St. Olaf Magazine honors seven professors who are retiring in 2019. Each of them has devoted decades to teaching, research, advising, and leading within their departments and the broader college. They leave a lasting legacy and deep impression on the college community, and they have enriched the lives of countless students with their expertise in art, economics, the environment, physics, mathematics, music and libraries, and more, opening students’ eyes to the arts, sciences, and humanities and the broader world. Join us in thanking them for a job well done and wishing them well on many more fulfilling years to come.
Professor of Libraries and Music
Beth Christensen has been instrumental in shaping the Halvorson Music Library into a gem that more than 100,000 people visit annually. After obtaining her B.M. from Illinois State University and her M.S. from the University of Illinois, Christensen joined the St. Olaf faculty in 1977. (She later received an M.A. at the University of Minnesota.) She had planned to stay just long enough to gain a few years of experience, but soon realized how much she enjoyed working with undergraduates who shared her passion for music, a love that has sustained her for more than 40 years.
“When I came to St. Olaf, the music library was only a year old. In many ways, it is my first child,” says Christensen, whose education spans music, musicology, and library and information science. “I helped develop the collection and library program. It’s been incredibly rewarding over the years.”
Christensen has thrived in her varied job duties, from helping students conduct research, to consulting with professors on their courses, to procuring library resources. A key part of her work has involved helping create St. Olaf’s information literacy program, which teaches students how to find and evaluate high-quality research materials — an ever-important skill with the proliferation of online sources.
Along with the information literacy program, Christensen’s development of the library’s collection is among her proudest achievements. Although she found collection-building intimidating when she first arrived on the Hill, Christensen gained confidence in foreseeing what professors and students might want or need from the music library.
“One of my favorite things is to purchase something that no one has asked for and then have a student discover it and walk out the door to put it to use,” she says. “It has been rewarding to work in partnership with the music faculty to have a library that both responds to and anticipates their needs.”
Christensen is grateful that her faculty position has also given her an opportunity to engage in scholarship. She recently co-edited the book Information Literacy in Music: An Instructor’s Companion. She has published articles about information literacy and about American composer Carl Ruggles — work she plans to continue in retirement. Christensen aims to travel and make time to read many of the books she’s eyed while ordering materials for St. Olaf.
She retires with mixed emotions because she’s loved her fulfilling career at St. Olaf. “I come home every night knowing something about music that I didn’t know before I went to work,” Christensen says. “I am thankful for my St. Olaf career, and for the wonderful St. Olaf students, faculty, and staff who have surrounded me throughout it.”
“Whenever Beth comes to my class to provide her famous ‘30,000-foot view’ on the research process, I introduce her as ‘the fabulous Beth Christensen.’ She embodies ‘fabulous’ not only in the sense of prodigious, as in the seemingly limitless resources she makes accessible to students, but also in the sense of legendary, for every music librarian I’ve ever met has informed me how lucky I am to work with her. More important than her prowess as a music librarian, though, is the deep empathy, respect, and optimism she brings to her relationships with students, staff, and faculty alike. She is simply one of the best human beings I know, and we will miss her shining presence on the Hill.” — Louis Epstein, Assistant Professor of Music
Adjunct Instructor of Music, Harp
Elinor Niemisto, who joined the St. Olaf music faculty in 1985, has taught all manner of harp students during her 34 years at St. Olaf, including beginners, musicians with significant experience, those who love to try new things, and harpists seeking to perfect their skills. Some years, there were just a few harp students; other years, she had enough for two ensembles. She has loved it all.
Whether teaching students a new instrument or helping them prepare for a performance, Niemisto enjoys sharing her knowledge of this instrument she has loved since age eight. She particularly enjoys instructing beginners so that she can start them out with proper technique, and has appreciated being able to teach brand new music students who want to take advantage of all the offerings at a liberal arts college. She also finds great satisfaction in seeing a proud student — of any level — who has completed a successful performance or orchestra tour.
Niemisto, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the University of Michigan, often uses her Suzuki training to teach college students and Northfield area students of all ages. But she has adapted her teaching style to match each student.
“I enjoy the different personalities of the students and finding a way to approach a personality to get the best out of them. Some people are willing to try anything, and some need very specific instructions,” Niemisto says. “My job is to help them find a technique that requires the least amount of energy and tension and gets them the best sound and the skills to play anything they want.”
Another enjoyable part of being at St. Olaf has been getting to know other faculty members and college staff. St. Olaf hosted the American Harp Society Summer Institute in 2017 when Niemisto was serving on the society’s board. She worked with many St. Olaf staff members to plan the conference, which included several concerts, courses, and competitions. “The event was quite successful, and the National Harp Society was very impressed with the facilities and streaming from the Chapel,” she says. “The staff was just terrific.”
Niemisto is also a senior lecturer in harp at Carleton College, a role she will continue after she leaves St. Olaf. In addition, she plays professionally as the principal harpist of the Rochester Symphony in Minnesota and the La Crosse Symphony in Wisconsin. Niemisto often can be found playing her harp in the Northfield area as well, where she performs at special events and senior centers to serve the community. She plans to stay engaged in the local music scene while taking time to travel and visit family around the country.
“Lin Niemisto is a wonderful and caring teacher who has always been willing to go the extra mile. Not only is she a splendid mentor to all of her students, but she also has led and cultivated one of the best harp programs in the Midwest over these past four decades. It has been fun to see her students grow and thrive due to her strong and kind mentorship. I’m sure I speak for all of my colleagues when I say that we are filled with gratitude for Lin’s terrific work with her students, her humble and giving spirit, and her warm collegiality throughout all her years on the Hill.” — Steven Amundson, the Robert Scholz Endowed Chair in Music and Conductor of the St. Olaf Orchestra
David Nitz ’73
Professor of Physics
Following his family’s well-travelled path from Milwaukee to Northfield, David Nitz ’73 thoroughly enjoyed his years as an undergraduate at St. Olaf. After he earned his master’s and Ph.D. in physics at Rice University in Houston, the possibility of teaching at St. Olaf arose in 1979, and David was excited to be offered the position.
St. Olaf’s liberal arts foundation, strong emphasis on teaching, and connection to the Lutheran Church drew Nitz back home the Hill. During his 40-year career, he thrived in St. Olaf’s collegial environment, where he could shape classes, guide students, and contribute to its campus community.
“Being a college professor has been an ideal career for me. I loved being part of the St. Olaf faculty and the Physics Department and the autonomy that goes with planning and implementing courses,” Nitz says. “I have had wonderful mentors and colleagues and the privilege of working with bright and curious students. I can’t think of a better line of work for me than the one I’ve had.”
Nitz has enjoyed teaching a broad spectrum of physics classes, from introductory courses and advanced labs to quantum mechanics, as well as general education offerings such as astronomy and musical acoustics. He also is engaged in atomic physics research, making sure to engage students for summer research — an opportunity he had as a St. Olaf student.
Nitz has been deeply involved in campus life. He served as Physics Department chair for 12 years, as the department’s representative on the Regents Hall design team, as a member of a search committee for president, and as chair of a search committee for provost. He also spent a decade as campus advisor for St. Olaf’s international programs in Great Britain and led the Environmental Science in Australia program in 2016.
“I spent a semester in England myself as an undergraduate and knew what an enriching experience that was. I was interested in helping provide that opportunity for other students as well,” says Nitz, who plans to do some traveling in retirement while staying active in the Northfield community.
St. Olaf has been the perfect environment for Nitz, one that has been challenging, stimulating, and satisfying. It has provided ample opportunities for him to learn, find new ways to introduce material to students, and watch students go through a major life transformation.
“When you think about the students you meet during Week One and then fast-forward to graduation and see what they become — being able to be a part of that growth process is very rewarding.”
“David Nitz has been the foundation that the Physics Department of St. Olaf has been built on for many years. Always striking a perfect balance between careful consideration and promoting innovation, he has played a critical role in every aspect of our department. As a mentor and a friend to all of us, he will be deeply missed.” — Jason Engbrecht, Associate Professor of Physics and Department Chair
Associate Professor of Art & Art History and Environmental Studies
A hallmark of Matthew Rohn’s career has been creating new courses and teaching in an interdisciplinary manner, a natural fit for someone who specializes in art history and environmental studies and enjoys sharing his love of contemporary art with his students.
Rohn has been devoted to interdisciplinary teaching and research during his 24 years at the college. After receiving his B.A. at George Washington University, his master’s degree and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan and teaching at a variety of institutions, Rohn joined the St. Olaf art faculty in 1994. He was thrilled to discover St. Olaf’s experimental and integrative Paracollege and soon became a Paracollege tutor. He also helped create and served as the first director of the American Conversations and Environmental Conversations programs, and he taught in St. Olaf’s Race and Ethnic Studies (RACE) and Interdisciplinary Fine Arts programs.
“I think art history by nature is interdisciplinary — looking at cultural phenomena in relation to art,” says Rohn, who has written books and exhibition catalogues about Jackson Pollock, Frank Stella, and Yoshida Hodaka, among others. “I’ve always found myself reaching into aspects of what makes people think the way they do. Even my research in art history is intellectual history and how that relates to art of that time.”
When St. Olaf launched its Environmental Studies Department, Rohn was involved in developing its curriculum and taught classes that deploy arts and the humanities in studying environmental concerns. One favorite course covered how architecture, photographs, painting, landscaping and land art inform the way people think about nature.
Rohn recalls many highlights from his years at St. Olaf, including recently leading an annual January Interim in New Mexico, a popular course in which students learned about Georgia O’Keefe, feminism, spirituality, the desert landscape, and art. Recently, Rohn, with the help of students in two courses, curated a show at the Flaten Art Museum called Picturing Nature: Diverse Environmental Considerations. It showcased 120 works of art considered through an ecocritical lens. Rohn also is proud to have worked on campus sustainability and on developing fresh ideas about pedagogy as one of the first participants in the Boldt Chair of Humanities seminar on teaching.
“It’s been rewarding to be at an institution that is concerned about values and works hard at figuring out how to live out those values and transmit them from generation to generation,” Rohn says. “That was one of the things I found most rewarding about teaching here and have tried to contribute the most to.”
After retirement, he plans to continue his environmental work in Northfield by focusing on community solar gardens, helping implement the city’s climate action plan, and more.
“Matt Rohn was the Art Department’s first Ph.D., bona fide, modern/contemporary art historian. Up until his hire, studio artists did an admirable job teaching this very important material. But we really needed someone with serious art history chops — critical skills, theoretical understanding, and methodological know-how. Matt brought all that and more with his added interests and expertise in American studies and environmental studies and the intersection of those fields with art. In his last years, Matt put everything together in his highly successful Georgia O’Keefe in New Mexico Interim. — Irve Dell, Professor of Art and Chair of the Art and Art History Department
Associate Professor of Economics
In his 30 years at St. Olaf, Paul Wojick has been the Economics Department’s go-to professor for three important courses: Intermediate Macroeconomic Theory, History of Economic Thought, and Money and Banking. Whether he was teaching economics majors or non-majors, Wojick aimed to help students think critically about world events and domestic and global economies.
After receiving his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. at the University of Colorado before joining the economics faculty in 1988, Wojick’s goal was to work at a liberal arts college where teaching undergraduates was top priority. St. Olaf fit the bill. His classes, students, and research, as well as decades spent coaching the college’s alpine ski teams provided him with a meaningful career.
“St. Olaf has given me three things that are really important to me: teaching something I care about and that I think is meaningful; thinking about and working on subjects in my research that really matter to me; and being able to do a variety of things that have kept me interested and enthusiastic about the work I do,” Wojick says.
He points to an opportunity to teach in the Great Conversation, a team-taught interdisciplinary program that introduces students to the major epochs of Western tradition through direct encounters with significant works. Wojick also enjoyed designing courses like Gateways to Economics: Capitalism, and doing research that delved into empirical questions about macroeconomics, economic theory, and the financial system.
Outside of the classroom, Wojick began coaching the men’s and women’s alpine teams in 1990 after some of his students learned that the lifelong skier had grown up mainly in Colorado and did all of his post-secondary education there. The students encouraged him to become their coach, and he did so until 2004, when he stepped down to devote more time to research.
“[Coaching] provided a new context in which I could work with students in a completely different capacity and get to know them in a very different way,” says Wojick, whose wife, Mary, also coached. “We spent far more time than you typically get with students in the classroom, and we really got to know them. Working with them toward a goal and being successful a fair share of the time was pretty fulfilling.”
Though Wojick will miss his daily interactions with students, he plans to stay connected to the field of economics by continuing his research after retirement. The Wojicks will be moving back to Colorado to take advantage of its beautiful outdoors and devote time to many hobbies.
“Paul has been a mainstay of our program in macroeconomics for over 30 years. Though he is most widely known for economics courses in macroeconomics, money and banking, and history of economic thought, he has also taught in the Great Conversation. Paul has served the college twice as the interim chair of the Economics Department and as a member and chair of numerous college-wide committees. His colleagues and I will miss his contributions to our department as a scholar of post-Keynesian thought, as an excellent and popular teacher, and as a most wise and collegial member of our faculty. We all wish him and his wife, Mary, the very best in retirement.” — Anthony Becker, Professor of Economics
Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science
An enthusiasm for finding the best ways to teach mathematics to college students attracted Paul Zorn to St. Olaf in 1981, but it was the Math Department’s “big tent” philosophy that kept him on the Hill for 38 years. The “big tent” means many things to Zorn, including welcoming a broad range of students into the major, exploring new academic avenues, and having a broad range of professional opportunities, like writing textbooks and leading outside organizations.
“It was clear to me on my very first visit that there was something special about [St. Olaf]: the mix of interests in the department, and a striking environment of mathematical seriousness,” says Zorn, who received his A.B. degree from Washington University in St. Louis and his M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Washington, Seattle. “That enthusiasm and excitement for mathematics coexists with an unusual degree of commitment to undergraduate teaching that goes beyond standard operating procedure; it is pursued with intellectual rigor and commitment and creativity.”
Zorn found the mathematical climate at St. Olaf infectious and engaging; at St. Olaf he could teach a large cohort of mathematics majors. He particularly enjoyed teaching courses centering on mathematical analysis, of both the real and complex varieties. Zorn also appreciated the freedom to be creative with mathematics courses, to try out different approaches, and to stretch his abilities by teaching subjects well outside his mathematical wheelhouse.
Hoping to share effective strategies for teaching mathematics, Zorn teamed up with a St. Olaf mathematics colleague, the late Arnold Ostebee, to write three textbooks, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Fund for the Improvement of Secondary Education. Discussing, agreeing, and disagreeing with Ostebee on points of mathematics and pedagogy were among the high points of Zorn’s career.
During Zorn’s tenure, he led the Mathematical Association of America as its president, in 2011 and 2012, and served as editor of the Association’s Mathematics Magazine from 1996 to 2000. By happy coincidence, both of these posts were held in earlier years by Zorn’s late friend and colleague Lynn Steen. He also served as chair of his department and sat on many college committees, with a special interest in balancing the humanities and sciences in the college’s curriculum.
Zorn plans to keep one foot in academics during his retirement, working on a fourth mathematics textbook and other writing projects. He acknowledges that he will miss teaching and interacting with students, and with his Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science colleagues.
“Our department has been famously functional and collegial over the years. We like each other, we work with each other, and we learn from each other,” Zorn says. “I’ve been teaching a long time, but I’m still getting good ideas about mathematics, and about how to teach it, from my colleagues. I’ll miss those advantages every day.”
“One of the things I most appreciate about Paul is his deep appreciation for the finer details of mathematics. More times than I can recount, he would come into my office to share with me a small, but intricately beautiful, gem of mathematics. It was often the sort of thing others, those without his jeweler’s eye for our subject, would never have noticed. But he did.” — Matt Richey, Professor of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science and the Paul and Mildred Hardy Distinguished Professor of Science
Associate Director of Economics
“Since joining our faculty in 1991, Xun has been a leader in international programs and a devoted mentor of international students in the Economics Department. She is best known for her courses in international economics and her long-standing, popular Interim course in China, which has explored China’s transformation from a pure command economy to a system that embraces limited capitalism. In years when she did not take groups to China, Xun offered an introductory course on economies in transition. Her dedication to foreign students was exemplary, particularly to those from her native China. She offered them independent research advising even while on sabbatical, and gave them a home away from home. We all wish her and her husband, Carmen, a long and happy retirement.” — Anthony Becker, Professor of Economics and Chair of the Economics Department