“Animalize Me”

Humans of Juniata College: Peter Goldstein

The first thing students may notice about English professor Peter Goldstein is his appearance: clothing in either grey, beige, navy blue, or black; lopsided glasses; an untied shoe; and an unruly head of hair—not unlike a dust bunny. Beyond his eccentric appearance, Goldstein is a true showman in the classroom. He modulates his voice and straight up yells for emphasis. He reads passages like he’s auditioning for the lead role in a Shakespearean tragedy. He rags on students for avoiding talking about sex or using the word “relatable.” And at any given time, Goldstein will launch into a heartfelt speech about how much he loves his wife, Louise (At the time this article was written, this reporter was convinced that Louise was the most wonderful woman on the planet without having ever met her.) Despite the theatrics, Goldstein respects his students and is open to criticism. He says, “There is nothing I love more than when people disagree with me, because that’s the only way I am ever going to learn anything.”

Before his arrival at Juniata, Goldstein worked in California as a lawyer. He was rotten at it; he says, “I didn’t have the personality for it. To be a lawyer, you have to be sort of a go-getter and an ambitious kind of guy, and I’m really not. I’m sort of laid back. I’ve never been pushy in any sort of way.” Luckily for us, however, working in a law firm led him to teaching. A lawyer from his firm taught a class in labor relations law at California State University, Los Angeles. When that lawyer no longer wanted to teach the class, Goldstein stepped in. From there, he found his way into academia (and into our hearts).

Goldstein freewheels it when preparing for class. Part of this comes from his very relatable work ethic: “I hate preparing for class. You see, you have to actually work to do that. I want to do the minimum amount of work possible, and so, I use the approach that will make me do the least amount of work possible.” Goldstein’s spontaneous teaching style also comes from his desire to engage his students. He says, “At the same time, [I choose the approach] that I feel will work, that I feel will get the students thinking, which is really all I care about.” No matter what class it is, Goldstein strives to teach his students good writing, critical thinking, and love of literature.

Despite his laid-back personality, Goldstein claims that he is “the most cynical person on Earth.” Like many people, he believes that few government officials have our best interests in mind, but he also tends to assume that of most people. “It’s not in a sort of nasty way,” he says, “It’s sort of in a benevolent, ‘Okay, this is humanity, and you know, we sort of have to deal with it on this level,’ and one hopes that people will be altruistic and nice and wonderful… I don’t think that the world is horrible and things like that, and I’m equally ready to believe the best as I am to believe the worst, but… you live a long time, you see a lot of things.”

Goldstein is quick to suspect people’s motives, but he also has the self-awareness to investigate his own. When asked if he operates altruistically, he admits that he may be motivated by self-interest in many cases. In relation to his job as a professor, Goldstein believes that his primary motive is to help his students grow, but he wonders if his good deeds may come from selfish places as well: “I also think that I’m largely doing good things, when I’m doing it, but maybe I’m fooling myself… maybe I just do it to make myself feel good, because it makes me feel good to know that I’m doing good, and therefore it’s all ego. I don’t know.”

This kind of contemplation can make one question if they are truly good. Goldstein points out that no one can fully understand their own motivations, and he concludes that actions are most important. “Although I can be very cynical, I suppose about motivations, what matters is what you do. It doesn’t matter what your motivations are as long as what’s accomplished is a good thing, and you continue to accomplish good things.”

As a college student, Goldstein appreciated books like Man’s Fate by André Malraux that grappled with the struggles of being human. “It was really, really dark! And it was like deep existential angst and all sorts of things, and the characters are all like, ‘Oh my God, the horrors of existence!’” Any college student who has not thought about the horrors of existence at 2AM is a liar, and certainly Goldstein was no exception. Having read Man’s Fate since his angsty undergraduate days, Goldstein still likes the book and would recommend it, but his outlook on the book (and perhaps on life in general) has changed with age. “There is anguish in human existence and there is joy in human existence, and when you’re in college, the anguish seems so much more important… but now I look back on it and see that it’s still a great book, but it’s only half the story.”

Goldstein finds the other half of the story in his wife, Louise. Not typically a person to cling to labels, he takes his role as a spouse very seriously. “All I ever really wanted in life… was to find someone to whom I could devote myself and care about and do my best for,” he says, “My concept of self, if I have one, revolves around that more than anything else, which is wanting to do the best for my wife.” Goldstein wants students who don’t know him to know that his wife is the most important thing in his life.

He also wants students to know that his office has many stuffed animals, including Natasha the Piglet and Mortimer the Turtle. He will pick them up and speak for them with cartoonish voices.

If a student were to never see him in their whole Juniata career, Goldstein has a motto he lives by that he wishes everyone would follow: kindness to all living creatures. He says this idea “…is basically the motivation, or the end that I seek and hope to promote in others, and I think that’s really all it comes down to.” Goldstein has a cynical side, but any student who has sobbed in his office, or listened to him talk about his cats, or even argued with him knows he has compassion. His motto shines through every action, inside and outside the classroom.