Meet Dr. Joe Coulombe, an English professor who has been teaching at Rowan University for 20 years.
What is your area of expertise?
I’m a generalist in U.S. literature, but I’ve used that broad framework to develop research specializations in three areas: Mark Twain and the American West; contemporary Native American fiction; and the function of humor in literature.
What inspires you to continue teaching?
Two things: literature is endless, and my students are wonderful.
I’ve always been fascinated by the ideas and artistry of literature, specifically the ways that literary narratives shape our nation and its cultures. Literature involves so much – history, sociology, psychology, philosophy, cultural studies, etc. – that you can never reach the end! There are always new intersections and insights.
Second, I love talking with students about how literature informs our past and present. Rowan students bring such an exciting energy to the classroom, and they share unique and sometimes generational ways of thinking about issues and ideas. The classroom dynamic – that is, students’ interests and backgrounds – directs our discussion. It’s always new!
How would you describe your teaching style?
My goal is to create a collaborative classroom that invites students to voice their own responses about assigned poems, plays, and novels. While I provide interpretive frameworks for our discussions, I adapt my approach to students’ interests. They often alert me to themes and questions that I hadn’t fully anticipated, and I use those moments to redirect our collective focus to how the text addresses their concerns. Ideally, my teaching style is one of informed versatility and structured exploration.
Share an “aha!” moment you’ve had within your discipline that made you feel passionate about your field.
My students and I were talking about a collection of very engaging and funny short stories by Sherman Alexie, and we noticed that the narrator repeatedly and explicitly stated when characters laughed. This seemingly minor detail led us to think about how humor can function in varied ways: as a signal of creativity and intelligence, or as an insulting put-down, or as method of fostering a connection between ostensibly different people.
We increasingly focused on this last possibility, theorizing that humor can create a sort of shared space for people to occupy together. Then we related these moments within the text to the reading experience itself, arguing that Alexie’s fiction builds bridges between groups that have historically been divided. These organic moments of realization and discover are very exciting.
What is one thing you wish people knew about your academic discipline or your research focus?
Majoring in English isn’t simply about learning correct grammar and punctuation. Sometimes the most expressive statements break the rules. Vernacular language is rarely correct, but it can be engaging and insightful.
Second, literary texts don’t “mean anything we want them to.” We support our claims using textual evidence. If we can’t defend our interpretations with evidence, then they are unconvincing at best and wrong at worst.
Our English program prepares students for a variety of career trajectories, not only teaching. Our students learn to work and think independently; they develop their oral and written communication skills; and they build a broad yet detailed understanding of language and culture that facilitates their individual success.
Learn more about the English program at Rowan University.