Center for Excellence Honoree: Mark Johnston

Mark JohnstonIn high school and college Mark Johnston's teachers inspired him to study English. As a Quinnipiac professor, Johnston is the one doing the inspiring.

"Interacting with students and seeing them acquire some of the enthusiasm for the subject that was passed on to me by my best teachers is my favorite part about teaching," Johnston said.

He inspired Jason Greenwood '04 of Griswold, Conn., to enjoy English literature more than he ever thought he would. "I am one of those students who was not very interested in English," Greenwood said. "After the first class I had with Professor Johnston, my interest peaked. His teaching style is second to none. He can take material that someone may not be too interested in and turn it into the person's favorite subject. I loved going to his class. He involves the class more than any other teacher I have had."

Greenwood; Valerie Pensa '04 of Franklin Lake, N.J.; and junior Jennifer Virga, a physical therapy major from Long Island, nominated Johnston for the Excellence in Teaching Award. Pensa said Johnston shows students how literature relates to their lives. "He was able to take the Greek gods and their stories and compare them to ours," Pensa said. "He really understands students and knows how to treat them and talk at their level. You feel comfortable going to him for help with personal issues, because he is so down to earth and personable."

Johnston was studying biology as an undergraduate at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, when he took a course in European literature in his sophomore year. The two professors teaching the course discovered his love for literature. "Their enthusiasm helped win me over," he said. "The influence of my 12th-grade English teacher also caught up to me. She really inspired me to read critically more than other English teachers had.

"I also love to read and write," Johnston said. "What major can you have that allows you to read and write more than English?"

After graduating from Miami University in Oxford in 1968, Johnston enrolled at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., and earned his master's degree in English in 1971. He knew he wanted to be a teacher, so he went to Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and earned his doctorate in English in 1975. His dissertation was about 18th century influences on Nathaniel Hawthorne.

His first teaching job was as an adjunct at Quinnipiac. He joined the faculty full time one year later. This isn't the first time Quinnipiac has recognized Johnston's teaching. He received the Outstanding Faculty Award in 2002. At the award luncheon, Leonard Engel, chairman of the English department, said, "I've had students say, 'I've become an English major because of Mark Johnston,' or 'I have taken two more English courses because of Mark Johnston.' His classes are a work of art."

Also at the luncheon, sociology Professor Lynne Hodgson recalled reading an anthology written by a student whom she and Johnston had taught. "The forward in the anthology was a tribute to Mark and what he did for her," Hodgson said. "Every time she calls or writes, she asks, 'How is my favorite professor?' and she is not talking about me. That epitomizes what she thinks of him."

Johnston obviously is an effective teacher. "I try to respect all the opinions of the students and their level of knowledge about what I'm teaching," he said. "I make sure every student has something positive to contribute. I also try to employ a variety of methods - lecture, discussion, question and answer and group work."

Most challenging for Johnston is judging students' work fairly. "It's a sensitive issue, because the students want to do well," he said. "But I try to maintain rigorous standards, so they will become better students."

Among Johnston's favorite writers are Homer, William Shakespeare and German novelist Thomas Mann. Johnston writes mostly poetry. It's his magic wand. "I can be anyone I want to be," he said. "I can be a figure in a painting. I can be a chair or Richard III and add another speech to his play."

More than 200 of Johnston's poems have been published. A recent one, "Saint Simeon, Stylite," appeared in the spring issue of the "Birmingham Poetry Review." The poem is about an early Christian saint who lived on top of a tall pillar to escape the temptations of the world.

Ten of Johnston's short stories have been published including "The Dragon in the Photograph" in the spring issue of "Knight Literary Journal." The story is about a troubled woman who hears about a brutal murder while making a dragon costume for her daughter's school play.

Johnston also has edited three anthologies published for freshman composition courses and has written scholarly articles and reviews about writers, such as Hawthorne, Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer.

Johnston teaches courses about epic poetry, Greek tragedy, African-American and Irish literature and has taught a course about the literature of slavery. He taught a course about Irish novelist James Joyce at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, in the summer of 2001. He also teaches poetry for prospective high school teachers in Quinnipiac's Master of Arts in teaching program. "My interests have become more diverse throughout my career," Johnston said.

He was raised in Dayton, Ohio, with two older brothers and sisters. He has one son, Adam; a stepson, Chris; and three daughters, Liz, Ingrid and Emily. Johnston has seven grandchildren ages 2 to 11. Johnston's love for teaching was contagious while raising his children. Liz is an English teacher at Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven. Ingrid is a psychology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia. Both received their bachelor's degrees from Quinnipiac, and Liz also received her master's degree in teaching from Quinnipiac.

Johnston loves reading and writing so much he probably won't notice the difference in his life when he stops teaching. "When I retire, I'll continue to do the same things I'm doing now except grading papers," he said. "How many jobs allow you to say that?"

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