I first became interested in teaching during what was to have been my final semester of undergraduate study. Having already taken the MCAT, I had been accepted to the University of Washington’s medical school, intending to become a doctor specializing in infectious diseases and neurology. That semester, to fulfill a graduation requirement, I took a sophomore-level survey of American literature I read The Waste Land, and my life changed. I spent the next seventy-two hours in the library reading Jessie Weston, James Frazier, Petronius, and Ovid as rapidly as I could turn their pages. A week later, I officially declared a change of major. I learned many things from that experience, not only that one book can change your life, but that the right classroom and library can do the same thing.
Equally important to my teaching philosophy has been my experience as director for the writing and ESL tutoring center at Emory’s Neil Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. There I have worked extensively with more than eighty ESL students and BUNDLES Scholars (first-generation college students from underrepresented populations). I was prepared for this mentorship by my experience earlier in the armed forces. Serving as a member of the intelligence community in the Marine corps and then as a private contractor, I had to instruct local officials, and native populations in tactical, humanitarian, and cultural best practices. I had to negotiate with leaders across sectarian and ethnic lines to resolve disputes an educate the rising population in the ways of peace and cooperation. Afterward, I worked for the Jordanian Government to improve the security and humanitarian situation at the Zaatari refugee camp. One of my goals was to respect the cultural and religious practices of displaced populations. My recommendations preceded the drafting of modifications to Jordan’s 2014 National Resilience Plan, which paved the way for an amendment of the MoU between Jordan and the UNHCR, allowing their cooperation for the first time in history.
My experiences lead directly into my work as Assistant Director of Forensics and Director of Debate for Sheridan College’s nationally ranked program. I learned the value of small group discussion, immediate feedback on writing and speech performance, and modeling high standards of civil language and behavior for my students. I learned the irreplaceable value of exuberance in the classroom when I had the honor of teaching a senior level seminar in Modernist Poetics with a distinguished scholar, Dr. Robert Torry. Professor Torry was jubilant each day that we dissected Frost, Stevens, Eliot, Williams, Pound, and Moore. His joy in teaching was the same I remember feeling when I first encountered The Waste Land. Even in a such a difficult seminar—covering material traditionally challenging for the brightest upperclassmen—the passion with which Dr. Torry presented the material opened doors for students. I have never gotten more pleasure from a single session of class than, when discussing Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Towards a Supreme Fiction,” I lectured on certain sections of the poem’s relation to elements of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I was met with a flurry of questions about how Stevens had incorporated some of Kant’s ideas into his verse. This line of discussion brought about three prolific days of seminar discussion and helped four of my students feel confident enough to launch projects related to philosophic intonations and allusions in the work of Frost, Eliot, Stevens, and Pound.
My enthusiasm has spread beyond the classroom when I conduct office hours and assign one-on-one conferences on student papers. I have found that when I push myself to hold extended office hours each week, nearly all of my students—whether struggling or excelling—take the time to stop in and ask for individualized help or tactics to improve their writing—both for my classes and as they move forward with their academic career.
These experiences have afforded me the opportunity to combine my research, creative writing, unique life experiences, passion for literature, and love of engaging with students in productive discourse into a style of teaching that expresses the fullness of my potential and provides a significant benefit whatever intellectual and academic community I am privileged to be a part of. Ultimately, the reason I am teaching literature—as opposed to reading MRIs—is because I believe that the study of literature teaches us all how to be better human beings and I am committed to changing hearts and minds in my classroom by curating the ecstatic experience a passionately taught work of literature can provide.
My experiences facing hardship and inequity in my own life and as the single father of an amazing daughter with an intellectual disability, have taught me the necessity of diverse perspectives and experiences to any informed discussion, advocating for institutional inclusion and support for, and developing an instructional approach to actively engage with every student’s individual experiences to make each student the majority stakeholder in their own academic success.
I spent the final six months of my enlistment in the Marine Corps at Balboa Naval Medical Center— after suffering a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) during combat operations in Iraq. I suffered significant peripheral nervous system damage and, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, found myself unable to stand without the aid of a cane. The injury also affected language processing and production centers required over a year of intensive speech and physical therapies during which time I essentially relearnt the English language. This process taught me that things the general public take for granted or can do without thinking—like dressing one’s self, walking down a flight of stairs, reading a story to their kids, or even communicating abstract ideas like happiness, joy, or despair using language—can be a nearly impossible and infinitely frustrating ordeal.
After a decade of therapy, treatment, and more patience than I thought existed, I am able, and, in fact, more insightful reader than most and I can walk—though not always gracefully— without the assistance of a cane. For me, the experience navigating college and dealing with the physical mental setbacks has translated into active pedagogical advocacies for any of my students with disabilities or who require accommodations for any kind. I proactively meet with students and, often times, have worked with students to set up reasonable accommodations for my classroom and format that we have then taken to UDSS and have served as the framework for UDSS developing accommodations for my students to across other classes in the humanities.
I was awarded sole custody of my daughter Alexi Katherine, who was born with a rare chromosomal deletion on the long arm of chromosome 7 from 32.3-32.6 resulting in significant developments delays and intellectual disability, in the middle of the second semester of my Ph.D. program. Though sometimes struggling through the program, while trying to find and pay for childcare as a single, graduate student, father strengthened my resolve that the work I am doing is important and something I will not be deterred in. I also learned how an unwelcoming, and environment the academy can be for certain groups of traditionally underrepresented students. Because of my own experience, in each class I instruct, it is imperative to produce an environment and utilize pedagogical tools which take into account that some students may well be facing struggles similar to my own. Thus, I seek to proactively engage them by sharing the knowledge I’ve gleaned from my experiences and assisting them in accessing university resources which can assist in their feeling they are included as stakeholders in their educational environment.
In my classroom I employ the same pedagogy to enhance diversity and inclusion that I found successful with my daughter. In my classroom, I always treat each of my students with the dignity and respect due them as human beings. Thus, I approach them as individuals and listen to each voice as if it were, itself, a world. I listen to their experiences and position myself as a facilitator, helping each of my students find their authorial voice, and, then, as a guide to help them find the best way to give a voice to that experience. Then we work together on legitimizing that voice and coming to trust it and its authenticity. Finally, we develop ways to deploy it in all their academic writing.
In keeping with this philosophy, I allow students to select their own research projects and—as often happens—I am not an expert in their given topic. However, I take the time outside class to research and become an expert and provide each student the assistance and direction they need to follow their passions and experiences. I have found this same approach to be immensely helpful in my work at Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, where I served for the past five years as tutor and writing center director for the BUNDLES scholars program—an initiative to support first generation college students from traditionally underrepresented and underserved communities. I experienced the same success in this program as in my classroom and am convinced this pedagogical approach does real work dissembling systems of privilege and improving diversity and inclusion across the campus.