Teaching Under the Umbrella of Discipleship—An Interview with Dr. Jonathan Sircy


Dynestee Fields and Amanda Platz

Dr. Jonathan Sircy is a passionate scholar of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. He taught in Charleston for seven years before becoming an associate professor of English at Southern Wesleyan University in Central, South Carolina. Dr. Sircy is married to Southern Wesleyan University English professor, Dr. Britt Terry.

Amanda: Okay, I have the first question?

Dynestee: Of course!

Amanda: Okay, so our first question is “How did you get into English, and what inspired you to teach?” I know that’s a very loaded question, so feel free to take your time.

Sircy: Okay. Between my junior and senior years, in the state of Kentucky, there is a scholars program called GSP, Governor’s Scholars Program. No one from my small Christian school had ever applied to it, much less gotten in, and I did apply and I did get in. So for five weeks I stayed with 350 other rising seniors on a college campus by myself, and I had a major, which was philosophy, and I had a minor, which I didn’t really pick. In that minor, I had an English professor teaching me, and he told me something that he had done when he was in high school; which is that he had gotten ahold of a Cliffs Notes, which is like Sparknotes in paper, and on the back of the Cliffs Notes was listed every single work that was in the Cliffs Notes series. And he said, “I made it a point to read through all of that.” I was like “That sounds awesome.” So that same year, which was 1998, Random House, I believe—it may not be Random House—somebody released the 100 greatest novels of the 20th century written in English. So I saw that that summer and was like “That’s what I want to do,” and then I decided “I wanna major in whatever I can in college that will allow me to do that, cause it was awesome.” That senior year was amazing, reading through—I didn’t get through all of them, but the stuff I read was great! And so I came in as an English literature/creative writing double major, and I’ve never stopped. I knew I was gonna go get a PhD when I came in as a freshman on the first day. And I don’t think I really thought “I’ll be a good teacher.” It was just a way for me to keep reading and writing, and it turned out that teaching is why I love what I do, and that reading and writing are means to achieving that end. So.

Dynestee:  OK, second question. What’s the story of how you got into your MA and PhD programs?

Sircy: Not a great one. I was a very good student. I had a 4.0 as an undergrad. I got very high test scores on the GRE. So going into my senior year, I had already been awarded the top English major at my school, which was roughly the size of Winthrop—it was a state school in Kentucky, where I had a full-ride scholarship. I had spent a semester abroad. I had what I thought was a sterling academic record, and so when I told the people I wanted to write letters for me that I was going to apply to the University of Pennsylvania and Yale and University of Virginia and North Carolina, they were like “great!” All of those places required writing samples. So, I had received A’s on every single paper I had written, and so I just picked one, I worked on my personal statements, and I sent them off. And in the spring of my senior year, so I’m about to graduate, I proceeded to receive rejection notices from every single one of them—except for the University of Virginia, which extended to me the opportunity to be part of their MA program with the understanding that they would not pay a single dollar of the $20,000 it would take per year to graduate in two years, and that they never accepted their MA students into their PhD program, which means I would’ve gone there for two years and then had to reapply all over again. So, I was like, out of my mind crazy trying to figure out what I was going to do. I talked to my aunts in Chicago and in Des Moines about possibly moving there, getting a job, and then running it back a year later and seeing what I could do. It became clear that the reason I hadn’t got accepted was because my writing sample was really weak. On the recommendation of somebody at my school, who was not a Christian, who was not necessarily looking out for me, but who was wise, he said “You should just send your test scores and your GPA to the University of Kentucky, (which was the only school in the state of Kentucky that granted a PhD in Lit) and just say “Hey, you’re interested. You know it’s past the due date for applications, for fellowships, for assistantships, but you’d still like to get in,” and they accepted me. I had to pay full my first semester. My second semester I was able to get on at the writing center and then my second year of my MA there I was full ride. So, I never expected to be at the University of Kentucky—I did not want to be at Kentucky. I was like “I have great academics” but I wasn’t ready. Now the second semester of my MA year I had a course with Dr. David Lee Miller. It was a “Faerie Queene” course. All we did was read The Faerie Queene. The Faerie Queene has six books, six cantos per book, so over the course of 12 weeks we read six cantos a thing, and it was the last graduate course that Dr. Miller ever taught there, because he had just been hired to take over a gig at the University of South Carolina. So, the very next year, my second year of the MA program, I knew that I wanted to try again to apply to other schools. So I applied again. The only reason I applied to the University of South Carolina is because David Lee Miller was there, and that’s the school I heard back first; I got a fellowship, so I not only got tuition waver, assistantship money, I got money above and beyond that, mostly because of David’s letter of recommendation. But it was the only school that I got into again! So I got rejection letters from Michigan, and Wisconsin, Yale and Maryland, which were the other four schools I applied to. So once again I had one choice. I went to the University of South Carolina and I’m glad I did, because that’s where I met my wife. And that’s where I got my degree, and I didn’t have to fight for somebody’s attention because Dr. Miller was already my mentor. He had written letters for me. I knew I was going to work with him. If you do grad school work, you’ll find out that one of the serious anxieties graduate students have is about who will be their mentor. And that wasn’t an issue for me, and it would’ve been all worth it even if that because I met my wife. But yep. So, I run the numbers back, I’m 2 for 10. 20%, but I got into the only two schools that mattered, and that ended up with me being here, which is a good thing.

Amanda: Our third question is how did you meet Dr. Terry? Which you kind of already answered in chapel, but…

Sircy: She was a graduate student who got accepted into the PhD program when I did—there were four of us. And so, I knew of her, she was in my office, but my office meant she was one of seventeen other people. So, I didn’t know her that well—she was commuting at that point. She didn’t live in Columbia, she lived in Rock Hill, SC and would travel down every day, back and forth. Her situation changed in between fall and spring semester, and I got to know her better over the summer after our first year because she started dating my best friend in the program. And so, I got to know her through Lars, and then when Lars left at the end of the summer to go to Purdue we kept talking and started dating a little bit after that and never stopped dating.

Dynestee: How does it feel to be married to someone who shares your profession?

Sircy: I don’t think that’s weird, I don’t think that’s weird because I—so much of our lives and our sort of passions overlap. What’s blessed, which is something that I take for granted, is that we get to work at the same place. Like, I don’t think it’s odd for two English majors to be dating. I think it’s odd to have had the opportunity to work at the same place as my wife with a full time gig twice now. That is what is unexpected, so… as somebody who not only who does the same thing but works at the same place as their spouse, that’s the difference I think.

Amanda: Do you prefer teaching at Christian Universities? If so, why, if not, why not?

Sircy: Well, since I’ve gotten my doctorates, these are the only two schools I’ve taught at—Charleston Southern and here. I’m glad God let me go to a Christian university after USC. I wasn’t very strong of a Christian and being at a Christian school let me become stronger. I had a campus visit at a state school in Wisconsin and thinking back on it it was such a blessing that I did not get the job there—1. Because it would’ve been a serious rift in our marriage because Britt did not want to move to Wisconsin, and 2. Here’s the difference: it is not as though everybody up in this place is like “go Jesus!”—faculty members—but the kind of screensaver on campus is faith-conducive. So there’s certainly no faculty vibe that like “Man, *sigh* this Jesus thing…” sighing and sort of making faith a burden that we have to carry. In fact, I think here, as well as CSU there are a lot of true believers who are great and who encourage you in your faith. But in general, it was just not being in a circumstance, which I was at USC, where the default vibe was non-believing and more than that, sort of negatively disposed to people who believe. And I am a people-pleaser, so it was not a good thing for me to be around people who wanted me to seem smart and progressive in terms of my theoretical approaches to lit and in terms of the work I was doing, to be around people who didn’t care whether it meshed with my faith or not. So now, I think I could go teach at Clemson or at Furman or at a place like that that isn’t explicitly Christian, and I’m actually sort of hypothetically interested in what I would do now—because now, my teaching is overtly faith-filled in a way that was not true my first couple of years teaching where I still had a USC mindset. I don’t know… so. There you go.

Amanda: So, I have a slight follow up question that is not on here. How do you incorporate your faith into your teaching?

Sircy: That’s the education philosophy: education is discipleship. That’s what it is. Like, a disciple is a student, Jesus is a rabbi, so at the heart of what he did when he was on earth is 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.” So, the daily recitation, where you stand up and read, is straight out of church liturgy. The benediction at the end—stand before you leave—the sort of moments of reflection, all that stuff’s coming out of a structure of faith. In terms of being more explicit, that is something I’ve been working on. That’s what the gratitude exercise at the beginning of class is designed to do. To get—and I need to do a better job—I think, initially my pitch to students would always be some sort of pragmatic “It’ll help you get a job if you can do x, y, and z” and then finally I started to realize that “Man, that is so Pharisaical, and just selling my students short.” So, really pitching it in terms of what the discipline of English can do for them. But more than that —like who cares man—if it’s not tied into a larger-–so here’s what it looks like. In chapel, spiritual emphasis week, Jesus—we had a sermon about it on Tuesday—Jesus gets asked, “How do I be a better neighbor?” and he tells a fictional story. Why is that? He doesn’t say “Hey, you know that one guy you know, Jim? Who got jumped by those robbers? And that Samaritan you know, him, Ben, remember how he helped…” He makes up a story. Which means that real truth is being conveyed in the stories we teach, and real truth should be engaged in the papers those students write. So, it was always there, I’m just trying to be more explicit about that.

Amanda: Cool. Alright, I probably shouldn’t have asked that, but I was really curious.

Dynestee: That is the next question.

Amanda: Oh, that was the question! Yeah, never mind. I followed it, I just asked it differently.

Sircy: Are we going to get the transcription of you going back and forth too? Please?

Amanda: Yes! Sure!

Dynestee: Sure, if you want it. Okay, what is the ideal outcome/experience for a student coming out of your class?

Sircy: I have been stuck for a while on this idea of altar building in the Old Testament where people make, like, physical monuments to some momentous spiritual event. And, that’s what I want. I want the class to be an altar in some way. 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. I have told my students this semester in the gratitude exercise there’s a couple ways of doing this, the gratitude exercise, when you think about a person, an event, and a feature of God, you can come in here every class and come up with something different. Like “Here’s the person I’m grateful for today.” “Here’s the event I’m grateful for today.”  I say if that feels too phony to you, then think of the one person you know you will always be grateful for, and come back to them, and lock in, build an altar where you’re like, “Thank you God for that person.” “I always know that no matter what, I will be thankful for that person. I will be thankful for the ability to do this thing. I am thankful for this quality in you, God, that you have shown to me.” And so, the ultimate goal is that the student has one, two, three, five, ten altars they built that they can return to. Places where they’ve had significant spiritual insights. That may not happen in the three months of the course. It might happen in the form of a paper. It might happen in the form of a question that they keep asking themselves until the Spirit leads them to the answer. It might happen in a conversation we have outside of class. Um, but, that’s the ultimate goal. Because the monument is there to point them to them having met God at that moment. So, that’s what I reward. Which, does not really, you can’t grade that. It’s not like… You can’t say, “Well, we’ve built three altars, Dynestee, I think that’s a B+. One more altar and I could have given you an A.” It doesn’t really work that way. But, and I, yeah, so.

Amanda: Okay, so we asked Dr. Terry if there is any question we should ask you specifically, and she said that we should you about the notebooks. So… what’s up with the notebooks?

Sircy: Uh…She’s just referring to the fact that I plan out my day the day before. Right now I’ve got, I don’t know if I have it with me. Um, so, this thing has like hour by hour and that’s what the past few days have been like, with questions like “What are you grateful for in the morning,” “What are you grateful for in the evening,” “What were the wins for the day,” “What were the lessons you’ve learned,” “What were my targets” (that’s before the day started), that’s just the stuff that happened. I know I’m more effective when I do that. So, gotta do it, you know. It’s easy for me to go to bed at eleven and still get up at five. I can do that for like three weeks and then I’ll start getting sick. I’m not getting any real work done when I go to eleven. Really after nine, so it’s just a good thing to go to bed with my wife when she goes to bed at nine fifteen. And, that’s what that is. That’s like only am I actually going to be able to see what the day’s going to look like if I have that. And I’m making sure that I can see that I’m doing the work I need to do, not just as a professional, but as a father, and as a husband, and all that stuff.

Amanda: Cool.

Dynestee: So, is there one book that has influenced your life above all others, besides the Bible?

Sircy: I thought about that one. Ummm… so any book I’ve read more than once I really care about. I’ve given A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again as a gift more than any other book I’ve ever given. I really, my favorite novel is A Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which I love. Faerie Queene is favorite poem. And, like, Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith was the most important book I ever read about teaching. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is a really, really good book to read too in terms of that. So you can ask me about any of those and I’ll see if I can come up with something more specific. But, those are ones that come to kind. And then there are a lot of other books that I’ve read multiple times that I care about.

Dynestee: I’ve only read some of those on that list.

Amanda: I’ve read some of those. I feel like a terrible English major saying that I’ve only read half of the books on that list. Um, I guess… What about some of those? What about some of those has drawn you to them?”

Sircy: Yeah, the James novel is about the juxtaposition of the world inside your head and what you actually say. So, outside and inside, he’s able to at a moment’s notice give you ten thousand words about what’s going on inside a person’s head. And then, when called upon, has a character say “What did Madame Merle do?” and have the response be “She made a convenience of me.” Six words, that’s it. And that’s it. That sums it up. And so, his sense that the real struggle in people is what happens inside them rather than what happens externally is just magnificent. Faerie Queene is an adventure story and it’s a rich theological allegory. And, it’s a head trip of a poem. And, it is unexpected all the time. And it’s one of those books people talk about closing and then opening it back up and feeling like the characters ran around inside it, because you’re like “Wait, you’re here now? I thought you were over there before.” And, I don’t know. 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’s big thing is like, you should think about life not in terms of what you’re called to do, but in terms of what your responsibilities are. What your roles are. Which means, if I just sit and write down my to-do list for a given day. I will never write down be a good husband or spend time with Cat. I will always write down grade eight papers and make my lesson plans. But, if I start with the knowledge that I’m a disciple, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a friend, I’m a teacher. Then, I’ll make sure that I address all those parts of my life and not just one of them. So, getting roles straight before I head into to-dos. A Supposedly Fun Thing is just a, like those are many times the essays I wish I could write. So, summation of funny, insightful, weird America that I aspire to.

Amanda: There’s a rumor circulating that you have a podcast. Care to comment?

Sircy: I have a podcast about the 1950s, 1960s television program, Perry Mason that already exists. I’ve made seventeen episodes of it. And I, either today or tomorrow, will finish the rough draft of an episode of a podcast that would be a companion to English 305. So I have all the audio recorded and I just need to edit it and put it together. The first one’s on Beowulf, and I would make one for each of the things that I’m teaching in the brick and mortar course. It’s supposed to be a rough draft, so people can listen to it and give me some feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. But there you go. One’s totally only something my dad listens to. And that one would hopefully be more of an educational resource.

Amanda: That’s really cool.

Dynestee: Well, you went straight into, let’s see, question number twelve. Do you incorporate multimedia skills into your teaching?

Sircy: I think I used to do it a whole lot more. In an ideal world, everyone would have an iPad Pro. And I would be able to save trees and just send them their daily worksheet that they can write on with an apple pencil and interact that way. And there’s a whole bunch of stuff we could do with that. If we had a one to one classroom, which we don’t have. So, right now it’s funny. I use less multimedia in my classroom than I ever have. Even though I use media stuff, and apps, and hacks, and stuff like that to help me prepare to teach all the time. Speed reading apps and just a bunch of different stuff. I decided most of my work would be better spent rather than making a PowerPoint, would be better spent making a daily worksheet that you could put your hands on and write on and work on. So, paper seems very antimedia or it’s the oldest media maybe. But, that’s the way my teaching looks right now, and if some technological gift grants us more tools then I will start to make use of that. But, right now that’s what we got.

Dynestee: Is there anything you would like to add?

Sircy: The best work I do merges my faith and my academic pursuits. My teaching is always better when I remember that the people who are sitting in front of me have souls and that they’re made in God’s image. My scholarship though can be a means of discipleship too in that it can be a space to work through a faith or theological issue I’m thinking through and now that I see that that’s what I want that work to do to. I don’t want that to be either teaching or scholarship. I want it to be under the umbrella of being a disciple, like here you go. That’s the work I do. Ultimately, that work, the most important thing that ever happened to my teaching was my wife telling me “You need to care more about me and your daughter than you do about your teaching” and when I was at CSU that happened in the summer of 2016 and I spent explicitly less time teaching that next academic year than I ever had. And it was the year I got teacher of the year. God like poking me in the forehead, like “See, all you were trying to do was micromanage everything within an inch of itself. You needed to let it go.” So, once I prioritized being a father, being a husband, being a friend above being a teacher and scholar, I actually became a better teacher and scholar. And all that stuff is under being a disciple.

Dynestee: Great!

Amanda: Thank you.

Dynestee: Yes, thank you.