Campus Closeup: Tim Compton

Compton (photographed previously on a sunny summer day)

Having lived in Mexico at a young age, it is no wonder that Northern Michigan University Professor Timothy Compton took a liking to the Spanish language. In some ways, Compton followed in the footsteps of his father who was also a Spanish professor during his career. In other ways, Compton has paved the way for his own unique teaching career.

While attending graduate school at the University of Kansas, Compton learned about Mexican Playwright Rodolfo Usigli. Compton decided to explore his work in greater depth once he was established as an educator. A few years into his NMU career, Compton's goal came to fruition when he received funding to study the playwright in Mexico through a Peter White Scholar Award.

“I started to go to plays in Mexico,” said Compton. “One thing led to another and for 29 straight years until the coronavirus pandemic began, I have gone to Mexico every summer to see 15 to 20 plays. I have seen upwards of 500 there now.”

Compton writes articles annually about the plays he sees. As the “grand finale” of his career approaches, he is writing a longer manuscript which takes into account the decades of plays he has seen. 

“At this point I am calling the book ‘Mexico in Its Theater.' I'm focusing on the plays I've seen and what they reveal about Mexico. Twenty-eight years ago I devised a system for note-taking. Coming back to these plays months, years and decades later is like reliving some of the really exciting and interesting moments of my life.

“My dissertation adviser was a huge role model in my life. He would go to Mexico every summer to study novels, and I have followed in his footsteps to study theater. He wrote a book titled ‘Mexico in Its Novel,' so my title allows me to pay tribute to him and to echo what he did.”

Compton's theater experiences directly impact his teaching. He has directed and produced 13 plays in Spanish at NMU.

“I have never had acting or directorial training. I just like watching plays and seeing what people can do, so I decided to put on plays in some of my classes. It is fun to see what we can put together for others to enjoy.”

While in graduate school, Compton read a book by Ignacio Solares, a well-known Spanish author, that he wanted to share with family members. The text was not translated into English, so Compton decided to task himself with translating the text. He has now translated five novels by the author.

“It is awesome that I've been able to translate a number of his really great novels. It is really fun to put the novels into the hands of people who don't speak Spanish.”

Compton has taught everything from beginner to upper division Spanish, international studies, honors classes, Spanish for health care professionals and more. He also supervises and instructs courses for language teacher candidates.

“It is really fun for me to teach such a variety of classes since I work in a university setting. I get to know and educate students who are very varied and interesting. When I finished my graduate work, I envisioned myself becoming a specialist like my dad. Then, I took a teaching position at NMU and rediscovered my career possibilities. Here I am, more than three decades later, feeling a deep sense of gratitude for NMU as an institution for all it's done for me and all I see that it has done for others.”

After serving as the head of NMU's Department of Languages, Literatures and International Studies for more than 20 years, Compton said that he decided to return to a full time teaching career two years ago.

“My leadership philosophy while being the department head is mirrored in a book called Multipliers. The idea is that good leaders help other people develop and shine. We have a great department with a lot of people who shine, so that was not a hard task.

“Ultimately, there is nothing like teaching a class. It is fun to teach a piece of literature and see students' eyes light up, or to teach a play and watch how students are able to perform a role and come up with performance ideas. The best part of my job is hands-down being in the classroom with students as we learn together.”

Compton's love of teaching must be contagious, as four of his seven children have all become certified Spanish teachers, one of whom teaches English in Mexico. All five of his children who graduated from college so far are NMU alumni.

Compton resides in Marquette and noted that the Upper Peninsula has been a “great place to raise a family.” Outside of work, he enjoys playing basketball and running with fellow faculty members on the U.P.'s many trails. 

Compton said that one of the single most impactful moments in his life was when he was living in Europe for five months at the age of 15 while his father had taken a group of students there.

“At that age, I was interested in sports and friends, not in art or Europe. So, I went dragging my feet to Europe.”

When Compton went to Chartres Cathedral in France, his perspective shifted when he was given an hour-long lecture set up by his father. The lecturer took Compton to two spots: a stained-glass window and an outdoor sculpture.

“He told us about those two pieces of art that are part of a bigger piece of art. After that hour, my whole outlook on art and life was reshaped. From there, I became a voracious art connoisseur. I went to art museums on my own, wanting to learn about art and to study in general. That hour in the cathedral changed my overall outlook on life.”

A 2013 Distinguished Faculty Award winner, Compton's passion for his work is second to none. That passion comes to life in the classroom, in Mexico and everywhere in between.

Prepared by former student writer and NMU alumna Jill Vermeulen and updated by Kristi Evans.

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