Once a southerner, Dr. Tess Varner purchased new warm clothes and made the trek up to Minnesota to teach philosophy at Concordia College. She quickly made herself at home, just a short walk from campus. When she's not teaching, you will likely find her either sitting in her charming home in Moorhead, reading the latest philosophy book with her mason jar tea mug in hand, or exploring the hip scene in downtown Fargo-Moorhead.
Where are you from? What is your expertise?
I moved to Fargo-Moorhead in June of 2016 from Birmingham, Alabama, where I had lived for the past 13 years. Before that I had grown up mostly in Oklahoma City and a few scattered places in Texas. I loved the South, but I’m finding a new love for cold weather and Midwestern culture. I’m really having fun exploring this area. I snowshoed last year and even drove on a frozen lake!
I did my undergraduate study at Oklahoma Christian University, completed a master’s degree from Oklahoma City University, and received my Ph.D. from the University of Georgia. My Ph.D. is in philosophy, specializing in environmental philosophy, feminist philosophy, and classical American philosophy. My bachelor’s and master’s degrees were in liberal studies, so I have a lot of background in general humanities and I care a lot about interdisciplinary projects for that reason.
What are your passions outside of work? How do those passions translate to the classroom?
I do a lot of camping and spending time outdoors, from extended camping trips and long hikes to just catching a quick hammock nap. I live near the river and walk by it most evenings, but I get the most excited about long trips where I can be outside for a good amount time. Two summers ago, I did a solo camping trip for about five weeks, with intermittent breaks catching up with family and friends along the way. It was an incredible experience. I’m an extrovert, but I find outdoor alone time really fulfilling. Next summer, I am co-teaching a May Seminar where Chris Mortenson and I will take students camping for several weeks for a class that weaves together nature writing, environmental philosophy, and the art of the American West. Even when I can’t get out for long stretches of time, I try to involve the natural world in my classes, from taking students to Buffalo River State Park to having class out by the pond to just opening the windows and letting fresh air in. I don’t ever want to teach about environmental issues – or any issues, really – exclusively in a closed-off classroom!
Tell us about your journey to Concordia.
I defended my dissertation just one day before leaving for my interview at Concordia. I had no idea what I was getting into coming up here! I even remember asking my now-colleagues in the philosophy department if it was OK to fly into Fargo … would someone be able to pick me up in the next town over? I had no sense of how close it was to Moorhead! And there were still patches of snow on the ground when I arrived … in APRIL! But as soon as I got a chance to visit with people here, interact with students, and walk around town, I knew I could find a home here. I’ve loved it all, even though I still need to invest in more warm clothes.
What do you teach at Concordia and what are your classes focused on?
I teach courses that fall under the umbrella of social and political philosophy (environmental philosophies, theories of race, class, and gender, social justice issues), American Philosophy, and a course in global studies called Culture, Identity, and Dialogue. I find clear connections among all of these and love teaching these themes through different perspectives and with different kinds of resources. My classes are reading and discussion intensive, and I tend to frame classes from problem-oriented perspectives, starting from the problems themselves and then exploring philosophical tools with which to ameliorate those problems.
What do you love about teaching at Concordia? What Concordia values do you appreciate?
I really treasure this intellectual community. I’m challenged daily by colleagues who bring different kinds of intellectual and experiential resources to our discussions and by students who bring varying perspectives to discussions and to the texts we read. Working at a teaching-focused college gives me the opportunity to build relationships with students, both in and out of the classroom. I love it when I get emails from students, even at night or on the weekends, who are wrestling with something we discussed in class. Even better, sometimes I get those emails a semester or two later. Concordia values critical thinking and love of learning, and in that way supports models of teaching that go beyond just mastery of material and focus on developing philosophical skills to take into the world.
What do you see in your students?
I see a lot of passion and energy in my students. It can be hard to balance class commitments with co-curricular and extracurricular activities, and most of my students have been all too happy to work hard to find that balance. There is so much to be involved in here and so many opportunities to take advantage of. I’m constantly impressed by how much my students juggle – and some of them quite impressively!
How does Concordia allow you to be passionate about your work?
Concordia has been very supportive of the different kinds of approaches I have toward teaching. I’m excited by the new PEAK (Pivotal Experience in Applied Knowledge) framework that has been integrated into the curriculum, which allows students to get out of the classroom and engage problems from multiple perspectives. I love the opportunities that the emphases on integrative learning and interdisciplinarity afford faculty members and students, and I think that this is a really special way that Concordia shows its investment in teaching as well as scholarship.
What has been your favorite memory made thus far at Concordia?
It’s so hard to pick just one! I have so many great memories after only a little more than a year here. But one of my favorite classes last year was when I took students out to the Long Lake Field Station to do an exercise in receptivity and attentive listening in nature, along the lines of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold. Students got to spend time in nature – they took a hike or swung in a hammock, slowed down, listened, and observed for long, uninterrupted stretches – and the products they turned in just blew me away. It was the sort of class that a few years ago I would have hoped to get to teach someday, but I might not have expected I would actually get quite that lucky! It was a kind of “dream job” moment – but those don’t come as rarely as you might think.
What do you hope for the Concordia community?
The college has made formal commitments to diversity, sustainability, and integrative learning. It is hard to determine how to balance those commitments and where to put our resources in pursuing them. But my hope is that we collectively continue to vigorously and bravely pursue those commitments as fully intertwined with one another.
How does your work best serve Concordia’s mission to Become Responsibly Engaged in the World?
My classes wrestle with questions about how to make meaningful change in the world – about mitigating and adapting to global climate change, ameliorating insidious inequalities related to race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and more, figuring out how best to communicate across difference in an increasingly stratified social landscape, here and around the world. BREW is always part of the motivation for engaging with these really difficult problems.
Tell us about your involvement with on-campus organizations and HILT.
Right now, I am the faculty sponsor of three student organizations – Student Environmental Alliance, the Philosophy Club, and Concordia’s chapter of International Justice Mission. I really value the relationships I build with students through those organizations and the ways that they allow me to pursue common threads in and out of the classroom and in both my professional and personal life.
I also was the faculty advisor for a High Impact Leadership Trip during spring break focusing on environmental justice during which two vans of students, a student leader (Sam Ferguson ’17), and I went to Detroit and Chicago, among other places. It was a wonderful experience where I forged really wonderful relationships with many students I might not have gotten the chance to interact with otherwise, and it was a powerful experience thinking about the relationships among environment, poverty, and race in the United States.
What do you love about the Fargo-Moorhead community? What parts of the community are you active in?
I love the farmers market and some wonderful local businesses such as Prairie Roots Co-op, BernBaum’s, Luna, Unglued, Zandbroz, and Youngblood Coffee. It’s a great little downtown scene. I really love that I can walk to work and that I only have to get gas once a month or so! This is small-town living for me (I know it isn’t really that small, but relatively speaking) and so far, it fits just right.
I also have really been encouraged by the number and strength of local community movements and nonprofit organizations. I have enjoyed participating in activities with Ugly Food of the North, the New American Consortium, and River Keepers, for example. But I’ve also been really heartened by other kinds of community movements and activities, such as the Rally Against Hate and the Women’s March.
Best life tip for students?
One full French press of coffee per day seems to work for me.
Danyel Moe '17 is a content specialist at Concordia.