Gardner Stevenett, M.A. ’18 graduated from LMU’s English M.A. Program with an emphasis in Literature. As a Teaching Fellow, he worked as a Writing Instructor for a number of First Year Seminar courses and also taught sections of Rhetorical Arts. Today he is the English Chair at Junipero Serra High School. He is the author of The Serra Writer’s Manual, an essay-writing handbook inspired by Jesuit educational philosophy and dedicated to advancing high school students’ social empowerment and responsibility.
Q: What brought you to LMU?
A: My path to higher education wasn’t exactly traditional. I moved to Los Angeles ten years ago to play drums in a rock band. It was a good time, but the excitement faded and I eventually enrolled in community college before transferring to Southern Utah University. However, my goal had always been to return to Southern California, and LMU had been on my radar for quite some time. I have Dr. Dermot Ryan to thank for bringing me into the English M.A. program. After a few good conversations about the program and about Joyce, I became sure that LMU was the place to earn the graduate education and teaching experience I had been seeking.
Q: What were the academic highlights, achieved both within and outside of the university, of your time at LMU? Conferences, publications, awards?
A: Highlights from my time in the program include receiving the Spring Research Award, which funded my visit to the Virginia Woolf archive at the University of Sussex; presenting my research on Woolf at LSU’s English Graduate Student Association Mardi Gras Conference as well as LMU’s Graduate Research Symposium. I also published a short story in LA Miscellany, and was awarded 2nd place in both the Daniel T. Mitchell Memorial 2018 Graduate Essay Contest and LMU’s Graduate Short Story Contest. These are all accomplishments that would surely not have been possible without the LMU English faculty’s genuine investment and support in my critical and creative work.
Q: What do you do in your current role?
A: I was hired at my school to teach and develop new curriculum for 11th and 12th grade English courses. I’ve worked really hard to invigorate the content of my courses to best resonate with my school’s diverse student body. In fact, my courses take on a number of texts I discovered during my graduate work at LMU (and which very few high school students have traditionally been exposed to). These are texts like Passing by Nella Larsen and Black No More by George Schuyler. Since becoming Department Chair, I have taken on new managerial responsibilities. This was somewhat daunting at first, but the experience has taught me so much about what good communication and empathy (cornerstones of my education in Jesuit Rhetoric) can achieve in working with students, administrators, and faculty.
Q: What authors inspire your work?
A: It’s perfectly natural to me to be inspired by novelists in my teaching. One of the authors I really fell in love with at LMU is Virginia Woolf. I read most of her books, and her investigations—both fictional and nonfictional—into how to live in a modern world have touched me to the marrow. Woolf’s tenacity when it comes to self-discovery, and her fearlessness in openly witnessing and accepting whatever may come her way, are qualities I try to keep in the forefront of my mind when I’m working with students. There have been many times in the classroom where, for one reason or another, nothing has gone as planned, where an established lesson or learning goal seems to take a nosedive. Woolf taught me to allow myself to exist in that particular moment, take a good breath, and open myself to the opportunities of the newborn environment. Maybe a better way to word this is to say Woolf has helped me to go with the flow and trust that my students and I will land on our feet—more often than not in an exciting, unpredictable place!
Q: What are your future academic or professional plans?
A: Down the road, I can certainly see myself working toward a Ph.D. involving Rhetoric. I’ve become fascinated with the conversations happening today about how teachers can best communicate with today’s teenagers. I doubt there has ever been a wider cultural gap between high school students and the adults in their lives than what we see today. I have no idea, for example, what it must be like to be a teenager with a smart phone and social media notifications going off every minute or two! I do know that whatever my future entails, I hope to be on the forefront of high school education and the unique and necessary bridge-building opportunities that will ensure critical-thinking success for our next generation.
What is your dream job?
A: In a lot of ways, I feel like I already have it. I get to teach the literature and the building blocks of theory that I’m interested in teaching. I get to participate in the never-ending task of trying to teach how writing works. I get to feed off an unlimited supply of my students’ energy and enthusiasm. I’m a happy camper.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in LMU’s English Graduate program?
A: Here’s the advice I wish I would have had upon entering my graduate program: There are so many opportunities for exciting, thought-provoking, and fulfilling work with a graduate degree in the humanities. Most of my stress during graduate school tended to fixate on that single career trajectory of M.A. to Ph.D. to tenure-track Professorship—and, of course, the increasing difficulty of making that happen these days. My advice is to open your explorations into other career avenues that perhaps haven’t yet crossed your mind, and understand that the critical thinking skillset you will develop in LMU’s English Graduate program are as valuable and in-demand today as they have ever been.