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Professor James Dempsey is the Go-To Guy for English
By Sasha Fastovskiy
If you want to learn about radioactivity, you’ll need to find a way around the pesky time-space continuum to meet with Madame Marie Curie and converse about theanine and guanine. If you want to master the art of business, you can read up on Mr. Sam Walton himself and figure out how to slash prices, increase revenue, and globally brand the perfect smiley face. But to learn about features writing, Professor James Dempsey himself is nearly a stone’s throw away ~ less expensive than time travel but certainly equally educational.
Claiming that “You can’t write about me without describing a big nose and an accent,” Dempsey hails out of Liverpool, coming to the United States after obtaining his Bachelors Degree. The WPI Administrator of Literature and adjunct instructor of English at Clark University speaks fondly of the unique interests he shares with his students ~ journalism, good literature, and barbed wire. A self-proclaimed “technical geek,” Dempsey feels a close bond with both the “Techies” and the “Clarkies.”
Although he started teaching at Clark back in 1976, he made the full transition into teaching after working as a columnist for the Telegram and Gazette for nearly twenty years, what he calls “…the best job in journalism. It was talking to people and finding out what’s going on.” As a big proponent of investigative journalism, features reporting, and research in general, Dempsey teaches the ins and outs of the profession in his classes. “It is one of the most anxiety-filled jobs, it is also one of the best. There will always be a need for journalists, no matter what kind. Journalists can approach truth through their work. There will always be a need for people to render the world for others.” Dempsey says that helping students find their own voice is what makes true stories come alive. A great lover of stories about ordinary people, he encourages students to find the hidden stories in everyday life. “In all of the noise, the voices of those with really compelling stories are lost.”
“I like students,” he says. “I enjoy those who enjoy collective learning. There’s no greater joy than reading a story with a great lead and then thinking, ‘I wish I wrote that.’”
When it comes to student interaction, Professor Dempsey feels a genuine connection to those with a natural curiosity. “You can’t teach that. You must be willing to ask personal, probing questions and recognize the thick-flying bullsh*t.” As far as what he’d like his students to accomplish, he hopes he simply paves the way for them to make their own educated decisions. When asked what goals he would like his students to achieve, he paused and then replied, “Eh, a lot. It is important to love what they do. What I want them to be isn’t generally what they will be, but I want them to get their foot in the door and go.”
Above all else, Professor Dempsey encourages good reading, after which the good stories will come second-nature. However, he asks for one thing in return: “Find the most interesting thing you can. Just don’t bore me.”
Author’s note ~ In the spirit of full disclosure, it is important to mention that although I am now a student in Prof. Dempsey’s Features Writing course at Clark University, I was assigned and began this interview before enrolling in his class.