Faculty in Action

Zachary Dobbins

"Eckerd is a groovy place: dig it!"

Zachary Dobbins
Quick Facts

B.A., The University of Texas at Arlington
M.A. and Ph.D., The University of Texas at Austin

Classes I'm teaching this year: This fall and spring, in addition to serving as director of the Writing Center, I'll be teaching Writing the Environment and Analytic & Persuasive Writing, both courses geared toward sharpening students' critical thinking skills while also providing them opportunities for enhancing their writing. In January, during Winter Term, I'll be teaching a fun little course called Satire and Social Justice, wherein the rubber hits the road when it comes to making people think (and think again) through irony and humor.

Areas of expertise: My areas of expertise and intellectual interest include rhetorical theory (argumentation, deliberation, rhetorical analysis) and related areas in rhetoric and composition pedagogy; empathy, education, and democratic deliberation; American literature (American Renaissance to the present); Wayne Booth and the rhetoric and ethics of fiction; Martha Nussbaum and the narrative imagination; Stanley Fish, Michael Berube, and the Culture Wars debates; Richard Rorty and philosophical pragmatism; novelist Russell Banks.

Current research, projects or publications: Currently, I'm researching the connections among narrative, empathy, and democratic deliberation; working on an article about rhetorician Wayne Booth and his revision of Aristotle's rhetorical appeals (logos and pathos in particular); and studying (and practicing) the art of narrative fiction.

Q & A
Why did you decide to become a college professor?

Two words: intellectual curiosity.

Okay, a few more words: The life of the mind doesn't seem very much fun when lived in isolation from others, and more than anything else this life seems (for me, anyway) a life of asking questions, another activity made all the more fun in the company of others. And I'd wager there's no better forum for asking questions than a college classroom, a unique place (and contract of sorts) into which everyone has entered knowing that there's of course more to know (otherwise, why be there?).

Also, as a student I got most jazzed when the professor brought me into the conversation, thinking right along with us students, testing ideas, kicking them around, sometimes even affording us a peak at the discipline's methods and disputes. I was thrilled especially with those live discussions (over human actions, public policies, values, competing epistemologies, novels) that involved ethical deliberation and problem solving and the kind of critical thinking that requires interrogating assumptions and confronting received knowledge with questions and more questions, the answers to which are typically uncertain, complex, and resistant equally to the complacency of abstractions and knee-jerk reactions.

My hope is to foster this environment for my own students, a world of thought and imagination running on the engine of inquiry -- an enterprise that ensures and requires the continual flow of ideas and thus one that democracy cannot live without.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Eckerd?

Chief among the many great things about teaching at Eckerd is the freedom afforded (and thus trust conveyed) to the faculty: the freedom to find, through practice, research, and experimentation, the best ways of teaching students, reaching them and making their experiences dynamic and lasting. Complementing this freedom are inquisitive students and colleagues, both groups eager to exploit to the fullest this freedom, perhaps our greatest resource.

How would you describe Eckerd students?

On one hand, it's hard to describe Eckerd students: they're a diverse bunch, from all around the world and with a range of interests and strengths and personalities. This diversity contributes greatly to the quality of education they receive, providing as a resource a range of perspectives (their own) with which to explore the world. What unites them is that they've all chosen to join a community of thinkers they might learn from and grow with -- a community comprising also a diverse group of faculty, who also represent a range of perspectives. (Note: That's a lot of perspectives!) On the other hand, then, I guess it's not so hard to describe them after all . . . except for that one invisible student.

What makes Eckerd so special or why does it stand out to you as a great college?

One thing that makes Eckerd stand out, from among many things, is that it fosters learning even among the faculty. At some institutions you're probably lucky if folks in the same discipline, or the same hallway, share ideas. Here, because of its size but also its culture, faculty meet regularly (and voluntarily!) to share different teaching methods and to discuss, among other things, best practices as well as issues in higher education. And we're talking about faculty across disciplines meeting to share ideas -- which is phenomenal, since no single discipline can know everything about pedagogy, the methods and philosophies of which (even within a single discipline) are diverse and constantly evolving.

What is the best thing a student has ever said in your class?

Something very smart -- probably something he or she didn't think was very smart at all but said anyway, because it was eating at him or her; because no one else had said it, though it seemed so totally obvious; because it was hard to formulate just perfectly, in the right words (but who cares, just say it); and because it was probably the unpopular but a perfectly reasonable thing to say.

How do you describe your teaching style?

Mine, in the jargon of the day, is very much a student-centered, inquiry- and discussion-based pedagogy, one heavy on problem solving, critical thinking, and ethical deliberation.

In my case this means that I try to keep lecture to a minimum, gravitating more towards a Socratic dialogue approach, whereby I raise questions and endlessly complicate them by soliciting thoughtful responses; by having students deliberate on, debate over, and make connections among ideas; by interrogating these ideas while also "trying them on," so to speak, that is, taking them seriously even if we disagree with them; and by playing devil's advocate.

I also try to design complex writing assignments that challenge students to sharpen their critical thinking skills while experimenting with different genres of writing and also different methods of making meaning. I devote a lot of class time to modeling and workshopping these assignments, providing students much guidance as well as opportunities to refine their work.

Humor also comes in handy.

How do you encourage your students to ThinkOUTside?

I try to encourage students to empathize with (to understand, to listen to, to imagine fully) others: people unlike themselves, perhaps, in belief and experience but otherwise not unlike themselves, perhaps, in their common need to be more fully imagined, to be heard, to be understood.

What else should we know about you or what else would you like to share?

I kick out the jams: I play drums and the guitar -- the drums very loudly and the guitar, an acoustic, not as loudly. I read fiction fairly obsessively, ferociously, one novel after another, slowly and attentively. I'm on a serious documentary film kick: Murderball, now that's what I'm talking about. I have a wife named Tracye and a cat named Simon, and they're both fine, very fine company, the former my best friend. I once slid a couple dozen yards, on my face, down a steep access road off a Texas highway -- this after watching my skateboard rocket out from under me and into the stratosphere.

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