Question Me An Answer: The Philosophy of Dr. Ted Mashburn

To think critically, comprehensively and compassionately; to ask the big questions and attempt the journey toward answers; to be bold, honest and, most of all, authentic – that’s what Dr. Ted Mashburn expects of his students. It’s also what he expects of himself.

“It’s not about the answers – it’s about knowing the right questions. It’s the process, not the destination,” explained Mashburn. “The best class is when one person answers this way, and another answers another way. Then you can have a riveting class.”

It’s this dynamic exchange – and Mashburn’s dedication to the Socratic method of asking and answering questions in order to stimulate critical thinking and explore ideas – that challenges students. It’s a challenge that changes them from high school graduates who simply want to know the answers to put on the quiz, to college students and graduates capable of wrestling with the hard questions in life.

“Life can be wonderful, and it can be terribly unfair, and it can crush you. I want our students to be prepared to deal with life openly, honestly, lovingly and justly, because that’s how you’re supposed to live – openly, honestly, lovingly and justly,” said the associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and chair of the Philosophy Department.

This Oxford-educated philosopher and ordained Southern Baptist pastor said he teaches with one foot in the pulpit and the other in the lecture room.

“I find they’re not so dissimilar,” Mashburn said.

Blue Collar Philosopher
Mashburn didn’t go to college to become a professor. He just wanted to play football. He played linebacker for Livingston University, now University of West Alabama, and was undecided on a major.

It was in Dr. Ralph Lyon’s class that Mashburn first experienced a real excitement for learning. “It was the first time I had a class where I didn’t just memorize material. He was the first one who said, ‘Look, that’s not what learning is about. I want you to think,’” Mashburn recalled.

He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and the vague notion of going to law school to follow in the footsteps of his father, Baldwin County’s first circuit judge, former state Rep. Telfair Mashburn. A summer spent as a missionary in Liberia gave him another idea. He signed up for Journeyman program with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. For two years, he lived in Israel and worked with Palestinian Arabs.

Stepping out of familiar surroundings and living in another culture was eye-opening.

“You come to grips with who you are,” he said. “That experience took me on an academic journey. I knew I wanted to study theology.”

He was a college student for the next decade, marrying Rene’ Reed from Alabama’s Choctaw County while in his first year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received a Master of Divinity in 1978 from Southwestern, then a Master of Theology from the University of Edinburgh, New College, Edinburgh, Scotland. The Doctorate of Philosophy was conferred in April 1985 from Oxford University, Regents Park College, England.

Mashburn thought he might pursue an academic position in the northeastern United States when he learned about an opening in the religion department at then-Mobile College, just across the bay from his Baldwin County roots.

The Mashburns settled in Baldwin County, raised two daughters there, and now make Fairhope their home, where Rene’ owns Green Gates designer home décor market.

“I call myself a blue collar theologian,” Mashburn said. “Football gave me the work ethic and taught me if you want something badly enough, you can get it, if you have discipline and work hard.”

The Oxford Model
UMobile Associate Professor of English Dr. Katherine Abernathy ’89 said she was in the first class Mashburn ever taught at Mobile College, a 9 a.m. class on the history of Christian thought.

“It’s the first time I ever had to study for a class,” she recalled. “His passion was to get us to understand. It wasn’t to understand bullet points. He wanted us to deal with the material and own it. It’s still that way.”

Now as a colleague teaching in the Honors Program, Abernathy said Mashburn is “an incredibly hard worker.”

“He will pick things to teach that he hasn’t read yet,” she said. “He doesn’t just read something to get published; he reads it to change his life. And he wants it to change his students’ lives.” In 1995 Mashburn moved from the religion department to the arts and sciences division where he started the school’s philosophy department and took additional classes in literature to broaden his knowledge.

He decided early in his teaching career that he would not be standing at the front of the class giving a lecture.

“Writing a lecture is a wonderful experience,” Mashburn explained. “You don’t know something until you teach it or write about it and you make it your own.”

But after seriously reading more Plato, he embraced the idea that it was the process of arriving at the answers that was important, and that required students to be involved in analyzing, learning to think, questioning, testing answers and being willing to discard those found wanting and begin the process again.

Abernathy said the energy he had 29 years ago as a first-year professor remains evident in his teaching today. He engages everyone in the class, “throwing grenades” in the guise of challenging questions that students don’t know how to answer immediately.

“They have to go away and think,” Abernathy said. “He makes them struggle. He wants the students to recognize when they don’t have an answer, and then try to find one. Students will go talk to their preachers, to their parents, in their search. He poses questions in class that flow over into late night philosophical debates in the dorms.”

Registrar Dr. Don Berry, who served on the religion faculty with Mashburn, said, “I think his No. 1 contribution to the university is academic depth. He does as good a job at provoking undergraduate students to do critical thinking as anybody I know. To me, he’s a master teacher.”

Dr. Doug Mitchell, professor of English, has taught several Honors courses with Mashburn. He said Mashburn expects students to take the texts they read as seriously as he does, and he teaches them how to do it. They read numerous works, then meet in class to wrestle with the texts and write about the ideas they discover. It’s a European model of education, a model similar to that found at Oxford where Mashburn earned his doctorate.

“He’s a little bit of Oxford on our campus,” Mitchell said.

‘He Believed in Me’
Dr. Barry Padgett ’89 said Mashburn was among the first people he called when he was offered the James M. Medlin Chair of Business Ethics and professor of management at Belmont University.

“One of the things he inspired in me was the desire to do what he’s done, and that is to get into academia and to give yourself to the next generation of students coming along, to commit yourself to their well-being,” Padgett said.

Padgett remembered Mashburn as a professor and mentor who expected much from his students and himself.

“He was going to push you. He was going to be sure that you expanded your horizons. Where some students saw that as intimidating, I absorbed it like a sponge. I soaked up everything he could send my way,” Padgett said. “He was very passionate about whatever we were reading. That passion for learning and for understanding what the meaning of this is in your own life is something that is contagious.”

He recalled one class with a couple of class clowns. One day Mashburn called one of the jokesters out with a comment that stuck with Padgett. “Personality will get you a long way in life, but it won’t get you all the way.”

Sara Dye ’13 said she keeps in touch with Mashburn while pursuing a Ph.D. in English at Baylor. That she even applied to the doctoral program was due to her professor.

She had enrolled at UMobile as a nursing major, mainly because she had always been good at math and science. She was also in the Honors Program, and soon discovered she loved English and philosophy.

“My sophomore year I had this kind of crisis. I had this big tension of not knowing what I was supposed to do, or even wanted to do,” she said. That summer she and nine other students Photo by Doug Mitchell Photo by Trey Taulbee 74 University of Mobile Magazine | FALL 2014 75 traveled to England with Mashburn for an academic and cultural trip. Mashburn asked Dye if she had any more thoughts about her future. It was something Dye had talked extensively about.

“I told him I was still conflicted. Then he asked me a question: When you wake up every morning, do you want to be a nurse or a college teacher, in the full knowledge that you are capable of being either one? In that moment, I realized how I had complicated everything,” she said.

Dye said Mashburn spent “a huge amount of time and energy listening to a 19-year-old girl talk over and over about the same thing. He never minimizes something a student is going through.”

She said Mashburn pushed her to apply to schools she thought she couldn’t get accepted into.

“He said, ‘but you can. I want you to try.’ He believed in me more than I did. If anybody outside of my parents and closest friends believed in me when I didn’t believe in me, it was Ted Mashburn,” Dye said.

His encouragement extends to colleagues.

“He’s a profoundly good mentor, not just to students, but also a mentor to the younger faculty,” Mitchell said. “He knows what you can do better than you do. Mashburn is always there to remind you, ‘this is what you bring to the table, this is what you can do.’ He expects the best of you, but in a really encouraging way.”

Where There is Truth The questions that Mashburn throws out to the class, and the questions that arise from those questions, are not always easy ones with simple answers.

“We are the only sentient beings who can reflect on our own mortality,” Mashburn said. “My very presence creates an existential question. Why am I here? Am I really doing what I should be doing? Your life’s a question, and the way you live it is the answer.”

In seeking answers to those questions, “you come to find out who you are in relation to God, others and the world. You come to know yourself better when you think about great things,” Mashburn said.

His popular course “God, Evil and Suffering” delves into the book of Job and the questions Job asks of God.

Kala Holt ’12, now pursuing a master’s in English at Baylor, said what struck her was that Job never said God wasn’t true; he just wanted to understand God better.

“Dr. Mashburn has this faith that is very strong, and he leads us to find our own way to seek God,” she said.

The questions are a tool to seek Truth, and in seeking Truth, one finds God, Mashburn teaches.

“Truth is God and God is everywhere. If it’s Truth, it’s of God,” he said.

He encourages students to always seek Truth, and “above all, never, ever drink the ‘Kool Aid,’” or blindly accept what someone says about God and faith.

“When Paul says always be ready to give an answer for the faith that is in you, it’s the principle of ‘know why you believe what you believe,’” Holt said. “There is a danger of going along with something because you believe in the person who said it and not the message itself. It’s dangerous to put your faith in a person and not in the truth – don’t just take what they say as Gospel, but read the Gospel yourself.

“It’s a spiritual principle of don’t doubt, but seek. Confirm that what you have been proclaiming is what you believe because it’s true, not because you’re just repeating it from someone else,” she said.

Aaron McLeod ’04, a trial and appellate attorney in Birmingham, AL, said he entered college like many freshmen, confident that he already had all the answers.

“Then I met Dr. Mashburn. In my first semester he taught an introduction course to philosophy, and nothing has been the same since,” McLeod said. “I had to re-examine assumptions about life, knowledge, meaning and God. I had to think. I still ask myself those questions that take us out of the mundane and make us examine what we take for granted.”

Being an active thinker about one’s faith is a challenge Mashburn also extends to the congregation he has pastored for 14 years, Josephine Baptist Church in Elberta, AL.

“He’s a wonderful advocate for Christ,” said Barbara Beson, who with husband Gary has been a member of Josephine Baptist for 18 years. “He’s well loved by the community, and not just by the people who are members of this church.”

“He’s always thinking and challenging us, which I think is his biggest asset,” Gary Beson added.

Know Thyself
There is a reason Ted Mashburn challenges his students.

“I want them to find themselves. I want them to be able to do what they want to do. Very few of my students will take the route I did. But they will take a route. I just want them to be equipped to experience life at its fullest,” he said.

There is also a reason Ted Mashburn believes his students are more capable than they believe themselves to be.

That reason is Dr. Yandall Woodfin, emeritus professor of philosophy of religion at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who died in May.

“He did it for me,” Mashburn said.

“I remember my second year at seminary. It was extremely competitive; the mountain looked real tall. He believed in me to the point he got me to be his grader. That was a profound vote of confidence, saying, in effect, ‘Ted, you can do this thing.’

“That’s why I went to Edinburgh. He encouraged me to apply. I didn’t think I had a shot. But he believed in me.”

About the Author

Kathy Dean

Kathy Dean uses her passion for storytelling and "playing with words" to share the stories of people, place and purpose that make the University of Mobile unique. As associate vice president for university communications, she manages media relations, edits the TorchLight alumni magazine, and oversees university communications. A former award-winning journalist, she is a two-time recipient of the Baptist Communicators Association grand prize for feature writing. Kathy and her husband, Chuck, live with three extremely loud miniature schnauzers.