Professor Spotlight: William Denton

In a colorful office surrounded with piles of books that he explains are being tested for upcoming classes, I was able to sit down with beloved Honors Term Professor William Denton to discuss his role in the DePaul Honors community. It was lovely to get to know a bit more about Professor Denton, who is a fan favorite among his students.

Professor Denton comes to us from North Carolina, where he attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a degree in political science. It was there that he met his wife Rose Spalding, another fixture in the Honors community. His interest in political science first began in the sixth grade, when he saw a newspaper with a cover image of a soldier in Vietnam and was cemented in his first year of college when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. This sparked his desire to understand our world and the ways we are connected, and it was then he discovered his passion for political science, international relations, and American foreign policy.

After graduation, he eventually made his way to Chicago, but not as a professor. Professor Denton worked for the city, in the former Department of Public Safety doing analysis on civil defense planning. Soon, he moved to the world of academia and worked at DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Chicago doing institutional research. During the 90’s, he began teaching night classes at DePaul, before becoming full-time faculty in 2014 and officially joining the Honors Department less than a year later. He has been at DePaul ever since, teaching Intro to International Relations, American Foreign Policy, and the Political Science Senior Capstone, along with the occasional self-designed course. And in Honors, he teaches a section of HON 201 States Markets and Societies, focused on International Political Economy. Having been at DePaul in some capacity for more than 20 years, Professor Denton has become a pillar of our community.

Like most Honors professors, Professor Denton teaches both Honors and non-Honors courses. With all of his courses, he is careful to tailor his teaching style to the needs of the class, considering learning style, knowledge level, and areas of interest. One of the biggest differences of Honors classes is their size, which is capped at 20 students, and an emphasis on the Socratic seminar style. Professor Denton always makes sure to include discussion as much as possible, as students seem to gain the most from this approach. He recognizes the lost time and experiences of virtual learning, so he emphasizes student involvement and connection. One of the ways he does so is through student presentations, where each week a few students are assigned a short reading and a casual but interactive presentation. This assignment serves two purposes: to encourage student-led learning and reflect the new Honors standards. In the Honors Program’s recent efforts to reimagine Honors learning, there has been a push to move away from unreasonably heavy workloads. The point of Honors is not to simply work more, but to embrace a more nuanced, interdisciplinary style of academia. Professor Denton has enthusiastically welcomed this new style, expressing it as techniques he has always wanted to include and that he now implements in all of his courses. He is experimenting with more focused reading assignments, the inclusion of visual learning materials, and different types of assignments, such as an open-ended projects that include the submission of poems, a short film, letters, and even a piece of writing set to a student-performed violin soundtrack.

Another way in which Professor Denton has wonderfully exemplified the core tenants of our Honors Program is through his consistent emphasis on reflection throughout his classes. In addition to more typical (but increasingly creative) midterm and final projects, Professor Denton also asks students to submit self-reflections and grade their own learning experiences. He explains that studying is useless unless you understand why we are doing it in the first place. To truly absorb and retain what is taught in and out of the classroom, students should reflect on their learning process. In his capstone class, Professor Denton has the seniors write a letter to their freshman selves, and then invites freshmen from his other classes to visit and read through these letters, providing an opportunity for reflection, advice, and connection. He also has his Honors classes complete a research note instead of a traditional research paper, which emphasizes process and reflection on the meaning of the research process. 

In the spirit of reflection, I had to ask Professor Denton why foreign policy is important. First of all, he highlighted the importance of history. He explained it as an ongoing process, something we live with even if we’re not fully aware of it. Quoting William Faulkner he reminds us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The same goes for current international affairs. Even if we might not see it immediately, our world is inherently interconnected, and things happening on the other side of the world inevitably impact us. He encourages everyone to be skeptical of foreign policy, emphasizing the need to pursue rationale and motivations to avoid quick or shortsighted decisions. This leads him to his next big argument for the study of foreign policy and political science: reflecting on worldviews and how they influence our actions. This is another aspect that may not be as visible on the surface but forms the foundation of how we operate in society. Worldview is inherently related to history, as our understanding of history influences how we view the world and vice versa. Most importantly, he believes it is necessary to compare worldviews and understand how they lead us in designing our world. By understanding our perspectives and the perspectives of those around us, we can truly answer the question “What must be done?”

Professor Denton identified the diversity of worldviews as one of his favorite parts of the Honors Program, right after the students themselves. Beyond Honors students’ incredible dedication to academia and serious desire to learn, they are unique in their interdisciplinary nature. The Honors Program brings together students from every program at DePaul and places them in classes designed to connect disciplines and offer new ways to consider the same topics. Professor Denton explains how this creates an atmosphere of exploration and creativity, and emphasizes that it is always better to have a diversity of opinion. These classes bring students out of their comfort zones, exposing them to new ways of thinking and offering an opportunity to make new connections. Professor Denton explains how his Honors class, International Political Economy, doesn’t only contain the expected political science or economics students; it also brings in art and film majors, education majors, health studies majors, and the list goes on. In bringing together different worldviews, Honors classes are a refreshing change of pace that encourage civil discourse and sharing of perspective.

When asked what he would do if he didn’t teach, Professor Denton had only one response: I don’t know. Teaching is his passion, it is what he loves, and he can’t imagine doing anything else. He gets to spend his time reading, interacting with students, and creating syllabi, one of his favorite pastimes. He says that teaching keeps him sharp, and he likes being challenged and exposed to new perspectives and worldviews. When considering life after teaching, he muses that he might get another cat or two, visit his daughters in Virginia and London, or just walk more. But for now, we are lucky to have Professor Denton and his amazing commitment to his students here at the DePaul Honors Program.

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