Teaching Fellow Draws Inspiration
From Sea, Song and Sports
efore the chapel at the mansion on the Avery Point campus was converted to a garden, Stephen Jones used to assemble his English students there to deliver Father Mapple's sermon from Herman Melville's Moby Dick.
He demonstrated that old Yankee bombast again the other day, as he walked past the site on a quick campus tour in an early spring sun not quite strong enough to warm the wind off Long Island Sound.
He recalled that after one such performance, a student came up to him and said: "If real sermons were like that I'd go back to church."
The story Jones, one of this year's University Teaching Fellows, tells reflects his style of engaging students and making learning memorable. Other faculty members and former students recall classes in which he has used props that include dueling swords to illustrate French literature and an oar to illustrate Homer's Odyssey.
"I want to be able to share with students how you make writing work," he says. "I give them bits and pieces of things and see how they put it together."
Jones' teaching and his own writing are closely linked to the sea, which has shaped his life in multiple ways. As a child, he took trips on his grandfather's lobster boat to service a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse keeper. More recently he has worked with the Groton Shellfish Commission, helped establish the UConn Coastal Studies Program, and gone into partnership with his son Geoffrey in the West Mystic Wooden Boat Co. (A baseball cap with the boat company's logo is a regular part of his attire.)
Jones' course load at Avery Point ranges from the introductory classes English 105 and 109 to an evening course in literature of the sea, which tends to attract older students.
"As I go through the day and the sun starts to go down, the students get older and I change my approach," he says. "I also teach a course in nature writers. It's one of the few vestiges remaining of the flower children courses of the 60s."
Jones' teaching also manifests his other loves: music and sports.
Jones is a former jazz trumpeter, and his colleagues and former students credit his ability to improvise. He is careful to distinguish between improvising and "winging it," however. Improvisation has a discipline to it, he says: "It's got a chord pattern, a rhythm, the tradition in which a song has been played."
He also draws on his experience playing quarterback on his high school football team and what is now called point guard on the high school basketball team.
"All of those things have been very helpful to me. If you're a quarterback and you call an audible, you have to know what your options are."
Calling on another sports metaphor, Jones says that over the years he has learned the beauty of the economy of motion.
"When I started teaching the classics course, I did 11 books. I'm now down to three. I was reminded of that by something (Boston Celtics great) Bill Russell said. Someone asked him how many pairs of basketball shoes he went through. He said he'd gone from three pairs every year to one pair every three years."
Author and former student Elinor De Wire of Gales Ferry calls Jones one of her favorite people, recalling her time as a Bachelor of General Studies student at the Avery Point campus in the late 1980s.
"Steve was my advisor and mentor," she wrote in a letter supporting his recognition as a Teaching Fellow. "The challenge of returning to college at age 34 was enormous. I had a busy career as a freelance writer, a full-time job as a museum teacher at Mystic Seaport, and a growing family."
She said Jones' "encouragement, understanding, empathy and indefatigabl e sense of humor sustained me through this most challenging period of my life."
De Wire recalled last week how he helped her fulfill her introductory-l evel English requirement by using her skills as a teaching assistant, as she had already published several books by the time she returned to study for the BGS degree: "Sometimes the University makes you jump through hoops you've already jumped through," she said. "Steve acted as a liaison between me and the University."
Kim Phillips, associate professor of history at Avery Point and a colleague of Jones since 1975, calls Jones a "learned man who wears his learning lightly; a sophisticated man with a down-home style of dress and demeanor.
"He is the institutional memory and the resident 'wise man' of our campus," she says. "It is not an exaggeration to say that he is a mentor to us all at Avery Point.
"Junior faculty benefit from his counsel, and the entire faculty and staff delight in his collegiality and friendship," she adds. "He is a master story-teller, whether the subject is baseball, music history or his rich store of arcane and esoteric knowledge."
Jones says former faculty member John Malcolm Brinnin was a major influence when Jones was a student at UConn. Brinnin helped introduce the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas to the U.S. and was friends with other writers, from T.S. Eliot to Truman Capote.
"You seek out people who are good at what you want to do," Jones recalls of his relationship with Brinnin. "He was a wonderful pencil-on-the-page editor. He impressed me with the way to put words on a page and how you can make a career in writing."
Jones says an early influence on his teaching was an experience he had as a laborer on a construction job when he was a young man.
"One day I was going across a scaffold plank with a wheelbarrow filled with cement. I looked down and could see all those reinforcement bars looking up at me, just waiting for me to fall. Then the wheelbarrow starts to sway and I know I'm going to fall on those bars."
An older worker below him saw what was happening and yelled up to him: "Just set it down. Just set it down."
"That's what I did," Jones recalls.
"On my first day as a teacher, I was holding the class list, which in those days was on a thin sheet of paper. I'm behind the lectern, and the paper is shaking. Then I remembered what that guy had said to me. I just put the paper down - and I'm still in the business."