Faculty Fridays

Nico Slate

October 14, 2016

By: Renee Madrigal

Perfecting Amateurism

Professor Nico Slate has perfected the art of being an amateur. He constantly challenges himself to try new things. Rather than mastering each new craft, he feels there is something rather enjoyable about being slightly bad at something; after all, being bad at something means there is a lot of room for learning. For Professor Slate, the joy of learning is best appreciated through the process, not the final product. The desire to learn seems to be the motivating force within Professor Slate, influencing all his actions and decisions. Whether he is learning new languages, instruments, or dances, Professor Slate is trying to better himself so he can, in turn, better the world.

While first pursuing his interest in Indian culture, Professor Slate began to learn Indian languages, beginning with Malayalam and Hindi/Urdu. Now an amateur polygot, Professor Slate takes pride in his ability to dabble in various languages, noting Duolingo, the language-learning app as one of his preferred tools. Not only is an amateur, but he is a humble amateur, claiming to be only truly fluent in English. Still, he finds the opportunity to speak new languages exciting and gratifying.

While Professor Slate appreciates the process of learning languages, he also enjoys challenging himself to play new instruments. Though he claims to do this poorly, that has not stopped him from trying to be good at them. Among the slew of instruments: classical guitar, ukulele, banjo, and the Indian wooden flute. Reflecting on his learning progress, he recounted a special moment while trying to play the Indian wooden flute. Like with most flutes, the first step in playing the instrument is getting a sound to come out—any sound at all. Many of his first attempts were failures as he blew into the mouthpiece and heard nothing. Finally, unaware that he was doing anything differently, a sound suddenly came from the instrument. He explains, “It wasn’t a super pleasant sound, but I was making sound come out of this thing and that was just incredibly exciting!”

When he is not playing instruments or conversing in another language, he is doing what he really loves: helping others. Professor Slate enjoys thinking about how to make the world a better place. Growing up in California, he was no stranger to diversity, injustice, poverty and struggle. Professor Slate takes action by volunteering for various campus and city organizations, encouraging his students to join him in his efforts. One of his favorite organizations, Arts Greenhouse, takes place on Carnegie Mellon’s campus and gives young people from around Pittsburgh the opportunity to use high quality technology and spaces for recording Hip Hop videos. He claims to not be very good at dancing, of course, but he loves it all the same.

There is one thing at which Professor Slate is a professional, however: teaching. It is easy to see how he finds success in his profession when his whole life centers on learning. He constantly switches roles between teacher and student, though his desire to do better never changes. Professor Slate works passionately towards whatever he pursues, and he inspires his students to do the same.

#FacultyFriday: Professor Nico Slate, an Associate Professor of History at Carnegie Mellon University, joined the department in 2009, focusing on the history of social movements in the United States and India. He has written and contributed to a number of books and currently has three more in the works.

Read more about Professor Slate and what he is up to.