and sociology.
She was encouraged to pursue the latter by her colleague Dr. Carol West, professor of English studies, who told her, “Why don’t you just do what you love?”
“I’ve really appreciated that kind of colleagueship here,” Capek said.
“From my first interview, I had this feeling … Not only is this a liberal arts college, which I wanted, but it’s a place where people treat each other well,” she said. “I really valued that. Most colleagues at larger schools don’t have that community element. I hope we can keep it.”