Teacher-Scholar Legacies: Rick Matthews

This is part of a series highlighting retiring faculty in the Undergraduate College at Wake Forest.

By Bethany Leggett

Rick Matthews headshotRick Matthews has held many titles throughout his 41 years at Wake Forest: Professor, Chair of Chairs, Director, and Associate Provost. But perhaps his favorite ⁠— and most notable ⁠— moniker is Tech Evangelist. 

Ever since he first stepped foot on the Winston Salem campus, Mattthews has been the pioneer of technology, creating the first computer lab on campus just weeks after he started in the Department of Physics in 1979. When the plan for the Class of 2000 proposed that every student and faculty member receive a laptop, Matthews played a critical role in making sure the infrastructure was in place to bring that vision to life. And during his final semester at Wake, he has energetically led the Instructional Technology Group through an unprecedented time that has prioritized the role of technology in remote learning and teaching.

For many people who have taught with him and worked for or alongside him, Matthews exemplifies the best parts of Wake Forest. He leads by example, not by ego; he cares how his students learn, not just that they complete their work; and he is always willing to learn something new. 

Matthews’ love for all-things technology can be traced back to a programming class during his sophomore year at the University of North Carolina. “I loved the power that comes with knowing what technology was capable of doing,” he said. He continued with a machine language programming class in graduate school, a critical decision since only one other person knew how to operate the $45,000 machine at UNC and he left six months later. For the remainder of his Ph.D. program, Matthews had one very large, expensive computer all to himself until he headed to work at the Naval Research Lab. “I had become addicted to using computers to solve physics problems, but lots of folks also wanted to use computers there and I had to share,” he said. 

Rick Matthews photo in classroom

Learning to share taught Matthews that technology could be useful across disciplines, not just computational physics. And he didn’t just learn how to use computers — he actually built analog computers for his research purposes, selling one that computed Celsius degree calculations from thermocouple voltages to a Wake Forest professor for $1,000. 

In fact, it was Wake Forest’s research reputation that first attracted Matthews to apply for a job. During graduate school, he was headed to a physics conference and met a Wake Forest undergraduate also presenting at the conference. “I didn’t know that undergraduates could really do real research, and they were presenting at regular sessions, too. So Wake, to me, seemed to be the only place where teaching and research were highly valued. You usually only got one or the other,” he said. 

He had looked at smaller colleges that emphasized teaching over scholarship, but with his background at the Naval Research Lab, he knew he didn’t want to give that up either. So he applied at Wake because it “offered the chance to do both and had a commitment to doing both.” Although he didn’t get the job the first time he applied, he applied again the following year and has since been a leading figure embracing technology on campus.

Matthews would be the first to say that his time at Wake Forest has been shaped by the brilliant minds that he was mentored by, starting with the late Professor Emeritus of Physics Jack Williams, who hired him in the summer of 1979. Williams knew Matthews also had some experience with computers already and wanted his advice on what the school should purchase with recently acquired funds. 

Instead of picking the large, expensive computers that most universities were commissioning, Matthews told Williams about the latest microcomputers — later known as desktop computers because they could fit on a desk rather than take up a refrigerator-sized space like the older models. A few days later, Matthews was pulling up to Wake Forest with 12 brand new desktop machines from the Corner Computer Store in Greensboro in the trunk of his car. Within a month, Matthews found himself teaching Physics 130: An Introduction to Microcomputers at William’s urging. Faculty and students from different disciplines came together to have the radical experience of using an individual computer twice a week in Matthews’ course. “It wasn’t uncommon for folks to still be hanging around, tinkering and chatting for an hour after the class ended. It was an exciting time, and it cemented my interest in computers,” he said. 

Rick Matthews’ 10 Guiding Principles

  1. All of us are smarter than any of us. 
  2. Listen. But…
  3. Listening is useless unless someone tells you what you need to know. 
  4. Don’t mind your own business. 
  5. The people closest to the problem are most likely to know the solution. 
  6. Talented people don’t need much management; they just need to appreciate (and help shape!) strategic priorities. 
  7. Situational authority beats hierarchy. 
  8. Always look for causes; never look for blame. 
  9. Never fear making mistakes. Anyone who does not make mistakes is just rearranging furniture. 
  10. The only unforgivable sin is being unforgiving.

Matthews talks about old computer models like classic cars. There was the Commodore PET, which was the model that he carried in his trunk in 1979, and the DEC PDP-12, the model that was the size of two refrigerators that cost around $45,000 to have commissioned. As time has passed, computers have gotten smaller, less expensive, and faster, and Matthews has kept up with the latest innovations and how they could be applied on campus. 

Matthews also credits Williams as the person who taught him what it meant to teach at Wake Forest. “He made it very clear to me, if I were to be successful at Wake Forest, then I would teach well,” Matthew said, of guidelines that included publishing papers and to be awarded the Excellence in Teaching Award, which Matthews received in 1982. “He didn’t just set those parameters and then leave. He would come to Salem Hall and talk to me about what had worked for him, what could he help me with. He was a real model and real mentor to me about what it meant to work here in this physics department at Wake Forest University,” Matthews said.

Matthews paid it forward by supporting and encouraging his colleagues in the Physics Department, which he chaired from 1998 to 2007. “Physics trains you for teamwork. We are trained to listen to each other because we want to have the right answer,” he said.

“Rick is fantastic at everything, but especially at bringing out the best in people. As our Physics Chair, he encouraged all of us faculty, staff, and students ⁠— to achieve our full potential. As an administrator, he thrived due to his cheerful demeanor, his wonderfully open attitude to new ideas, and his wisdom at achieving important institutional goals. The last several years, Rick has served Wake in dual roles, as a teacher in developing new pedagogical approaches to physics and as an administrator in guiding the ITG to help the university adopt new technology to improve Wake academically,” said Keith Bonin, Associate Provost for Research and Scholarly Activities and Professor of Physics. 

Physics Department Chair and Professor of Physics Dany Kim-Shapiro has known Matthews since Kim-Shapiro joined Wake Forest in 1996. “During the first few years I got to know him well as he generously invited me to join his research group on their daily lunch excursions to the local dives,” Kim-Shapiro said. 

Another lesson Matthews has learned is placing a greater importance on how students learn rather than how one teaches. The administrative assistants could always tell when Matthews had a good class because he would be bouncing around the office when he returned. “I could never sit still at my desk after a good class. I would be up, checking my mail or buzzing by their desk every 10 minutes,” he said with a smile.

Kim-Shapiro says Matthews is an accomplished researcher, but his devotion to teaching is extraordinary.

“Rick has got to be one of the best teachers Wake Forest University has ever had. Every class he taught was a success. He has brought important innovations to our department and in addition to teaching his students, he has taught me and others how to teach.” Dany Kim-Shapiro, Physics Department Chair and Professor of Physics

Watching his students discover a breakthrough organically rather than being told a principle led Matthews on a pedagogical journey supported by research that showed diminished performance and lower enjoyment for rewarded cognitive tasks; and positive feedback for adding interactive elements to the classroom that ultimately led to him converting his courses to flipped classrooms when he returned to teaching in 2014, after serving in several administrative roles, including Associate Provost, for eight years.  

Flipped classes are unique in that class time becomes an interactive, group space for collective discovery. Before class, students watch Matthews’ video lectures online and solve online problems that are straightforward, automatically graded, and due before the next class. Then, class time is reserved for peer instruction and small group problem-solving. Matthews is on hand to direct any groups going too far astray, he says, but primarily he is there as a backup to watch them discover concepts and solve problems with each other. After class, students complete additional online problems that are challenging, automatically graded, and due a few days later. A key point of this model — and something that distinguishes Matthews’ flipped courses from others — is that no in-class assignments are graded, with tests as exceptions. 

“They can just come in and have fun. They work really hard and seem to enjoy it a lot more,” Matthews said. Associate Teaching Professor Jack Dostal and Matthews will publish an article in The Physics Teacher this year that includes research showing students learn twice as much in flipped classes than traditional settings with the same teacher and same texts. “It works just as well for the best students and the weakest students,” Matthews added. 

And for someone who has such a love of technology, it is interesting to note that flipped courses don’t require much more than a traditional course. “Most of what happens in my classroom requires no technology beyond the white boards, but it wouldn’t happen without the technology to structure what happens outside the class,” he said. 

It would be easy to think Matthews has used his technological savvy in an official capacity at Wake Forest for decades, but he didn’t have an administrative role involving technology until he became Associate Provost in 2007 and in 2008, when he became Chief Information Officer and Associate Provost for Technology and Information Systems. The night before he was to be announced as the Chief Information Officer, Matthews sat down to write out his goal to bring a renewed and supportive energy to the second floor of Reynolda Hall. This became a Top 10 list of leadership qualities that Matthews still shares with colleagues today. 

The one thing I’ve learned through my leadership positions is that someone else might have a better idea than me. I fervently believe that the best quality a leader can have is to listen,” Matthews said. “A leader should not have enough time to get everything done. It’s just not possible. So you want to empower people and remove what obstacles are in their way so they can get their work done.” 

He also lent his leadership skills as chair of the former Department of Romance Languages in 2016-2017 when the department was planning to reorganize into separate units. 

In addition to teaching, he has been the Director of Academic and Instructional Technology since 2014 and oversees a team of 14 instructional technologists, who work directly with academic departments, enabling them to tailor technology solutions to their program’s needs.

Instructional Technologist Jeff Nichols appreciated Matthews’ open approach to leading the ITG, saying Matthews physical or “virtual” door was always open. “Anytime I needed to discuss an issue I may have been working through or anytime I needed sage guidance on a path I was heading down, he was available with support,” Nichols said. “That constant support began the first day I walked onto campus as a newly hired member of the ITG, when he warmly welcomed me to Wake, and I am sure that he will be there for our group, in some capacity, during retirement! His leadership will be missed.” 

In true Rick Matthews fashion, he has embraced the changing circumstances of Spring 2020, his last semester, as the College faced the unprecedented circumstances of COVID-19. Matthews’ love for his fellow faculty members, his leadership of the ITG, and his technological savvy has been an incredible example of Wake Forest’s transition to remote learning. 

“I did not expect to teach remotely my final semester before retirement. But honestly, I am glad to be retiring this year instead of last. Living through this experiment has shown me the best of Wake Forest. We were all called upon to reinvent how we teach, how we serve, how we meet our responsibilities – in 12 days! Everyone stepped up,” Matthews said. “When you give bright, creative people a big new teaching toolbox and train them in its use, they will never be the same. Neither will their courses. Neither will their students.”

“Rick Matthews is an extraordinary teacher-scholar, as well as an exceptional university citizen and leader. I have learned so much from his generous advice and wonderful example, and I am a better dean and a better person because of having been able to work with him during the last 15 years as he has worn so many different hats so very well on behalf of Wake Forest.” Michele Gillespie, Dean of the College and Presidential Endowed Chair of Southern History

Once he is able to upload his last lecture, grade his last exam, and wave a virtual goodbye to his colleagues in the Physics Department, the ITG, and the Office of the Dean of the College, Matthews will log off his computer to spend more time and energy at his church and with his family, including his two children and four grandchildren. “There is a special window of time where grandchildren want to be around you, and I want to take advantage of that,” he said. 

But he won’t be signing off from the academic world completely; he will keep studying flip classes, “and put together more resources for the next person to flip their courses” showing that even in retirement, Matthews will carry on as a tech evangelist.