Scotlight: Dr. Tom Tierney

Dr. Tom Tierney, professor of sociology, discusses his research and involvement in the campus community.

When did you originally become involved with the Nick Amster Foundation?

I became involved with Nick Amster in fall 2015, through my First Year Seminar (FYS) and the Community Connections Program (CCP). I, along with several other faculty, committed to including a community service project in our FYS sections. My CCP involved having my students work with the developmentally challenged adults at Nick Amster, Inc.  I’ve been involved with the organization ever since and am currently serving on Nick Amster’s Board of Directors.

Why did you become involved with Nick Amster?

I became involved with Nick Amster because when I first moved to Wooster in 1998, the Special Olympics program was quite active and visible, and it was organized through Nick Amster and the Ida Sue School.  I recall reading a front-page article in the local paper about a local Special Olympian, a powerlifter who was competing internationally in Ireland.   I was quite impressed with the commitment that the community seemed to make to these athletes, but a few years later when I approached folks about getting involved, I was told that support had flagged a bit, and there weren’t as many programs as there had been in the past for these athletes.  So, when I started thinking about a community engagement project for my FYS, I was able to arrange for bowlers from Nick Amster to come to campus once a week to bowl in Scot Lanes with the students from my seminar.  From there the program grew, and more students became involved.  At the end, there was a program house dedicated to the Special Olympics bowling program, but that lapsed with the closing of Scot Lanes. However, we now have a group of students who meet on a weekly basis in the Alley to play a variety of games with folks from Nick Amster, so the connection continues. 

What are you currently researching? What made you choose this topic?

My current research focuses on changing attitudes toward the body and the self — or if you prefer, the embodied self — that have occurred in recent decades as the result of a combination of factors.  Without getting too specific or technical, in the second half of the twentieth century individuals were increasingly encouraged to think of themselves as entrepreneurs.  This view manifests itself as what I have described as “corporeal self-entrepreneurship,” which refers to the idea that individuals should treat their bodies, or bits thereof, as capital.  You can see this idea in a range of disciplines, such as bioethics and the law, as well as in some feminist perspectives.  It is a very seductive idea, but one that I’m critical of for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that it encourages a view of others as capital. The University of Chicago economist Gary Becker, who founded “human capital theory,” explicitly claimed that children should be viewed as “durable consumer goods.”  From this perspective, it is easy to see why programs like Nick Amster and the Special Olympics may not appear to be a “worthwhile investment.”  So I’ve been tracking the origins and global diffusion of this perspective, and also examining critical alternatives to this view of society.

 Describe your role in the Great Decisions lecture series.

I am “executive director” of the Great Decisions lecture series, which means I work with a group of students and a board of trustees — which is comprised of local business and community leaders — to organize a slate of speakers that cover a timely topic that should be of interest not only to the College community, but the larger community as well. 

How is the topic selected each year? How do you pick the programs that go with the topic?

I meet with a small group of students in the spring semester, and we brainstorm ideas and themes that might be of significant interest to the local community, and once we have come up with a few promising ideas we begin to look at speakers and documentary films that could be part of a coherent, compelling program.  Once we’ve got a fairly solid list of topics and speakers, we meet with the Board of Trustees and discuss these ideas, and then the students and I refine our ideas based on the Board’s feedback.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the campus community?

I am excited that there seems to be growing interest among students and some coaching staff to get the College involved in Special Olympics activities.  From my perspective, this is one of the most positive ways that the College can interact with the local community, and the benefits are clearly reciprocal.

Interview by Abby McFarren, a Contributing Writer for the Voice (Photo by Toshiko Tanaka).