By Daniel Schemer, January 2010
If you’ve spent enough time in the English Department then chances are you’ve crossed paths with Professor Jerry Blitefield. For close to 10 years he’s become synonymous with omnipresence, ambition and goodwill. Few can deny his talent for connecting young minds with academics; countless students have grasped the absorbing facets of rhetoric, creative writing, and nonfiction thanks to his unique teaching style, approachability and gift for stimulating classroom participation.
“Increasingly, I’m having such fun in my classes. I’m finding that one of two things is happening: either I’m getting duller or my students are getting brighter. I think my students are getting brighter,” said Professor Blitefield, back in December.
Professor Blitefield is on sabbatical for half the year. While this is a far cry from retirement or transferring to another university, his absence is felt by colleagues and students whom have forged strong relationships with him. During this break from teaching and overseeing programs he’s pursuing other academic and professional interests.
In the realm of sustainability at UMass Dartmouth, Blitefield has been a key figure in bringing it to the academic arena by creating and developing the Minor in Sustainability Studies, as well as the online Sustainability Studies certificate program. “I guess I’ve always been interested in sustainability in some way, but it wasn’t until I got here that I began to understand it.” After spending years drafting and refining the schematics for the Minor, as well as organizing involvement by faculty from over 26 disciplines, the Minor was finally launched in spring 2008.
As Director for Sustainability Studies, Blitefield was the lead professor for the popular Topics in Sustainability course, often credited with introducing and sparking significant student interest; the course repeatedly fills up every semester. “The course fulfills only free elective requirements, so students are taking it purely out of interest.” He recalls his first time teaching the course: “The thing most invigorating about the course was that I didn’t know how much I knew in comparison to the students, and how even just a little sustainability education would be such an eye-opening experience for them.”
The course is divided up into units with professors from multiple disciplines collaborating during the semester. “There’s a common theme in the course, but because the modules might not align up together, it’s the challenge for the students to see how they relate.” He adds that though he plans out these modules diligently with participating professors there is still a strong sense of the unknown, and “the only people who have a bird’s-eye view of the course are the students.”
His initial effort to bring concepts from the environmental movement into the curriculum came about in a logical way. “After I got here, I thought about this idea of having Earth Day classes during Earth Week. We did that for a few years.” His collaboration with professors hit a wall when a professor from the sociology department agreed to host a class, only to end up completely attacking the movement. “I found out it was an abomination. I brought this trojan horse into the library and now he’s telling the students ‘don’t worry about it.’ Essentially, he said the environmental movement was really just PR hijacking by activists, that they control the media, and it’s a bunch of bunk…and I didn’t have any expertise with which to argue him.” The incident prompted Professor Blitefield to heavily research just what precisely sustainability is all about and why it’s of great concern. When the Sustainability Office approached him about curricular options, he was happy to oblige. Looking back at the last several years, he’s pleased the Minor is thriving and interest in sustainability is higher than ever on campus.
Born and raised on Long Island, Jerry Blitefield’s path towards teaching was by no means a straight one; he always fathomed himself as a fiction writer. After getting his BA in English Literature from Manhattanville College, he sought out a change of scenery by relocating to Nantucket. “Nothing directed me towards teaching. Rhetoric was never my primary interest and I never had intentions to teach either.”
He spent several years on Nantucket employed as a bartender, writing fiction, and working as a columnist for one of their newspapers. “I then decided I wanted to get a little more formal training in writing, so I started looking around for MFA (Master of Fine Arts) programs.” He was rejected by all the universities he applied to, so one of his old professorial colleagues suggested looking for an MA program; ultimately, this led him to UMass Dartmouth in 1992. It was here that he discovered a love for rhetoric by taking Rhetorical Theory. “I hadn’t really anticipated liking it. I didn’t know anything about it, but I actually kind of fell in love with it; I still saw myself first and foremost as a fiction writer, but as my time was drawing to an end, I was about to graduate and I started thinking ‘now what am I going to do?’ I didn’t really have any plans in mind, so I thought why not study some rhetoric.” He moved back to New York shortly after getting his MA and enrolled at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1995 to acquire a Ph.D in Rhetoric. Completing his program and qualified to be a university professor, he accepted a position as an Assistant Professor in the English department of UMass Dartmouth in Fall 2000.
While on sabbatical, his main project is to finish a book he began as his doctoral dissertation: a two-part book on a theory he’s developed in Rhetoric and its application to case studies. In addition, travelling opportunities may come in the form of a National Endowment for Humanities Grant which, if awarded, he will use to study and document a mobile exhibit known as The Moving Wall. The Moving Wall is a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington D.C. It travels all over the United States as a way for people who can’t make it to D.C. to see it and have the experience. “This guy, John Devitt, he’s brought this to a thousand towns. Millions of people have come to see it, yet no one knows who this guy is. I just think it’s a great story.”
Each and every student, faculty and staff member who’s had the pleasure of his company wishes all the best for Jerry Blitefield. Good journey!