Teaching Students to Serve
By Leanne E. Smith
nglish professor Reginald Watson ’91 “just can’t teach and go home.” He’s determined to walk the walk, not just talk the talk, about the importance of faculty and students connecting with the community outside the classroom. He gives hours of his time as faculty advisor for Expressions, ECU’s acclaimed student minority magazine, with the Thespians of Diversity and the local Boys and Girls Club.
He’s considered one of the best professors on campus and was recognized by the university with the 2007 Centennial Award for Excellence and has won the English department’s service award twice.
His focus is the vital nexus between academics and community service. “I believe in taking students beyond the physical classroom. You’ve got to know how to connect the two. I’m encouraged by what I do in the classroom to do more in the community. As professors, we need to keep our feet in the world outside this campus.”
Watson, 44, teaches freshman writing and courses on major American writers. His favorite classes are undergraduate and graduate studies in African-American literature. But his office bookshelves reveal his broad literary interests. Interspersed with must-reads of African-American literature are titles like Thomas Jefferson, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, Africa: Mother of Civilization, and 301 Spanish Verbs.
He feeds on the energy his students radiate: “The give and take process of them learning from me and me learning from them—that dialog we create inspires me to come to work.” He even decorates his office with student projects, like a Thespians-themed oil painting and a colorful banner appliquéd with “Tu Wa Moja,” which in Swahili means “We are one.”
To him, literature is much more than words on the page. “I love literature because it reflects life in general—past and present—but can also serve as a lesson for the future. I teach with a social awareness. I want students to walk away with an understanding of literature and how the themes work today. What good is literature if it doesn’t reflect where we’ve been and where we’re going?”
His three favorite works for raising his students’ social awareness are Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940). His students read the books in chronological order to gain a better understanding of cultural history. Thus, his students come to appreciate Douglass’ descriptions of slavery’s physical chains as well as the mental chains evoked by the later authors.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character, Janie, experiences several negative relationships that make the work “a really great book for a discussion of symbolism, domestic abuse, today’s society, and love and what it means to certain people, like security versus love. The students do a great job discussing figurative language, but also discuss how it comes up today.”
Themes from Native Son, one of the last works Watson’s students read in a semester, are particularly appropriate for service learning. In the book, the dreams of Bigger Thomas, the main character, are constantly thwarted. That gives Watson the opening to lead class discussions that “center around what happens when from an early age people are told they will be nothing but an animal. When they are told that, then they turn out that way.”
He’s careful not to define social issues by skin color. “It’s not a racial thing; it’s so much a human thing. Whenever you take away people’s dreams early in life, you will make them into monsters.” Not satisfied with just stressing that point in class, he exhorts his students to help provide opportunities for young people to avoid becoming another Bigger Thomas: “There are people across the railroad tracks who need your encouragement and involvement, and how are they going to get that if you don’t go?”
Some of those themes turn up in plays Watson has written, which have been staged by the Thespians of Diversity. In Black Voices from the Past, a series of character sketches based on his lecture notes and linked with African and jazz music, he found “a way to extend teaching beyond the classroom” for people who can’t afford the time or tuition for college or may still be in grade school. Another was I’ve Seen the Mountaintop, but It Don’t Look So Good, in which Martin Luther King Jr. returns from the dead and is dismayed at how so many people have not realized the dream he envisioned.
Knick Dixon ’04, a community organizer and trainer with the N.C. Justice System’s Education and Law Project, is one of Watson’s former students. “Dr. Watson facilitated my understanding of the power I have in this world—a power that is strengthened when I exercise constitutional rights such as voting and protest,” Dixon says. “He dared me to read, write and ask unpopular questions.”
Watson’s spirit is evident to his colleagues as well. Award-winning English professor and writer Luke Whisnant ’79 describes Watson as “a rare combination: thoroughly professional and thoroughly personable. There’s nothing fake or pretentious about him; he’s not afraid to take a stand on issues he believes in, and his service—both to the university and the community—is admirable.”
N.C. Rep. Marian McLawhorn ’67, who met Watson when her son Adam was his student, says Watson’s teaching style and concern for ECU and the community broaden students’ perspective. Pat Dunn ’58, a Greenville city council member and ECU professor with 35 years of teaching experience, says students “will remember him as one who showed them how they could reach out into the community and use their education to help advance the lives of other youth through tutoring and after-school projects.”
A native of Morristown, N.J., Watson often traveled to North Carolina when he was young. He received his undergraduate degree from N.C. Central University, a master’s from East Carolina and a Ph.D. from Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After his mother died in February 2006, his wife and 14-yearold son became his primary foundation, and he says, “I look to the classroom to fill in the missing blank. Her loss reminded me of my mortality and how precious life is. Through teaching, I’m reminded of that every day.”
With his new sense of urgency, he accepted a commission for Princeville: The Little Town that Rose Like a Phoenix from the Swamp (2007). He had a creative “turning point” and wrote it in less than a week. About 400 Edgecombe County fourth-graders, N.C. history students too young to remember when Princeville was flooded following Hurricane Floyd (1999), attended the play’s debut. Watson is mulling another play, perhaps about African-American figures in North Carolina’s history, and he is developing a partnership with Tryon Palace. It’s likely that those works will continue to lead ECU students out into the community.
Occasionally, a student will say they want to be just like him. When they do, he advises, “Be patient, be open-minded, be creative, be prepared, because doing what I do, you play different roles. Be prepared to not only teach in front of the classroom, but to give advice when someone comes to you. Balance your approach so students can get the full picture—not just literature, but life. If you’re going to do what I do, you need to be fully versed in both and enjoy it. Be a leader both in and out of the classroom. If you approach it that way, it’ll be a full-time job, but it’ll be a full-time job well worth it.”