There is an office brimming with books, stacked haphazardly on one another, in the back corner of second-floor Jordan Hall, which should come as no surprise since it is home to the Central English department. The room is dimly lit with small lamps, creating a cozy library-ish feel.
In the center sits associate professor of English Josh Dolezal. He looks content and at home in the office working on his most recent research project on cognitive science and creativity. He recently gave a plenary address at the 2013 International Cather Seminar in Flagstaff, Ariz., applying blending theory to depictions of artistic awakening in Willa Cather’s novel “The Song of the Lark.” And judging by his book-filled office, most would never know that his journey to academia and the literature world wasn’t something that he had originally planned.
Dolezal hails from Troy, a small Montana logging and mining town west of Glacier National Park about an hour south of the Canadian border and just 15 minutes from Idaho. He grew up gardening with his parents, cutting firewood with his father and hunting elk. With no television, Dolezal spent his time reading and listening to music. During his summer breaks in college and graduate school, Dolezal would return home to work as a firefighter with the forest service and, later, as a wilderness ranger.
When he went to King University in Tennessee as a first-generation college student, he was expected to study a field that was “prestigious and lucrative,” something practical—so he chose pre-law. But during his sophomore year, a book would alter the course of his career.
“People talk about books changing your life and Willa Cather’s novel, ‘My Ántonia,’ really did change my future path as I switched to English,” he says. “What I found—and this is often what I tell undecided majors at Central—when I was in literature classes I felt most fully myself, just very comfortable interpreting texts, making connections, expressing what I knew in narrative form.”
This new direction led Dolezal to the University of Nebraska for master’s and doctoral degrees. He specialized in Cather, and before going back for a doctorate, he spent seven months teaching in Uruguay. He thought he would end up in journalism, so deciding to pursue his doctorate was a turning point for his career.
“When I was going to college, it was a time when students weren’t really encouraged to go to grad school because the job prospects were so daunting,” he explains. “So I had many people tell me not to get a Ph.D. I consider myself really lucky to be here and to be teaching the senior seminar in Cather this year. It’s a dream story.”
Along with Cather, Dolezal teaches many authors and subjects in his classes. He is particularly interested in American literature, creative non-fiction, ecocriticism and medical humanities. And his memoir titled “Down from the Mountaintop,” is set to be published in the spring 2014. Dolezal also has a passion for sustainability thanks to organic gardening as a child and his work as a firefighter.
“The idea of being connected with the earth is very important to me,” says Dolezal. “I’ve seen a lot of evidence of destructive forestry practices—what irresponsible logging looks like—and my experiences have driven my interest.”
Since being at Central, his driving interest is food culture and how to eat and grow locally to reduce his carbon footprint. He even brings it to the classroom, working with Paul Weihe, associate professor of biology, to show students how to make homemade salsa and that it is easier (and a lot more fun) than it seems.
“There’s this misconception that students have with local food that it’s more time intensive and it’s just not practical,” he says. “It’s fun to have a hands-on connection, and it’s not all about the books we read. It’s fun to cook with other people. It goes back to relationships. If you shop at a grocery store, you have far fewer conversations than you do if you go to a farmer’s market.”
Those connections show up in his classroom. Dolezal was the Intersections director from spring 2008- fall 2010, where he built relationships with faculty and students to help deeply impact three first-year classes. In Intersections, a required class for all freshmen, incoming students are challenged with critical thinking, research and writing that is typical of the liberal arts at Central.
And the classes are an experience for the entire Central community—faculty, staff and upperclassmen are invited to read the common reading book and join in campus-wide conversations in the fall. This year’s common read is “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates,” a book about two men with the same name, and their different life journeys. No matter the chosen book, Dolezal firmly believes that the common read binds the class together.
“I think literature, especially a rich text that you can come at from lots of different angles, is a great way to kick off a liberal arts experience,” he says. “The common reading helps crystallize a class identity for the incoming students. It’s a shared experience which is very much what Central is about. It invites all these conversations that we extend throughout the semester. It makes Intersections not just a first year student experience, but a community experience.”
Dolezal enjoys the Central community, from students to faculty. He says he is grateful for the encouragement of faculty development, but also for the chance to teach and change a student’s life—whether it’s through a book or a conversation. Central is “rich in relationships,” he says, and that’s what keeps him focused on his colleagues and students.
“Helping students discover themselves and come into their own potential is the best part of teaching,” says Dolezal. “The way your mind works is an incredibly personal thing. In a semester when I read four papers by one student, I know that student, in some ways, more personally than friends and family might, and I feel really privileged to have that kind of input and trust. I know I’m making an impact on students here and I feel really lucky about that.”
The Other Wes Moore:
One Name, Two Fates
Before freshman students ever step on campus for the fall semester, they are given their first homework assignment: finish the common reading book.
It’s an experience that allows an entire class to reflect, discuss and grow together. Each year a book is chosen based on how well it applies to the themes presented in Intersections—a required first-year class.
This year’s book, “The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates” by Wes Moore, tells the story of two young men with the same who grew up in the same neighborhood. One went on to become a Rhodes Scholar and decorated veteran and the other is serving a life sentence for felony murder.
“The book, in true reflective nature, prompts its reader to consider what makes us who we are—how our family and social institutions, contribute to a sense of self and how one can create change,” says Jeremy Siefken, director of student involvement and first-year class director.
Moore set on a journey to discover the differences between them and what happened in their lives to set them on different paths. The compelling story reflects on choice, opportunities, fate and the priorities of society.
Read the book? Tell us what you thought in the comments.