Sam Richards is a sociologist and award-winning teacher who has been inspiring undergraduate students at Penn State since 1990. Every semester, 725 students register for his Race and Ethnic Relations course, one of the most popular classes at Penn State and the largest of its kind in the country. Through his natural ability of seeing a subject from many angles, Richards encourages students to engage more fully with the world and to think for themselves — something he did not do until his third year in college. Because of his passion for challenging students to open their minds, an interviewer recently referred to him as “an alarm clock for eighteen-year-olds.”
His career began at the age of 24 when he was hired to teach a cybernetics course — just 15 minutes before the first class meeting. He remembers walking into the room without having had a moment to create a lesson plan and greeting his students, “Welcome to the course. I’m your instructor. And if you have no idea what cybernetics is, you’re not alone — because I don’t either.” This characteristic willingness to be playfully transparent in the classroom, along with a talent for making complex ideas understandable and relevant, is the foundation of his success as a teacher.
Richards is also the co-director of the World in Conversation Project at Penn State (www.worldinconversation.org), whose mission is to create a kind of dialogue about social and cultural issues that invites the unexamined, politically incorrect thoughts of participants to the surface so that those thoughts can be submitted to conscious exploration and inquiry. The conversation topics span a range of cultural issues — from U.S. race relations to gender to faith to international racism. This year, nearly 7,000 University Park students will participate in one of more than 1,300 of these unscripted conversations. Furthermore, the project also sponsors video dialogues between Penn State students and students at other universities around the world.