By Mark Marsella
Although Professor Ralph Edelbach is retiring after nearly 50 years of teaching at the College and working with its union local, he still searches for fascinating issues he would’ve discussed in his Society, Ethics and Technology class. And while he is no longer teaching students, he’s found a new audience to educate.
“Jon Stewart did a piece the other day on religious rituals associated with robots and artificial intelligence,” Edelbach said. “I look at that and say, ‘Oh, I can use that in class! Oh wait … I’m not teaching anymore.’ So I tape it on my TiVo, put it on PowerPoint, and now I show it to my grandkids.”
Now, as Edelbach prepares to more to Texas so that he can be closer to his family and grandchildren, the Technological Studies teacher reminisces about his half-century at The College of New Jersey — or Trenton State College — as the school was named for most of his time here.
As one of the more active and influential faculty members, Edelbach has taught a wide variety of courses, served on the Faculty Senate as the union representative and was the president of the school’s American Federation of Teachers (AFT) union local for 25 years. Throughout Edelbach’s involvement with the College, he has not only witnessed countless changes in these fields, but has also been invaluable in implementing them.
Edelbach’s multifaceted career at the College began in 1966, when he joined a much smaller campus and faculty to teach classes in the school’s burgeoning “Industrial Arts” program. He primarily taught “General Shop,” which educated all different majors in the techniques of industry, design and building.
“When I think about some of the equipment we used to use — oh, God,” Edelbach laughed. “We never thought about (safety and) that stuff back then. Now there’s whole lectures on safety.”
Edelbach largely developed the College’s Graphic Photography program in the 1970s, and noted that the term “digital” did not exist back then — they used darkrooms, “chemicals and all,” to process photos.
He also taught classes in printing and Advertising Design, describing the College’s phototypesetter — a machine that created what is essentially today’s WordArt — as a “crude beast of a machine.”
Edelbach taught courses in Graphic Photography and Advertising Design with John Karsnitz, former chair of the Technological Studies Department, who joined the College’s faculty in 1978. In fact, when the College gave Karsnitz an office on the third floor of Bliss Hall that was inconvenient for him, Edelbach intervened.
“Ralph said, ‘Hey, why don’t you move into my office?’” said Karsnitz, fondly recalling how small the offices were back then. “There was barely enough room for a filing cabinet, two desks and two of us.”
Karsnitz continued to teach Graphic Photography and Advertising Design with Edelbach and another faculty member when the original Armstrong Hall, “the elevated area (of Armstrong Hall) on the Bliss side,” was built in the early ’80s. But as the successful program grew and developed into the College’s modern engineering program, Karsnitz taught in the Technological Studies Department on the teacher’s education side, while Edelbach taught courses on the industry side of engineering.
In the early 1990s, however, the Society, Ethics, and Technology (SET) course was developed as part of the College’s first liberal learning program (the original program required freshmen to take a class called “From Athens to New York,” and required sophomores to take SET). Edelbach transitioned to teaching SET and later on becoming President of the AFT local. He devoted half of his time to the union and the other half to teaching SET.
“We wanted the students to better understand how the technological world was impacting them. Everyone on campus thought that was important,” said Karsnitz, who said that he, Edelbach and faculty from nearly every discipline collaborated to develop the course.
Although the SET course is no longer a requirement for all students, it remains a popular Liberal Learning elective taken by many majors, exploring the cultural, ethical and moral implications of today’s cutting-edge technology. Junior accounting major Christina Roach took Edelbach’s SET class during her first semester at the College in the fall of 2012. She said that although his class was challenging and his teaching style strict, she greatly enjoyed and benefitted from the subject.
“(The class) greatly impacted me,” Roach said. “It kick-started my career here at TCNJ at the highest standard … it prepared me for what to expect, and how to critically think.”
Edelbach said that SET was his favorite class to teach because the nature of the subject is always changing.
“Teaching the class was really a great experience,” Edelbach said. “There’s always something different going on, whether it’s about biomedical ethics, pollution, the need for more energy. As the years went on and there were more and more issues to discuss, instead of cutting anything out of the curriculum I said, ‘I just have to talk faster.’”
Edelbach has not only impacted the College as a teacher. For 25 years, Edelbach served as the president of the AFT union local, working with the College, several of its presidents and the state of New Jersey to mediate relations between teachers and their administrations. During his time with the AFT, Edelbach witnessed both periods of cooperation and unrest between faculty and administration, including two statewide teacher strikes in 1974 and 1979 — the first lasting one day and the latter lasting nine.
“And it was very tough,” Edelbach said. “They were over issues like the faculty being able to pick textbooks, salaries, health benefits, things of that nature. They were pretty nasty times.”
Another period of tense relations between the AFT and the College administration occurred just before President Gitenstein’s term of office, Edelbach said. He recalled that the College’s teachers held demonstrations against a former president, because the College was “crying poverty” and raising tuition while simultaneously purchasing expensive local properties.
“Those were really rough times on our campus,” he said.
Since Gitenstein has taken office, however, relations between the faculty and administrators have changed for the better, according to Edelbach.
“Right now, we have on our campus the best working relationship between administration and faculty of any school in the state,” Edelbach said. “I think I was able to help bring that about and keep it going, with much support, and with the administration willing to do things in a collegial way.”
And there has certainly been an improvement in this relationship.
“Before (Gitenstein), it was much more adversarial and even crude,” said Karsnitz, who also served on the Faculty Senate executive board. “(Edelbach) should certainly be recognized as bringing a much more effective, professional relationship between the administration and union to the College.”
Edelbach noted that the union and the College will always have some disagreements, such as Gitenstein’s advocacy for state schools to gain more autonomy from the state.
“We, the union, feel that it would be detrimental to faculty to have that happen,” Edelbach said. “We feel that the more autonomy the presidents get, the more likely it is that you’ll have some whacko president going crazy. That hasn’t happened on our campus, but it’s happened on other campuses,” he said, citing the president of Kean University who purchased a $219,000 conference table.
In addition to teaching, coauthoring new editions of the “Society, Ethics, and Technology” textbook and serving as president of the AFT local, Edelbach has a passion for race cars and for rebuilding old cars. He has taken trips to the Sebring 12-hour races (where he once relayed messages from the pit stops to the control tower), the Festival of Speed at Goodwood England, the Monterey Historic Races and the German Grand Prix. He has even driven on the infamous Nürburgring racetrack, which has hosted many German Grand Prix races. Edelbach also designed and built his own house.
His passion for building and designing outside of the classroom, he said, translates to the satisfaction that teaching always brought him.
“I always like to do things with my hands,” Edelbach said. “So working with equipment and tools, showing somebody how to do something who didn’t know how to do it — that was always rewarding. And when it comes to the SET course, the intellectual stimulation of looking at issues from the perspective of technology was equally rewarding.”
“Rewarding,” Edelbach says, is the best way to describe his 48 years at the College.
“I’ve been damn lucky to have this job because it’s been so rewarding, so stimulating and so enjoyable,” Edelbach said. He noted that while there are people who dread going to work and cannot stand their colleagues, he has never had to face that. He also hopes his grandchildren will have the opportunity to have the kind of rewarding job that he was able to enjoy.
“I’ve always been able to go to work and say, ‘Today’s going to be a great day,’” Edelbach said.