A Listening Man and Former Dead Head: Brad Benz
– interviewed by Blake Sanz
Brad Benz joined the Writing Program in 2010, leaving Fort Lewis College, where he was associate professor of English and Director of Writing. Benz earned his PhD at the University of Washington (BA, Kansas; MA Humboldt State).
[Note: Blake Sanz is interviewing all writing program faculty. Prior to each interview, Blake asks his colleague to select one of 25 items from a list of artifacts and talk about how they'd use it in teaching. –ed.]
Though he's not trying to, Brad Benz can fool you pretty easily. There's his disarmingly genuine, high-pitch laugh that puts you at ease and hides his intellect. There's the hooded sweatshirt he's wearing this Wednesday afternoon at the office, which makes it easy to imagine he's never stressed. There's the gray-haired, bespectacled visage you can picture anxious students finding a comfort, making it easy for them to forget the complexity of an assignment he's asked them to complete. There is, too, the casual, reserved demeanor that belies his Dead Head past. None of this is a front. He's not hiding anything.
This befits a man whose primary role these days outside of DU is raising his daughter, Lily. It didn't take long for her to come up in conversation.
"The other day, I was trying to teach [her] to ski, and she's 4, so she just wanted to go straight down," he says. It's a full-on job for him to get her to understand that every once in a while, turning—or even stopping—might be in order. "Both teaching and parenting involve a lot of patience," he explains. This complements the sense you get when you're around Brad: that he approaches life at home and work with a certain, measured amount of calm. Within a few minutes of hanging out with him, you can see he's a guy who knows not just about patience, but about listening, too. "I think that's a teacherly trait," he remarks,
Life as Brad the Dad in Louisville, Colorado is "pretty suburban," he says laughing, but he's embracing the role. "Being a single dad's great. It's complicated," he offers. His routines have changed now. For example, he can't write in the early mornings anymore, and so he's become a bit of a night writer, in the hours after he puts Lily down for bed. "I've learned a lot about myself," he says. With a smile he adds, "It's a lot harder than teaching."
Having served as Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Program at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Brad has spent his adult life in higher education, teaching at public universities and private ones. He's given conference talks on HBO's Deadwood and on the rhetoric of the phrase "clean coal." But his academic trajectory, he admits, wasn't necessarily a straight line.
"I wasn't a really good student as an undergrad [at KU, in Lawrence]. I had like seven majors before I settled on English." Couple that with a youth that included following the Grateful Dead around the country, and you get a sense of the meandering path that led him to a career in Rhetoric and Composition.
And it was that musical interest that, indirectly, played a role in his discovery of a place where he eventually first took classes in the field. "The first time I went to Humboldt County was to see the Dead," he says. "I was just blown away by how beautiful it was. And [later], I thought, wow, they have a university here. I could get a masters degree," he says laughing, and admits: "It wasn't academic ambitions that were driving my choices back then."
Brad's Choice From The List
When asked which of my 25 artifacts he'd most want to consider using in a writing class, he chose a Johnny Cash tune, Cash's version of "Hurt," the Nine Inch Nails dirge from the 90s, and we talk for a while about that choice and what he found interesting about possibly using it in the classroom.
"I do love Cash, and so that was the immediate attraction, but I was thinking in terms of his covers, too. We talk a lot in my class about originality and making claims out of ideas and then citing them and not plagiarizing them. And I was thinking that it's pretty different with music in some ways. [Johnny Cash's 'Hurt'] is a cover song. And yeah, people know that it's a Reznor song at least in the credits on the album, but a lot of people who hear it probably have no idea."
This comparison to academic notions of giving credit intrigues him. "I'm sure that Trent Reznor was stoked when Cash covered his song, whereas, with [our academic] notions of plagiarism, [the reaction] is more like 'Well, they're stealing from me.' It's not that generous."
Brad's most recently been working on a project that explores the term "clean coal"—where it came from, how it gets appropriated, and how its uses have morphed over time. Originally, he figured the project would only focus on its recent political uses. "I was really surprised to see that the phrase has been around a while. The earliest reference I found was in 1734. And it was more in terms of coal that you could stick in your stove that wouldn't get your hands as dirty, or that burned cleaner in terms of the amount of smoke. And then I found some really cool ads from newspapers from the 1890s—these clean coal ads from the classifieds describing coal for family use. And so, I was really surprised because when I started researching, I figured I would focus on how we use the term now. I hadn't anticipated the history of it."
He's presented a portion of this project at Western States Rhetoric and Literary Conference this past year, and in CCCC in St. Louis, he'll present more research. "I was mostly thinking of [the term] as this oxymoron, this Orwellian double-speak. And that's still a big part of what drives the argument. What I've found is that people don't say "clean coal" any more. They say "clean coal technology." So, it's become this modifier for "technology," which is in some ways at least a bit closer to the truth—well, because there's really no such thing as clean coal."
One more time, he laughs. He's talked enough, I sense. He'll listen—to colleagues, including professors from other departments for whom he conducts workshops. To students asking questions about his assignments. To Lily as she makes him listen to some particular track from the new Lucero album he's introduced her to. It's not that he only listens. But that's likely the version of him you'll remember most.