Enjoy the Process: An Interview with Professor Emeritus John Koepke

October 27, 2022

It wasn’t until he became a TA during graduate school that Professor Emeritus John Koepke realized he enjoyed teaching as much as working in a design firm. After hearing about an open position at the University of Minnesota, Koepke gave “the best interview of his life” and became Department of Landscape Architecture Head. During his time, Koepke helped the department become internationally ranked and built long-term connections with communities across Minnesota. In this interview, Koepke discusses his favorite parts about teaching, the challenges he faced, and gives advice to design professionals and academics.

Why did you decide to pursue a career in academia?

I had thought about it as an undergraduate student because we had a number of inspiring adjunct faculty and originally my plan was to practice and then occasionally give back by being an adjunct. But then I went to graduate school at the University of Washington where they asked me to be a TA. I was responsible for several classes and I decided I enjoyed teaching the students as much as I did doing design projects with a firm. I found it to be very gratifying to help students and I decided to pursue teaching instead.

Professor John Koepke
Professor Emeritus John Koepke. Photo courtesy of Urban Ecosystems.

What brought you to the University of Minnesota?

I was an assistant professor at the University of Washington and I heard that the University of Minnesota had an announcement for a two-year interim department head position. I thought it would be a great thing for my resume because it was a position at a national institution and my wife and I were both from Minnesota and had a young son. I gave the best interview of my life and was offered the job.

What accomplishments are you most proud of from your career with the University?

That’s a tough one because as a faculty member there are so many things you work on throughout your career. One thing I’m proud of is helping the department become internationally ranked. Another is the Laurentian Vision Project that I worked with Senior Research Fellow Christine Carlson on for almost a dozen years. During that project, we worked with the mining companies in northern Minnesota to restore the landscape as they were mining. I am also proud of getting tenure and, finally, of publishing the book Envisioning Cahokia: A Landscape of Perspective.

What was your favorite class to teach or favorite part of teaching?

The class I taught the longest was LA 5203, which was an ecological design studio. We did some great things in that class including field trips to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin and Jens Jenson’s Clearing.  But my very favorite class was in 2015 when we worked with the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. We worked with them on trail development and I got to introduce the students to the Anishinaabe culture. The students did brilliant work. I also liked the 1301 drawing classes because even though the students in that class weren’t necessarily going into design, I firmly believe that drawing is a life skill.

John Kopeke with a student
John Koepke helping a student.

What will you miss about working at the University?

I think all of the people and the friendships and working relationships that I had with folks. I’ll certainly miss teaching the students on a daily basis, especially the students that are hard working. It’s really fulfilling to see students thrive and evolve and mature.

What are your plans for retirement?

We don’t have any long trips planned at this point but we have several small trips planned to visit family and friends. We will be going to Hawaii this winter, we hope for a long stay in Bath, England, in the next year or two, and we may be going to Alaska at some point. We have a cabin and then we have a house and big garden so I have a ton of maintenance work to do and enjoy and I have more recreational equipment than you can possibly imagine.

John Koepke in front of Chicago Bean

Any words of advice for current faculty members?

It’s really hard to do this, but I would tell the faculty to enjoy the ride. Be strategic about what you want to accomplish and try to enjoy the process. Keep playing to your strengths. In school, we try to teach everything to everybody, but the way people are successful in life is by figuring out their strengths and pushing those. Another piece of advice is to always look in the mirror and think about what impact your actions have. Be reflective about how you’re behaving and what you are doing.