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Feature Stories

A Sense of Astonishment
practicing what he teaches
Dr. John Perry

Writing isn't a matter of choice for Dr. John Perry any more than acting is for an actor, or playing the violin is for a musician. For Perry, writing is the essence of life.

“It's what the (ancient) Greeks called necessity, something I must do even if I never have a best seller,” says Perry, who is a joint professor of English and Speech Communication at the University of the Incarnate Word. “Writing makes me feel fulfilled.”

By teaching what he knows, from the joys of writing to the nuts and bolts of making oneself understood, Perry also helps a lot of students feel fulfilled in their education.

“Dr. Perry is cited by many graduating seniors as the faculty member that made the most impression on them during their years at UIW,” says Dr. Donna Aronson, Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. “I know that he has made an impression on me as his dean.”

In 2004, the Student Government Association voted him Teacher of the Year. And twice in the last five years, graduating seniors have voted him the instructor who most changed their lives.

“I teach students skills they can use in the real world, not just academic settings,” Perry says. “I'm very pragmatic about everything, and this is why the students like my classes.”

Perry's classes include Public Speaking & Persuasion, Non-Verbal Communication, Interpersonal Communication, Business & Professional Communication, and Voice & Diction. Perry even runs his own department that offers a minor in Speech Composition.

He currently teaches technical writing and magazine article writing on the undergraduate level, and research and writing techniques on the graduate level.

“I teach writing because I write all the time and feel comfortable in that world,” Perry says. His books include biographies of novelist Jack London and playwright
James A. Herne. Perry's articles have appeared in children's magazines such as “Highlights for Children” and “Child Life” and in scholarly journals such as “English Journal” and “Quarterly Journal of Speech.”

“Dr. Perry is a good example of the professional writer/teacher,” says Aronson. “When teaching a course in magazine article writing, he can point to his own writing as examples.”

Perry has also been published in such diverse mainstream periodicals as “History Magazine” (on the history of the hearse), “Wild West” (the sensational story of Helena, Texas) and “The Toastmaster” (the art of foot talk).

“I'm very eclectic. Whatever I'm interested in, I'll write,” he says.

Perry finds inspiration everywhere he looks, and usually one thing leads to another. For example, while visiting Fredericksburg's National Museum of the Pacific War for an article on “Naval History,” he saw a captured Japanese midget submarine that was part of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Perry, who was amazed at how little was known about this part of the attack, recognized it as a good topic for another article; it's slated for a forthcoming issue of “World War II.”

“People are always asking me why I write about so many different things,” Perry says. “And I answer, why not?’ Does a carpenter just build cape cods or ranch houses? Does a doctor just handle colds and broken bones? Does a dressmaker just sew skirts?”

“I can pretty much write about anything that interests me, provided I have enough time.”

No-nonsense pep talks like that define a conversation with this excitable, fast-talking New Yorker who is known around campus for the trademark dark glasses he sports indoors and outdoors, due to a sensitivity to light.

As he sits in a semi-dark office lit by two lamps, Perry explains why his publishing success has a direct bearing on teaching students in the classroom.

“Probably the slogan for all my classes in writing is 'Less is more,'” Perry says. “I tell them there's a famous saying among all writers - 'If I only had more time, I could have written less.'”

Perry, who doesn't want students to learn how to pad their writing, says “I tell them the great writings have been simple so that a child can understand them. The Bible, The Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' are all good examples.

“These works aren't complex, using big words or abstract ideas. They appeal to the guy on the street as well as the intellectual,” Perry says. “As Strunk and White say in their wonderful 'Elements of Style” (book), 'do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.'”

He adds, “If you came into one of my classes, that's the first thing and the last thing I teach. And that's because I write!”
Since students learn how to communicate in Perry's classes, he gives them a living example by engaging with them and demonstrating the techniques for holding an audience's attention.

“I lace high energy with stories, metaphors and lots of interaction,” he explains. “Students must also sense that knowledge is relevant to their immediate lives rather than for enrichment or some far-off idyllic dream. Engagement is all about social dynamics.

“I feel it's so important to reach students on an emotional level. This is sometimes difficult, but well worth the effort. It's when you touch feelings in some meaningful way that deep learning can take place.”

And yet, Perry believes what's most important is what happens after class.

“I think a really excellent instructor is the one who sees students reading books mentioned in class,” he says. “That says you're successful, not when they're are looking at their watches and yawning after ten minutes.”

Another measure of success is the students' own evaluations. Typical remarks from last semester give an idea of how Perry's practical approach and personal style impact what students learn.

“He always pushed us and never gave us an assignment without the proper tools to do it. He was awesome,” wrote one student. Another wrote, “There should be a course for teachers instructed by Dr. Perry on how to effectively teach a class. In my entire academic career, I have not had a teacher that maintains your focus each and every class session.”

Perry views it all as part of his commitment as a teacher.

“Workplace studies say that executives lament because college graduates lack communication skills. That really bothers me,” he says. “I feel that I'm charged with a mission of providing students with tools they can use in life to become successful, satisfied, and have meaningful relationships.”

Perry's experiences influence another nugget of practical advice that he shares with his students.

“Your best friend in life is persistence,” he says. “If you keep at something long enough, ten, twenty, even thirty years, success will finally sit on your doorstep and ask you out to play.”