Curiosity driven professor and poet inspires

Kodee Christensen

When senior English lecturer, Dennis Etzel, came to Washburn as an undergraduate student, he knew exactly what he wanted to be: a computer programmer. That is, until a professor of psychology, the late Jorge Nobo, called Etzel into his office to tell him that, while he knew the tenants of psychology, he wasn’t a great writer.

“I flipped the question on him and said, ‘Okay, so how do I become a great writer,’” Etzel said. “And he said, ‘carry a thesaurus, and keep a journal.’ So I started the journal, and that became poems. Then the poems led me to open mic poetry nights at The Classic Bean downtown. For me, poetry and writing has always meant community.”

Much of Etzel’s work features inspirations from his various different life experiences. “My Secret Wars of 1984” is experimental poetry based on the toughest year of Etzel’s life, while “The Sum of Two Mothers” is Etzel’s take on being raised by two mothers and how this experience has bled into his own journey as the father of five boys.

“I get excited about [writing] already, so I can’t help but be excited and optimistic [in the classroom.] That’s it. I know that when people are hesitant or worried about writing, it’s because someone somewhere has told them they’re not a great writer; it comes from my experience.”

In just the first few weeks of class, freshman English major Isabelle Pryor has found things to love about Etzel’s Reading as Writers class.

“I’ve really enjoyed how it’s a lot less formal than some of the classes I’ve taken in the past,” said Pryor, “and how the informality allows for a lot of growth and discussion that actually helps you learn.”

This knack for helping students learn comes from Etzel’s own desire to learn.

“I want to find things that are engaging and say that it’s ok to fail and it’s great to have wonder and speculation and curiosity,” he said. “Every time I start a poem, it’s because I’m curious about what’s going to happen. As a professor, I think, if I’m not curious about it, how are students going to be curious about it?”

Etzel also strives to maintain an open atmosphere in the classroom in which students can share diverse ideas respectfully without changing their own world views.

“He’s really accepting of all different kinds of students and seems genuine in his desire to hear what we have to say and hear our stories and to help us develop into the best students we can be,” said Pryor.

As a final word of encouragement, Etzel pays forward the advice that he received as a student at Washburn.

“Carry a thesaurus and keep a journal,” said Etzel. “No wonder it helped me with poetry, because it’s not definitions; it’s how words are connected to other words. And that’s true learning, when you can associate words with other words. It’s really a good thing.”

Edited by Adam White, Jason Morrison, Brianna Smith, Jessica Galvin