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Arts and Humanities Faculty Named 2018 Distinguished University Professors

September 13, 2018 College of Arts and Humanities | Philosophy | School of Music


Peter Carruthers and Chris Gekker receive the university’s highest academic honor for faculty.

Peter Carruthers, professor of philosophy, and Chris Gekker, professor of music, were named 2018 Distinguished University Professors. This title is the highest academic honor bestowed on tenured faculty by the university and is a recognition of not only excellence, but also impact and contribution to the faculty’s field. Gekker is the first professor in the performing arts at the university to receive the honor.

Distinguished University Professors are selected annually by a Provost-appointed committee of at least five members from diverse disciplines who are themselves distinguished university professors.

Peter Carruthers, professor of philosophy, is an expert in philosophy of mind, a branch of the discipline that explores issues like the nature of consciousness and the relationship between the mind and the body. He is especially known for his work spanning philosophy, psychology and cognitive science.

“I often describe myself as a theoretical psychologist,” he said. “I don’t do experiments, but I do try to link together different discoveries and ideas across these fields.”

Carruthers has been interested in philosophical questions since he was very young, and remembers being one of the few people at his boarding school in England who wanted to talk about big questions like “is there a God?” and “does the universe have a beginning?” He spent hours debating ideas with the Jesuit priests who regularly came to visit the school, and when it came time to choose a field of study, philosophy was the clear choice.

In college and later in graduate school at Oxford University, Carruthers studied European and British philosophy. Traditionally, the European and British traditions draw a clear distinction between philosophy and science. American philosophers tend to view philosophical and scientific questions as part of a continuum. But Carruthers did not engage with the American tradition until his first tenure-track job when he joined a reading group focused on Thomas Nagel, the American philosopher known for his famous essay on consciousness called, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?

“All of that stuff is so much more fun,” Carruthers said. “I became convinced that the more interdisciplinary American approach to philosophy is the right one, and I switched my focus.”

Since then, he has authored numerous books that engage with different aspects of philosophy of the mind, including “Language, Thought and Consciousness: An Essay in Philosophical Psychology” and “The Opacity of Mind: An Integrative Theory of Self-Knowledge.”

In his most recent book, “The Centered Mind: What the Science of Working Memory Shows Us About the Nature of Human Thought,” Carruthers explores stream-of-consciousness, especially how it is based on our senses and relies on our memories.

For many, the phrase, “stream-of-consciousness” brings to mind the difficult-to-follow interior monologues of books like James Joyce’s “Ulysses” or Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” Carruthers says that our real-life internal monologues are equally complicated but not random. Instead, there are many cognitive processes happening behind the scenes.

Carruthers uses a cocktail party to explain his general model of what determines stream-of conscious thought.

“There you are, talking to people,” said Carruthers. “Someone says your name from across the room and suddenly you are aware of them—because your name is obviously a familiar, important piece of information to you.”

As we move through our day, our experiences activate memories and ideas which compete for our mental attention. Whatever wins that competitive process is the thought or memory that comes to the forefront. We are not making a conscious choice to notice when someone says our name at a cocktail party, but because our own name is both familiar and essential, it easily wins the battle for mental attention.Carruthers says that this is how stream-of-conscious thought develops.

Carruthers spends hours on Google Scholar scanning recent research in psychology and cognitive science, but teaching is also fundamental to his research process.

“When I write a book,” he said, “I test the ideas by running them past students in a graduate seminar.”

In undergraduate classes, he finds ways of using philosophy to engage students on contemporary debates across disciplines. For example, in his general-education course, “Know Thyself: Wisdom Through Cognitive Science,” students read cognitive science to learn about the problem of implicit bias and why it is so difficult for most people to be self-aware of their own values and prejudices. They then apply this knowledge to contemporary ethical issues, like the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in legal cases.

This interest in applying philosophy to real-world problems and other fields is a hallmark of UMD’s philosophy department, which Carruthers says is distinctive because of its outward looking, interdisciplinary approach.

“Any discipline you can give a name to has a philosophy,” he said. “I think of philosophers as scholars who can integrate what people in other fields are doing and help make sense of it.”

Chris Gekker, professor of music, is a trumpet player known for his unusual musical versatility and perfect technique as well as his commitment to education and community service. For 18 years, he was a member of the American Brass Quintet, one of the premier chamber music ensembles in the world. Gekker has also performed and recorded with many jazz musicians, including Wayne Shorter. In 2009, he recorded and toured with Sting.

Gekker grew up in Alexandria, V.A. and first learned to love music through his parents. His mother and father immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and Russia, respectively, and his father was an accomplished amateur pianist who loved classical music by Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. He began playing the trumpet in fourth grade.

“I picked the trumpet because it was shiney,” he said, “and I took to it right away.”

Classical music was an important source of inspiration for Gekker, but he was equally influenced by jazz and rock. In 1968, his parents brought home “Filles de Kilimanjaro,” the just-released jazz fusion album by trumpeter Miles Davis.

“Listening to that album was like that moment in the Wizard of Oz,” he said, “Where Dorothy steps out of the black and white house and into a world of color.”

Gekker is humble about his accomplishments and emphasizes his commitment to study and practice over raw talent. He worked his way through high school, and earned money by washing dishes and cleaning when he was in college at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

“I brought my trumpet everywhere, even on family vacations to Rehoboth Beach,” he said. “After every successful concert, I would go home and be motivated to practice even harder.”

His hard work and dedication paid off. By the time he was a sophomore, he was a regular player in the Rochester Philharmonic. Gekker loved orchestral music, but his interest in exploring a variety of musical styles has lead him to an extraordinarily diverse career. He appears on more than thirty solo recordings and more than one hundred chamber music, orchestral, jazz and commercial recordings.

“Chris Gekker has made himself known over the years as a superb trumpeter who is able to produce meltingly flute-like tones at one extreme,” wrote Fanfare Magazine, “and to bring the house down at the other."

Throughout his career, Gekker has been committed to education and community service. In 2013 the Maryland Classics Youth Orchestra awarded him the Chester J. Petranek Community Award “for outstanding community service in enriching the musical life in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan area.” He loves teaching and considers himself a life-long student.

“I still like learning about Bach or studying a solo by John Coltrane,” he said, “and I learn a lot from my students.”

Gekker also points to his colleagues in the School of Music (SOM) and throughout the College of Arts and Humanities as sources of inspiration. His recently released “Ghost Dialogues: Music for Trumpet,” features SOM colleagues Rita Sloan on piano and Chris Vadala on saxophone, with music composed by Robert Gibson.

“It is inspiring and humbling to work every day with phenomenal musicians and scholars,” he said. “I am moved and grateful to be the first among them to receive this honor.”