Michael Harris: A Career Born in Nepal

Michael Harris found his passion in the Himalayas and brought it to Central, where he has taught for 25 years.A trip to Nepal changed everything for Michael Harris. During graduate school, Harris, now professor of English at Central, faced a dissertation he didn’t really want to write. He didn’t have a topic, and he says, “I was kind of burned out.” He wondered if he would ever finish his Ph.D.

Originally from North Carolina, Harris and his family moved to Louisiana when he was six. He attended Tulane University for his undergraduate degree, where he knew he wanted to major in English as a freshman.

When choosing a major, Harris says he “thought back to my high school career.” He had always enjoyed English more than other subjects. After college, Harris pursued his master’s and Ph.D. at Indiana University at Bloomington. He taught freshman composition and literature classes and enjoyed teaching, though at the time, he still wasn’t sure how he wanted to shape his career. And his dissertation loomed.

“I did not have a topic,” he says.

Harris had always been interested in the Peace Corps and had in fact applied and been accepted after college, but he chose grad school instead. Now, he revisited the idea. He was accepted to Nepal, “a country I thought sounded really interesting,” Harris says, and he served as a TEFL teacher from 1979-1981.

He spent the next three years of his life in the Himalayas. As it turned out, he spent a lot of time reading novels, “the kind of stuff you read when you’re an English major,” he says, and his love of English was rejuvenated. When the three years were up, he returned to Indiana and picked up right where he left off. Only this time, he had a topic.

A field in literature called post-colonialism was gaining prominence. The Peace Corps provided Harris a firsthand look into the lives of people in Nepal and India, and the region fascinated him. “I could have written about that forever. That’s how I ended up finishing a dissertation,” he says. That dissertation, “Outsiders & Insiders: Perspectives of Third World Culture in British and Post-Colonial Fiction,” was eventually published and named a 1994 Choice Outstanding Academic Book.

While at Indiana University, Harris also met his wife, Kimberly Koza, associate professor of English at Central. The couple lived and worked in a few different cities before arriving in Iowa, via a one-year position for Harris at Grinnell College in 1989. Then a job opened up at Central. Harris says his time in Pella is “the longest I’ve ever lived in one place.”

During a 25-year career at Central, Harris has enjoyed the opportunity to try new things and continue learning. “As I’ve developed new interests I’ve been able to teach classes in those areas,” he says. For instance, an interest in the Buddhist religion spurred him to create a capstone course on the subject. He was aided by six months spent in northern India and Nepal in 2012-13 on a Fulbright Senior Research grant, where he studied Buddhism. “There’s something about India that really draws me,” he says. He also taught at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania as a Senior Fulbright Lecturer in 1998-99.

A number of courses at Central have sprung from Harris’ passion for post-colonial literature. Mary Stark, professor of English, has been a colleague of Harris for more than 20 years, and she says he helped the English department expand its offerings to include American Ethnic Literature, Irish Literature, African/Caribbean Literature and the Literature of India and the Pacific. “Students appreciate the cultural contexts and seeing life from different perspectives,” she says.

Recently, Harris has embarked on a new challenge that is taking him to another part of the world: New York City. He is teaching as part of Central’s social justice internship program, which began in summer 2014. Harris, Koza and students spent a month in the city. “The students that came with us were amazing. It was a lot of fun to spend time with them and hear about their internships,” Harris says.

Being able to identify with his students at Central is part of what makes teaching enjoyable for Harris. “When I see a Central student, I can easily imagine how I felt my first year of college,” he says. He remembers the uncertainty, but also the feelings of possibility. And interacting with students keeps life fresh and exciting. He says, “You learn so much from them.”

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