Assistant professor cultivates unique writing style

For Ryan Guth, assistant professor of English at Jackson State Community College, writing strengthens his grasp of complex events and emotions. A companion to vision or touch, it’s an essential part of his life.

“Writing is like another one of my senses,” he said. “It’s one of the ways I try to make sense of the world.”

He is a mixed-genre author who blends a narrative framework of verse and prose – and hybrids of his own invention – to tell stories from the past based on fact, fiction and his own memory. Guth explores the boundaries of creative nonfiction, fictionalizing accounts as needed to capture the nuances of his subjects’ emotions and the atmospheres of his stories’ settings.

He has published two books, Home Truths and Body and Soul, and he is working on a third, Livings. Home Truths was originally published in 2006, but a revised and expanded edition is due out this May from Transcendent Zero Press.

The book is a speculative reconstruction of events that occurred in his family before he was born that impacted his life. As he wrote it, he said he sought an alternative to the focused narrative of a novel or the inevitable discreteness of the miscellaneous volume of poetry.

“While working on the individual pieces in this volume, I became fascinated by the possibilities of the sequence or collection itself as a literary medium,” he said. “It seemed to me that a series of independent but linked ‘snapshots’ of lyric and narrative moments, employing different perspectives, techniques and even genres, could perhaps get closer to the texture of lived experience.”

Guth published Body and Soul in 2015. It tells the story of a woman who survived sexual abuse as a child, offering a chronological account of a divorcee’s physical and psychological recovery after a descent into alcoholism and destructive sexual relationships.

“The book shows her struggle with these terrible experiences,” Guth said. “But it also shows her winning that struggle. In the end, she is able to reclaim her life.”

Body and Soul was a featured title at the 2015 Southern Festival of Books and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

His latest work, Livings, explores the strange personalities of the four famous Brontë siblings between 1845 and 1850. After failed careers, they all returned home to become writers and poets and live with their equally unusual father, an elderly Anglican pastor.

“They are fascinating people in their own right,” Guth said. “All of them were highly gifted, highly strung and kind of odd. I’m focusing on the atmosphere in the house and what it was like at that time in their lives.”

Livings is a work in progress, though he has shared excerpts at literary events and in journals.

The mixed-genre nature of his books has allowed for portions to be extracted and enjoyed in other formats. Individual selections have appeared in publications such as Lummox, Iron Horse, Bryant Literary Review, Third Coast Review, River City and Our Jackson Home. He has been invited to several readings, presentations and panel discussions, as well as local radio and television programs, where he has been able to promote his work and cultivate an audience.

“Any writer wants to be read, to be heard,” he said.

Though writing is a central part of his life, Guth cautions anyone seeking a career as an author – especially an author who writes nontraditional books spanning a variety of genres.

“Write because you like to write,” he said. “Make sure that you love writing for its own sake because there’s little chance of making a living solely from one’s work.”

Guth’s upcoming appearances include the Louisville Conference on Language and Literature in Kentucky from Feb. 22 to Feb. 24, where he will read excerpts from Livings. He has also been invited to give a reading from noon to 1 p.m. on April 5 for Jackson-Madison County Friends of the Library. He plans to read pieces from all three of his works.

Faculty Profile: Andrew Kelley

Dr. Andrew Kelley has been teaching students and shaping their experience at Jackson State Community College for 28 years and is looking forward to more years of helping students achieve their educational goals.

“I like the challenge and the reward,” the English professor said. “The challenge is working with a diverse group. Our students have different backgrounds and bring different things to the classroom, and we have to accommodate everybody while maintaining world-class standards. The reward is seeing them learn things they did not know and achieve competencies they did not have.”

Kelley, who has won the Distinguished Faculty Award from the Alumni Association, relates to his students as individuals and tailors his courses for specific majors so they can find value in the instruction. In English Composition I, for example, he assigns at least one health-related research paper per semester. Many of his students are on a nursing or other health sciences track, and others benefit by learning how to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“I approach them as human beings who bring their own backgrounds, worldviews, anxieties and learning styles,” Kelley said.

Kelley’s approach is a natural fit for Jackson State – a college that can provide a more personalized environment than a four-year university.

“We do everything we can for our students,” Kelley said. “We provide more student support, and we are more one-on-one. We are concerned about them as individuals, as persons, as family members, as parents.”

Four-year universities are an important part of the education system, but the opportunities a community college can provide are crucial, he said.

“Many people function better in a small community-type environment rather than a university-type environment,” he said. “We do the same thing; it’s just a different atmosphere. We are crucial because of the atmosphere, support and variety of programs we provide.”

With almost three decades on campus, Kelley has seen many changes. The school added new facilities and incorporated new technology to enhance the learning experience while offering new majors. It also serves many more students each year than it did when Kelley first walked on campus in 1988.

“With the expansion in enrollment, we have seen more diversity, which is very good,” he said.

The Student Union building was renovated, and it became an active gathering point for students between classes, making campus more vibrant. The school also opened a one-stop shop in the Student Union that streamlines the registration process and allows faculty to better advise students.

Kelley served as chair of the Department of English and Foreign Languages from 1990 until 1997. It was during that time he realized his true love is directly helping students, he said.

“In later years, the college was restructured into divisions rather than departments, and I am especially pleased with the support faculty receive from our deans,” he said. “They do their best to provide whatever we need to educate and train our students and to further develop our professional expertise.”

In addition to changes, Kelley has seen many programs that have made him proud during his tenure at the school.

He created the Student Relief Fund and the Employee Assistance Fund and turned the management of both over to the Jackson State Foundation.

“Employees in general and our Student Government Association, as well as generous patrons, contribute to these funds,” he said. “A most admirable aspect of Jackson State Community College and the people in our service area is the willingness to help neighbors.”

Kelley, along with Associate English Professor Powell Franklin, created a writing competition in the 1990s. Teachers submit outstanding student essays, which are judged by people who do not know who wrote the paper or who made the submission. “It’s completely anonymous,” Kelley said.

Winners get a cash prize, and the students are acknowledged during an honors ceremony at the end of the spring semester.

Other programs that give him pride include the Service Learning program, which provides opportunities for students to become more involved in their communities. Jackson State’ program was created by Vivian Grooms, associate professor of psychology.

The honors Program, initially created by Dr. Lawrence Gundersen and now chaired by Dr. Bob Raines, offers students opportunities for mentored, independent study beyond course requirements. Similarly, Phi Theta Kappa, a national honor society, has a Jackson State chapter sponsored by Dr. Anna Esquivel. Also, he said he promotes the Study Abroad Program, which is offered by the state, in all of his classes.

“Last year two of my students studied abroad during the summer; this year two more participated. The new honors and study abroad programs are changes that I find inspiring.”

Additionally, the Military Students Center is most beneficial to those it serves, he said. “Since I and many of my family are military veterans, I very much appreciate what our Veterans Affairs Coordinator, Lt. Col. Kristine Natukis, does for our military students.”

He said Athletics and Student Services Director Steve Cornelison and Associate Professor Mary Wadley provide important recreational and cultural activities, such as the Welcome Back Bash and musical and dance performances. And from an employee perspective, he said his coworkers in human resources and environmental health and safety training are proactive and supportive.

“I must also mention that our maintenance director, Gerald Batchelor and his crews make the campus grounds and buildings a pleasant work environment,” Kelley said. “And Dana Nails, our director of Information Technology, has a highly competent and helpful staff who diligently support faculty and students with technology in the classroom.”

Each of these programs contributes to an atmosphere that is welcoming for faculty and helps Jackson State’s students succeed. That “crucial” atmosphere is something to which Kelley has devoted his career and helped build during his 28 years on campus. He hopes to continue to build it in the years ahead.

“The students are our reason for being,” he said.

Kelley was selected for a faculty profile after receiving nominations from students and faculty, said John McCommon, director of marketing and public relations at Jackson State.

“His length of service coupled with his reputation with both students and faculty are extraordinary,” McCommon said.









Candyce Sweet – Finding the superhero in all of us

Pick up a variety of comics today, and you’re bound to see someone with superpowers–whether they’ve been bitten by a radioactive spider or subjected to gamma or cosmic rays. None of these things have ever happened to me, thankfully, but would you believe that I still consider myself a superhero? If Batman–who has no superpowers to speak of, either–can call himself a superhero, then I see no reason why I can’t do the same. If we take a good look at what a superhero really is, I think we’ll find that more of us are superheroes than we realize. As a community college professor, if I can help students realize that they are more than they ever thought they could be–that they, too, are superheroes in their own way–then I can help them see what they have to offer to their community. Teaching is a calling, and it was my love of comic books that helped to call me to teach.

I didn’t study comic books in school, and I never took comic books as a serious topic of academic study until my junior year in college. In fact, I often hid the fact that I read comics at all. Too often we live constantly concerned about what other people will think of us, and so we hide some part of ourselves from the world for fear that they will laugh at us, and ridicule us, for the very thing we love to do the most. This may be one of the reasons that superheroes have secret identities–to protect not just their loved ones but themselves as well. I remember how surprised I was to learn that there was a class in college entirely devoted to the study of comic books and graphic novels, and when I learned that the Chair of the English department was teaching it, I was dumbfounded. It had never occurred to me that comic books and their longer counterparts, graphic novels, were worthy of academic study, but here was an actual, distinguished professor teaching comics, and it opened my eyes to an entire world of possibility. Suddenly, I understood what my place in the world was and what I could do for the world. Because I had learned how to see the hidden value in something that I had considered nothing more than an hobby, I realized that I could teach others how to see the hidden value in the things that they loved. My father once told me that if you truly love what you do, you’ll never really work a day in your life, and I have found that to be true. I love to teach, so I don’t really feel like I’m “working.” That’s the life I want for my students as well–a life doing what they love.

Candyce Pull quote

What is it that I do for my community? I see myself as showing students how to be the best versions of themselves. Too often we hide the truest, most exciting part of ourselves. As an educator, I see my role as helping students to see, just as I once did, that to be the best version of themselves that they can be, they need to throw off the shackles of fear of other people’s expectations, embrace the things that help them interact with others, and shine their lights on the world. The more we can be ourselves without fear, the more we have to offer to our families, our community, and ourselves.

Superpowers do not change who a person is; they simply make us more of who we already are. Most of us believe that we can’t be superheroes unless we have superpowers, but Batman has taught us that that’s simply not true. You can be a superhero without superpowers, as long as you do super things with what you have and always stay true to yourself. By reading comics or other forms of literature, we can gain new ideas and new perspectives. As a professor, I love helping students become more of who they already are. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing the lightbulb turn on, to see students stand just a little bit taller, to see them become just a little bit more sure of themselves and their abilities. That’s what life’s all about–believing in yourself and what you can do so that you can start to share your abilities with the community around you, and making the world a better place, one superhero at a time.