EDWARDSVILLE — If not for a chance meeting — or, rather, a meeting that didn’t happen — Southern Illinois University Edwardsville might not have Eric “Duff” Wrobbel.
Wrobbel, a professor in the university’s applied communication studies department, actually began his career in sales. His family owned a company in San Diego that sold computer supplies to businesses. Wrobbel, who earned a bachelor’s degree in communication and theater from Miami University in 1984, was being groomed to take over the company.
“I found it very unfulfilling,” he said. “I went back and forth between having great success and struggles, like a lot of people do. The volatility of it drove me crazy.”
After working at the company for a few years, he went to San Diego State University attempting to make a sale. The person in charge of purchasing supplies canceled, so he wandered into the speech department.
Wrobbel began talking with a graduate student and the secretary, who convinced him he might enjoy teaching. Four years after beginning to work for his family’s company, he started graduate school.
Wrobbel earned his master’s in communication from San Diego State in 1989. In 1994, he earned his doctorate in communication from the University of Texas Austin.
In August 1993, he came to SIUE in ABD status, which means he completed all but his dissertation for his doctorate. He became an assistant professor, the starting position for tenure track, and completed his dissertation within a year.
Wrobbel said he originally came to SIUE because it was a realistic location that felt familiar to a former Cleveland area resident.
“I am a Midwesterner,” he said. “I am not a Californian and I am not a Texan. When I came here, it felt very much like home to me. The entire time I was in those other places, I liked them, but they never felt like home.”
Since he began working at SIUE, Wrobbel — who goes by his middle name, Duff — has worn a number of teaching hats. In his 23 years at SIUE, he has taught more than 20 courses, the most of any professor in his department.
“I like that, though,” he said. “I prepared for that. It was my hope to find a job like that. I didn’t get that because it was the only thing I could get. It’s what I was looking for because it keeps things interesting.”
And it’s not just in the classroom that Wrobbel is versatile. In addition to teaching, Wrobbel also serves the university in several capacities — he has chaired the grievance council, the curriculum council, been president of the faculty senate and is the president-elect of the College of Arts and Sciences Congress.
“I care how the place runs,” he said. “I want it to be as effective as possible. I want it to be as efficient as possible. If I can figure out a way to simplify a process and save money, and as a result keep one more graduate teaching assistant’s job, that’s the best damn thing I can do.”
That experience and passion for making a difference shine through in his teaching, said Alicia Alexander, chair of the applied communication studies department.
“He’s a fantastic teacher,” she said of Wrobbel, who received the Great Teacher Award from the school’s Alumni Association in 2014. “People always talk about how dynamic he is and what an amazing storyteller he is. You can really learn from all the experiences he has in life and all the stories he tells.”
“Once people get out and look back, I think they realize that some of the stuff I taught them was thoughtful and practical,” Wrobbel said of the award. “That’s what people say to me. They come back and say ‘that assignment was a pain in the neck, but I’m doing exactly that thing now and I’m the only one there who knows how.’”
James Leach, a junior who is majoring in applied communication studies and has taken several of Wrobbel’s classes, said that’s not the only reason students appreciate him.
“As a nontraditional student returning to school to pursue a teaching career, Duff is a role model for me,” Leach said. “Not only is he a great instructor, but he genuinely cares about students and challenges us to think critically and to apply what we learn.”
In his free time — what little free time he has — Wrobbel, who is married and has two teenage children, said he brews beer, makes soap and enjoys building things, especially if it involves woodworking. Even at work, he manages to combine his interests with his studies.
“I tend to be very pragmatic in what I study,” said Wrobbel, who focuses on language, disability and governance. “My focus on disability is, to be honest, because I have a kid with a disability. If I have to know about it anyway, why not help other people in the process?”
It’s just another way he’s found to benefit the university. It’s an eagerness that doesn’t go unappreciated.
“People all over the university know how helpful he is,” Alexander said. “He’s willing to step in on any committee. People talk about him being an ‘ideas guy’ because he comes up with really cool ideas on how to solve a problem or creative ways to change something in a program.”