“Part of the wonderful scene”: Dr. Potter on his time at Sewanee

Dr. Bran Potter celebrates the dedication of “Potter’s Ridge Trail” in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Buck Butler (C’89).

By Madison Sellers
Contributing Writer

After 40 years as a professor at Sewanee, Dr. Potter’s teaching career is coming to a close as he leads his last semester of classes. Many of his students might not expect that he originally aspired to be an English teacher; he started college as an English major before switching to history.

Once out of college, he began teaching history and earth science at a New Hampshire middle school, where some of his students shamelessly told him that history was not his strength. Heeding the advice of these eighth graders, he decided to train in geology, leading him to land a position at Sewanee. 

When he was hired by Sewanee in 1980, the entire environmental studies department consisted of only two foresters, Charlie Baird and Henry Smith, who gave Potter the chance to expand the department and reshape the curriculum. His impact on the sciences at Sewanee has been huge. Now the department has ten professors, and many courses have a major emphasis on learning outside in the field, a critical aspect of environmental studies for Potter. 

Potter largely led exploration of the Domain, and much of his role has been finding field sites so that students can learn hands-on. “There are amazing parts of the Domain that are accessible,” Potter said, “but people don’t go there. There’s a lot to see that’s right under our feet here.” 

Throughout his time here he has taught a number of geology courses, including Physical Geology (which he has taught over 70 times) and Geology of the Western United States, but his involvement on campus is not limited to the geology field. In the early 2000’s, Dr. Potter started a course called Walking the Land, which has a focus on nature writing and Sewanee’s natural history, and he has also been a crucial part of the first-year program FYP. 

Being active in Catechumenate, arts events like Arm & Trout, and musicals has allowed him to connect with students on a more equal basis. Anyone who has had the pleasure of hearing him play guitar knows he has a knack for music, but he humbly acknowledges that it has been his pleasure to play music and act with students he believes are more talented than himself. 

Apart from changes he has led in the curriculum, he has loved witnessing progress in the University as a whole over the course of his time here. “Sewanee has come a long, long way, in a very good sense,” Potter said. “I would say Sewanee is a far richer place than it once was, in terms of the sheer opportunities available.”

That growth in opportunity, he said, is tied closely with progress made in terms of diversity on campus. “It’s very satisfying, and that diversity has to do with all levels: race, gender, all kinds of things that are good for the place. And that diversity shows up when you open up the catalogue and look at what’s available each semester—that’s why I’m saying it’s a richer place, because you just have more opportunities.” 

He attributes much of this change to new faculty members. “One of the most energizing things that I find, in addition to the energy that I draw from students, is junior colleagues—they’ve got lots of energy and perspectives that revitalize the place on a continual basis.” This is partly why he believes it is time to say goodbye to his teaching career here. 

“It’s really fun thinking about the whole idea of transmitting to those people some of what we’ve been doing here, so they’re not starting from scratch,” he said. “Literally getting out of the way for younger people is something that those of us that are in our sixties and seventies aren’t great at doing sometimes,” he added, “and there are a lot of people that want and need these jobs. So it’s worth thinking about the fact that it’s appropriate to pass it on.” 

Another thing that Potter finds rewarding is getting the opportunity to teach the children of some of his former students. “I’ve taught probably dozens of children of former students, and it is really an amazing experience. It also reminds you that the years have passed, but if you’re enjoying your job and you have the energy for it, I think that’s been the thing that’s kept me going.” The friendships he has developed with alums over the course of his time here is another rich part of being a professor at Sewanee that he believes makes it worth it.

Many are looking forward to watching his legacy continue after this semester, but for anyone sad at the thought of Potter leaving Sewanee, don’t be. He’s not leaving anytime soon. While he will no longer teach any classes, he will remain involved on campus. 

“First of all, it isn’t sad,” he said. “I’ve had a blast teaching here, I love teaching at Sewanee. I feel it’s a great privilege to teach here.” He adds that he and his wife “have lots of wonderful friends here.” Potter continued, “There’s no reason for us to move anywhere right away. We’re just lucky to be able to remain. There are parts to living here that will be wonderful to continue to work within the community, so… I’ll be on the Mountain!” 

Potter is currently working on a book with Dr. Knoll on the local geology, which he describes as “action-oriented” and will tell readers where to go to learn about the geological history of the Plateau. Even though he’s grateful for the opportunity to stay in Sewanee, he’s looking forward to traveling the world, especially going out west and revisiting places like the Grand Canyon which he has a special connection with. He’s also excited to work on completing the Appalachian Trail, which he already has a little over a quarter of the way completed.

Potter concluded that he had recently ordered an autobiography by one of his favorite authors titled, Part of the Wonderful Scene. “That pretty much sums up my attitude for being here,” he said. “It’s a big, big privilege to be here and to actively take advantage of what’s here. If you’re in Sewanee and you’re relatively passive, you’re missing so much. If you’re in Sewanee and literally part of the scene and active, then you’re doing your part for yourself and for the college.”