Discipleship, Gratitude, and The Faerie Queene—A Conversation with Dr. Jonathan Sircy

Conversations, Editors

Dynestee Fields and Amanda Platz

“I forgot to print your prompt,” Dr. Jonathan Sircy exclaimed in the middle of class one morning, during the Fall 2018 Semester. Because the class was Non-fiction Prose and Its Process, the writing prompt was integral to the day’s activities. He debated whether to send the prompt to us later that day or if he should go to his office and kill a few trees by printing it off right then. “Do you think that I can make it back within ten minutes,” he wagered. “Do it,” we all chanted. Before we knew it, all of our faces were pressed against the window, watching as our professor sprinted across campus. The room echoed with animated voices as we alternated between shouting “Do you think he’s gonna make it?” and “Look at how fast he’s going!” He had told us to work on an in-class assignment while he was gone.

We did not work on the assignment.

Instead, we continued to stare out the window, debating whether or not he would get back in time.

“He’s going to make it! Did you see how fast he was running?”

“Are you sure? He only has ten minutes…”

Before the window had defogged from the heat of our breath, Dr. Sircy appeared in the doorway with a stack of freshly-printed papers—our assignment. He hadn’t even broken a sweat.

After class, a couple of us were standing outside the Newby Education Center recounting the event and offering our own personal commentaries when Dr. Britt Terry,  his wife, strolled over with her tote bag full of classroom supplies.

“Dr. Terry, you have got to hear what Dr. Sircy just did,” one of us exclaimed in a torrent of laughter.

Oh no,” she sighed, a smirk gleaming in her chocolate-colored eyes. “What did he do this time?”

We quickly told her the story and watched as Dr. Terry laughed, shook her head, and said: “That doesn’t surprise me at all.”

The rest of the semester reflected the surprising events of that day. Dr. Sircy swaggering victoriously into the classroom, waving the copies of the prompt in his hand, is the perfect image of our class experience in Non-fiction Prose and its Process.

Experiences like this incited us to interview Dr. Sircy regarding his own education experience, teaching philosophy, and extra-curricular passions.

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On the day of the interview, we walk into his office to find a space that is uncluttered yet overflowing with character. A Singing in the Rain poster, shelves upon shelves of books—everything from J.R.R. Tolkien to David Foster Wallace—, an Apple iMac accompanied by a 2018 MacBook Pro, and framed photos of his wife and daughter emerge as the room’s primary accents.

Looking at this assortment of items, one might ask, where did this journey begin?

Accordingly, our first question is “How did you get into English, and what inspired you to teach?”

Dr. Sircy participated in a program just before his senior year of high school that allowed him to choose a major for five weeks and to participate in a college environment. In this program, he majored in philosophy and was assigned a minor—which included an English class. The professor of this English class told Dr. Sircy about a pastime that he had undertaken, which included reading the books listed on the back of a Cliffs Notes. In addition to this, Dr. Sircy also found a list of the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century written in English, released by Random House in 1998. He tells us that “I decided ‘I wanna major in whatever I can in college that will allow me to do that,’ ‘cause it was awesome… And so I came in as an English literature/creative writing double major, and I’ve never stopped. I knew that I was going to get a PhD when I came in as a Freshman on the first day.”

With the loaded bookshelf in the background as a testament to the fulfillment of this aspiration, we ask him another question.

“Is there one book that has influenced your life above all others, besides the Bible?”

He lists five pieces of literature, including A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser, Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith, and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. Each of these diverse works have contributed to facets of his life.

According to Dr. Sircy, A Supposedly Fun Thing is a “summation of funny, insightful, weird America that I aspire to.” The Portrait of a Lady demonstrates James’ ability to portray the “sense that the real struggle in people is what happens inside them rather than what happens externally,” which, “is just magnificent.” The Faerie Queene is special because “it’s a head trip of a poem. And, it is unexpected all the time.” Desiring the Kingdom is “the most important book I ever read about teaching.” And finally, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People has advised him that “you should think about life not in terms of what you’re called to do, but in terms of what your responsibilities are.”

Elements of his teaching style appear to be evident in the books that he mentions. So, when we ask him “Do you prefer teaching at Christian universities” and “How do you incorporate your faith into your teaching,” his answers do not deviate from his established grain.

Dr. Sircy tells us that he appreciates teaching at Christian universities because he is able to express his faith in the classroom. “My teaching is overtly faith-filled in a way that was not true my first couple years teaching where I still had a USC [his alma mater] mindset.”

His educational philosophy is that education is discipleship. Dr. Sircy explains that “A disciple is a student, Jesus is a rabbi, so at the heart of what He did when He was on earth was, He taught people. Which means that what me and my wife and everyone here who is a teacher gets to do is have a life where we have this analog to what our spiritual lives should be like. So, once I made that connection, then it started—I realized ‘Oh, stuff that goes on in church is kind of educational’.”

The structure of his entire classroom experience revolves around church liturgy. He includes a gratitude exercise at the beginning of each class to more explicitly insert his faith into his classroom. In terms of intermingling faith and literature, Dr. Sircy says that the fact that Jesus teaches people through stories means that “real truth is being conveyed in the stories we teach, and real truth should be engaged in the papers those students write.”

After he has given this answer, it is only natural to follow it up with the question “What is the ideal outcome/experience for students coming out of your class?”

Long after students have received their final grades for his courses, Dr. Sircy hopes that he has created “a place that you can go back to because of something you read, because of some conversation you had with somebody in the class, or maybe even something I said that wasn’t even about the course content, but was about something else”—an Old Testament-style altar experience. He defines these altar experiences as being “physical monuments to some momentous spiritual event… The monument is there to point them to them having met God at that moment.” Essentially, his ideal classroom experience is pointing his students to significant spiritual insights, places where they can meet Christ. As said earlier, reading material, conversations, and asides from lectures can all serve as catalysts for this experience.

Our final question is in reference to his teaching style.                                 

“Do you incorporate multimedia skills into your teaching?”

In an effort to make his classes more engaging, Dr. Sircy does indeed seek to incorporate multimedia into his lesson plans. His latest effort is a podcast for his English 305 class—British Literature I. “The first one’s on Beowulf and I will make one on each of the things that I’m teaching in the brick and mortar course.” But this isn’t the only podcast that Dr. Sircy has made. He also has a podcast on the 1950s-1960s television drama Perry Mason. There are seventeen episodes so far, and Dr. Sircy insists that those are “totally only something my dad listens to.” On the other hand, he hopes that the English 305 podcast will be an educational resource for his students.

After the interview has ended, my fellow interviewer and I migrate to the Rickman Library to discuss the event. Inevitably, the conversation steers towards the happenings of Non-fiction Writing and Its Process. We always seize opportunities to retell the story of Dr. Sircy racing across campus, advising his current students to embrace his passionate and attentive nature. From his intense story-board drawings that cover entire whiteboards to his discussions about modern rap music, Dr. Sircy’s classes reflect the vision of the man at the head of the classroom.