Professor by day, crazy app developer by night

Professor Mohler teaches philosophy and religion at Truman. Mohler won an award as part of the “Apple Distinguished Educator Program.” Photo by Genevieve Tlustos

There are few people in the world who seem like they can do it all, and professor Chad Mohler is one of them. 

A professor of philosophy and religion at Truman, Mohler says he’s been at Truman “long enough I have to pause to count.” After doing the calculations he said he believes it’s his 22nd year. He’s been in academia almost his whole life, from kindergarten to now. 

After growing up near Columbus, Ohio, Mohler initially started college at The University of Notre Dame as a physics major. However, in his first semester he took a class that would change his life: philosophy. He was hooked, and added it as a second major. 

His senior year of college, he wasn’t sure which area he wanted to go into. He ended up going to graduate school for philosophy at Princeton University, where he received his Ph.D. 

“I’ve always been interested in teaching,” Mohler said. “And I was especially attracted to Truman as a place where teaching is highly valued, so I came here and the rest is history I guess you could say.”

Teaching isn’t Mohler’s only interest however, he also plays viola, sings and codes in his free time. He says he’s always had an interest in computers, ever since the Apple II came out while he was in third grade. He got an Apple II E in fifth grade, but didn’t start programming until he was in college. 

As a physics major, he had to do some coding for his experiments. Since that time, his knowledge of programming has been mostly self-taught, made more convenient in the digital age as there are many resources online, such as Stanford University’s free iOS course. 

Mohler was able to take a sabbatical while he was at Truman around the time the iPhone first came out. 

“I thought it would be a nice way to merge my interest in doing things for Truman with my interest in programming by writing an iPhone app and the one that ultimately was the product then of that sabbatical was TruTouch,” Mohler said.

TruTouch is a Truman information portal and includes a Truman calendar, a link to blackboard, a link to listen to KTRM and other useful features for Truman students. 

More recently, Mohler has been working on an argument mapping app, aptly called “Argumap.” Argument maps are a way students can visualise the flow of information in an argument, and Mohler thinks it will help students talk and think about arguments when they can actually touch and move ideas. 

The app could be used not just in philosophy classes, but for any purpose that requires reasoning and logic. For example, you could use it in history, English or political science, Mohler said. In fact, he says some English professors have expressed interest in the app. Though he hasn’t publicized it too widely, he says he would be interested in doing a collaboration with other faculty at Truman from any area of study. Currently, Argumap is an iPhone and iPad app, but he is working on a Mac version. 

However, finding time to code can be difficult, Mohler said. 

“My knowledge of coding is relatively shallow, I don’t have a broad scope like many of our computer science faculty here at Truman, just because teaching doesn’t allow you a whole lot of time to do other things too,” Mohler said. “During the day I’m a mild-mannered philosopher, but at night I turn into a wild and crazy app developer.” 

Mohler has to find a little bit of time in the evenings to code and thinks of it more as a hobby. 

This hobby happens to be one that won him an award as part of a program Apple sponsors called the “Apple Distinguished Educator Program.” Mohler said Apple has a strong connection to education, and this is part of their initiative to support and bring attention to interesting projects teachers are doing with technology.

It’s a fairly competitive competition, Mohler said, and there aren’t many higher education winners in the United States. Since it is a worldwide competition, he was able to meet interesting people from different countries and learn about their projects. He also was able to share his work with them.  

Mohler was also named the Educator of the Year at Truman by student government in 2018 and subsequently was awarded the Truman Governor’s award in 2019. 

Though he is a philosophy professor, he still maintains an interest in physics. 

“If you think about certain areas of physics,” Mohler said, “and I was especially interested in theoretical physics, high energy and nuclear physics, those particular areas are interested in the basic constituents of the physical world … If you think about quantum wave functions, for instance, you’re essentially trying to figure out ‘what is the world,’ like fundamentally, at a pretty basic level, and philosophy in certain areas is also interested in that question.” 

Mohler pointed out that metaphysics asks, among other questions, “what mentally or spiritually exists?” and physics asks “what physically exists?”. Both areas are focused on learning about the world. 

As the world changes, so does the information Mohler teaches, he said. 

“Philosophers do like to make sure that they are open to empirical results, results from scientific research,” Mohler said. “I think sometimes people have in mind when they think of the philosopher something like the Rodin statue kind of leaning over thinking very intently about something or sinking back in their arm chair up in ye olde ivory tower thinking abstractly about things, but good philosophers these days are very interested in having their work informed by empirical investigation too.” 

For example, in the field of psychology, impressive advancements have been made in learning more about what people are thinking about, Mohler said. 

The reason he thinks philosophy is so important is because it helps us understand fundamentally why we act in the ways we do. For example, getting down to the root of why you get a job, why you want money, what you want to do with the money, will show where our values ultimately lie. On a more practical level, Mohler said philosophers have excellent critical thinking skills and have some of the highest scores on LSAT tests for law schools. This critical thinking ability makes a philosophy degree valuable to employers.

Over his 22 years Mohler said he’s seen some changes during his time at Truman. There is now an increased emphasis on mental health, which he sees as a good change. He has appreciated the continuation of the liberal arts mission but has also seen a decrease in population at Truman, which he sees as a little concerning. However, he said marketing all the great projects happening to the rest of Missouri and outside Missouri should help. 

One thing Mohler really appreciates about Truman is the relatively small class sizes. 

“I make it a point during in-person classes to learn every student’s name before the semester starts,” Mohler said. “Students get a little freaked out when I’m able to go down the row and am able to say who’s who on the first day of class. That’s more or less like a party trick but that’s one of the ways I try to connect with my students and it’s that kind of strong connection on a personal basis which I think small class sizes allow for and in general, I think you see that kind of attention to individual students at Truman.” 

Another aspect of Truman that sets it apart is the opportunities for faculty to learn about pedagogy and to receive promotions and tenure due to teaching achievement, rather than research achievement. 

Mohler said in order to help students from an individual approach, you need to get a sense of the challenges they face and the strengths they have. This approach is helpful in that Truman faculty can make more detailed letters of recommendation.

He encourages his students to try to see things from a professor’s point of view, which he admits he himself wasn’t very good at as an undergraduate. For example, when it comes to grading, he encourages his students to think about how long it takes to do a good job of getting through each assignment. 

Another way Mohler tries to help his students see what it’s like to be a professor is to give them the opportunity to briefly teach material. In turn, he tries to see what it’s like to be a student. 

When it comes to giving advice to students, Mohler said it can be easy to get overwhelmed about a project.

“It’s the getting started that’s often the tough thing to do,” Mohler said. “So I say just think about what that one step is and that, I think, helps to overcome that hesitation they might feel. Frequently, procrastination also results from our being hard on ourselves. We spend time watching Netflix or doing other things besides school work and then we beat ourselves up about it, so I encourage students to practice self compassion and self care.”

Mohler also advises students to talk to themselves how they would talk to a friend, since that helps them to have the right attitude of self care. He cited a Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, who came up with the idea of a “growth mindset,” which allows one to think about why they might have failed and how they could do better in the future. This is in opposition to the “fixed mindset,” where you keep an ideal in your mind and try to live up to that ideal. 

In the future, Mohler wants to help the areas of philosophy and religion grow and develop. Those two areas are some that many people in the public school system haven’t had much public visibility to, though they have probably already been thinking philosophically about things. 

To increase visibility of philosophy in Kirksville, Mohler and his wife, Sarah Mohler, an English professor at Truman who sometimes teaches a children’s literature class, do a program where they read children’s literature to elementary school students to help them start thinking about philosophical questions. Mohler said right now he is working on a grant to encourage high school students to take philosophical classes. He also wants to continue to find ways to use technology to enhance his teaching. 

Mohler said he wants students to know that he’s always happy to meet with them and talk with them outside of class, even if they aren’t in one of his classes for a particular semester. He encourages students to interact with their professors and communicate with them, something he wasn’t very good at as an undergraduate student. 

“ … I encourage them to seek us all out and start to communicate with faculty members about different topics,” Mohler said. “I invite students to do that with me as well if they’d like to talk about philosophy, programming, life, the universe and everything.”