Nudged Along the Path

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Debbie Harrison

Adjunct Faculty, Linguistics and English Language


I love what I do—teaching composition and usage classes part time at BYU is my dream job. But I didn’t start out teaching here, and I didn’t know it would be my dream job when I started out. We each go down interesting paths to get where we are, nudged along the way by gentle hands.

I always knew I wanted to teach, and I always knew I wanted to teach English. I am one of those rare students who never once changed her major. I graduated from BYU with a double teaching major in English and Spanish. But I wasn’t done learning! I wanted more! So I earned my Master of Arts in Humanities with an emphasis in 19th century European literature and art. Literature was, after all, my first love.

My husband and I graduated on the same day with our master’s degrees. I was four months along with our first child. And then we headed off into “the world” and settled down in Spokane, Washington, where I willingly set aside any plans to get a PhD in lieu of raising our family. But I still wanted to teach English, so I found a part-time job teaching English language for English education majors at Whitworth College, a private Presbyterian, liberal arts school. Teaching language wasn’t my forte, but I loved to teach and learn, so I threw myself into the subject matter.

Whitworth was a perfect fit for me, and I taught there for 21 years. I taught one night class a week until all our six children were in school, and then I taught composition a couple hours during the day three times a week. So, I was there to send our children off to school in the morning, there when they got home from school in the afternoon, and available for all their school and sporting events. Yet I was still able to pursue my love of teaching English. As I said, it was perfect.

And interesting things developed from my teaching at Whitworth. Teaching the language class sparked my interest in language and grammar and usage and editing as I researched and studied those subjects to be able to teach the class better. It also gave me sixteen more years of experience in teaching composition, and learning, by trial and error, how to teach it better. Then my husband sold our business in Spokane, and we moved back to Utah County in 2001. Now I no longer just wanted to teach, I needed to teach. Since I had kept my finger in the composition pot all those years, I was hired to teach composition part-time at BYU. And because of what I had learned teaching the language class, when the usage professor retired I was prepared to step in to teach those classes. And even edit for fun on the side. Both things I had never imagined I would love so much or even be good at before my time at Whitworth.

I discovered that having my master’s degree opened doors for me that would otherwise have been closed. With a master’s I could teach at any local college or university part time. And teaching at a university opened up still more doors that have enriched my life in countless ways.

So here I am, in my dream job at BYU: a literature major who fell in love with teaching college composition and who discovered, quite accidentally, that she loved language and editing. Who would have thought? And how would I have known that, had not unseen hands nudged me in those directions? I never tell people that I have to “go to work.” I tell them I am “going to teach.” And teaching invigorates and energizes me. I look forward to it each day. I also look forward to the amazing students that grace my classes and brighten my days, the wonderful colleagues who share so many of my same interests and have delightful senses of humor, the subjects that never grow old to me, and the academic setting where I can continue, every day, to learn. And share what I learn. That is the best part. Sharing. And feeling like what I teach makes a difference in my students’ lives.

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