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Lander Distinguished Professor Barnette ‘Fell In Love’ With Teaching English

May 30, 2018

Story by Jeff Lagrone

Sean BarnetteLander University Associate Professor of English Dr. Sean Barnette, the winner of this year’s Distinguished Professor Award, tries to make his classes as interactive as possible.

“Any day that I’m teaching and I’m doing the most talking in the class, it’s probably a bad day,” he says.

Barnette, who originally trained to be a band director and taught music for two years in Nicaragua, says “you can’t teach someone to play an instrument by lecturing them,” and the same thing goes for teaching writing.

“I’ve always seen what you do in the classroom as a practical thing, rather than just delivering information,” the Miami native, who grew up in Huntersville, N.C., said.

He became interested in the idea of teaching writing as a career while pursuing a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of South Carolina, when he was offered an assistantship teaching English 101. “I fell in love with doing it,” he says.

From 2005 to 2007, he served as a visiting instructor of English at Lander, an experience that he enjoyed enough to return to school to pursue his doctorate. In 2011, the University of Tennessee awarded him a Ph.D. in rhetoric, writing and linguistics.

Barnette is “not a literature guy. My expertise is definitely more in the linguistics, rhetoric, language classes,” he said.

When he taught Harry Potter as Literature, one of numerous Honors College courses he has taught, he focused on “the rhetoric of Harry Potter, how the books get us to think about how language works.”

His ability to connect with students, he feels, is one of his strengths. “My office door is open pretty much all the time, and students come in. This is the ‘let’s talk about life’ chair, these are the ‘let’s talk about work’ chairs, and they’re full every day.”

One day each week, he eats with students in the dining hall. Sometimes there are so many of them that he has to push two tables together.

Getting students to be curious, to ask questions and take responsibility for their own learning is important to Barnette. He wants them to demonstrate that they “can think through a problem.”

He has also been busy publishing. He recently co-edited, along with Professor of English Dr. Lillian Craton and Associate Professor of English Dr. Reneé Love, a book on approaches to teaching first-year writing, titled Writing Pathways to Student Success. It was published last year by The Writing Across the Curriculum Clearinghouse and University Press of Colorado.

The MathMate, a scholarly journal, recently published “The Undisciplined Mind: An Honors Course in Mathematics and Humanities,” an article that he co-authored with Associate Professor of Mathematics Dr. Josie Ryan, with whom he team-taught a course exploring the parallels between the two disciplines.

Other recent publications include “Hospitality as Kenosis: Dorothy Day’s Voluntary Poverty,” a chapter that he contributed to the book Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric, published by Southern Illinois University Press. The work grew out of an idea that he first explored in his dissertation.

“I enjoy the other academic work, the research and all that, but the classroom is where it’s at,” he says.

He especially enjoys developing new courses. A case in point is Linguistics, Y’all: Language Diversity & Development in the Southeastern United States, which he designed and taught.

“Continuing to create courses in English and in the Honors College that are going to be interesting to students is something that I want to keep doing,” he says.

It’s all about the students, as far as Barnette is concerned. When he was announced as the winner of the Distinguished Professor Award at Lander’s Academic Awards ceremony, there was a raucous cheer from a number of the students present.

“That really touched me,” he said.