Between his doctoral studies, college teaching, his day job as director of the intelligence training department at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Academy for Defense Intelligence, and spending time with his family, Jim Backus does a great deal of juggling.
“It’s one of my quirks. I’ve always been an exceptional time manager as far back as I can remember,” said Backus, an adjunct associate professor in UMUC’s Undergraduate School since 2008.
Backus, who was awarded a UMUC Global Faculty Professional Achievement Award last year, self-describes as a “certified Stephen Covey time management kind of guy,” referring to the author of the renowned book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Covey, Backus said, would refer to the metaphor of picking the two or three important rocks out of a mountain of gravel. “A lot of people get lost in all of the gravel.”
There’s no trick to his juggling. As Backus explained it, he gets home every night, works out, spends time with his family, then does his schoolwork —either grading his UMUC students’ course assignments on terrorism and counterterrorism or completing his own doctoral coursework in educational leadership. He earned a doctoral-level Education Specialist degree in 2014 and is slated to receive a Doctor of Education degree this December.
“It requires dedication and commitment,” he said of the many hats he wears. And staying ahead of the curve is imperative.
Because papers in his doctoral program typically are due on Monday, Backus said he pounds out his drafts on Friday night, then lets things marinate until the following evening. On Saturday night, he completes and submits them.
“Most people struggle and crash on them right up until Monday on the deadline,” he said. “I just can’t do that. It makes me very uncomfortable to wait until the last minute.”
This way of operating benefits his students at UMUC. “I tell them, ‘If you turn in papers on Saturday, when I ask them to be due, you will get them back graded on Sunday,’ because I believe in immediate feedback,” he said.
“With emails, I tell them, ‘Listen. I check it in the morning when I get to work; I check it over lunch; I check it in the evening before I go home, and then I check it again at home.’ So, I say, ‘You’re going to get four opportunities throughout the day to hear from me if you need me.’”
It’s one of many benefits that trickle down to his students.
Prior to 1998, Backus said, he never thought about teaching. He had worked as an agent in the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI), which he likened to the “Air Force’s FBI,” and where, each year, he often found himself providing threat briefings to a theater full of people. Afterward, many would come up and ask questions about the content of his briefings. And many would come up to compliment him on his presentation and ask whether he ever thought about becoming a teacher.
“It never crossed my mind,” Backus said. “I never believed [teaching] was for me, or that I had the aptitude. But I heard it repeatedly throughout my career as an agent briefing audiences on various threats.”
Then in 1998, Backus was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Special Investigations Academy, where he led the program to teach agents basic and advanced skills in counterintelligence, counterespionage, and counterterrorism, as well as surveillance. He found the role of trainer addictive.
“It was really exciting to be a small part of an agent’s professional development,” he said. “It was very rewarding and enriching, and I usually learned something from every one of them, too.”
Three years later the academy moved to the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center at Brunswick, Georgia, to co-locate with other federal partners. And after 9/11, Eric Patterson, the brigadier general in charge of the Air Force OSI, assigned Backus the task of training agents to go to war. He admits that for several years he’d been “loudly espousing” criticism that agents weren’t being trained properly.
“This was my opportunity to get up to New Jersey, up to Fort Dix there, and create that Air Force Special Investigations Academy to put my past skills to use and train agents [in the] tactical skills to go to war, so they would be prepared,” he said of the job he held for four years.
“Keeping agents safe in high-threat environments was very important to me.”
Previously, the kind of training that Backus had been so critical of involved lecturing at students for two weeks in a classroom, with an occasional video clip or slide deck that outlined prior successful terrorist attacks.
“We would say, ‘These are the kinds of things that can happen, and you need to watch out for them.’ But we never practiced. We never got them out in a tactical environment, in a mock village with bad-guy role players shooting at them,” he said. “They never got to experience what it was like to be shot at because they were just sitting in a classroom listening to lectures.”
Under Backus’ leadership, the new training added practical elements such as putting agents behind the wheel to drive off-road in rough terrain. Learning to drive properly and take care of their vehicles was imperative. “If you disable the vehicle in a high-threat environment you’re going to be dead,” he said.
Just as he thought practical application needed to go hand-in-hand with theory in the Air Force program, Backus insists the proper recipe for any course that he teaches anywhere involves a balanced mix of theory and practice.
Backus, who joined the Air Force as a security police officer, who did a two-year special assignment in the Sahara in the mid-1980s, and who deployed to the Gulf War, brings those experiences to the classroom. He has permission, as well, to discuss unclassified case studies from his time at the Air Force Special Investigations Academy— minus unmasking and the sharing of sensitive information.
He has used case studies on the World Trade Center bombing, attempted assassinations, searching for weapons in Somalia, and an examination of why it took Washington metropolitan area police officers so long to catch the Beltway snipers.
Those cases help students understand how to apply theory, without sticking to it too rigidly. “You have to leave it open for flexibility and adaptability to your specific situation,” Backus said.
Flexibility also underscores his teaching style, which he describes as more “guide-on-the-side” than lecturer speaking at students; he presented on that teaching style last year at a conference in Disney World.
Having a professor who works in the field benefits the many UMUC students who come up to Backus after class to ask his advice on job hunting. “I help mentor them,” he said, noting that months after a session has ended he often advises students on where to look for jobs and the skill sets they will need to land them.
“I don’t just commit for the eight weeks,” Backus said. “I commit to them beyond that—if they want me.”