By Joy S. Jones
“I believe the students who come to Valencia have chosen this route, whether by circumstance or happenstance and because of it, they should get the same quality and level of education they’d get at any of the nation’s top-tier universities.” – Professor of English Rudy Darden, West Campus
Visit Rudy Darden’s office and you’ll find tchotchkes from around the globe — Cuba, Guyana, India — blended among photos of his family, a framed letter from a student sharing the meaning she derived from his class and, of course, books. The trinkets are gifts from students whom he can still call by name. A text chimes in from another student, a mentee, who reminds him of a meeting they’ve scheduled at Dunkin’ Donuts at three.
“The idea that we need to create initiatives to engage students is a great one I’d like to improve upon. I believe we should give students our time and our hearts. That is part of Valencia’s DNA, and I don’t believe I could do what I’m able to do in terms of impacting students’ lives anywhere but Valencia,” said Rudy.
An English professor on West Campus, Rudy’s approach to teaching and learning is to not only teach the mechanics of grammar and composition, but to help students discover their voice and grasp the value of living an examined life. Though he readily admits that it’s a tall order, it is work he feels he is called to do.
“When I first started teaching, there was the canonized literature — the works that speak to our human nature, and who we are as a people group, regardless of time. While all of that is great and I do incorporate some of that in my lectures, I add to those works with more diverse authors who add to some of the relevant experiences of other people groups, and by doing so, I believe I’m creating a more inclusive and comprehensive approach to composition,” he said.
Rudy found that if he was to expose his students to an academic, formal way of writing, he would need to do so in ways that were relevant to them, in poignant conversations that went beyond simply promoting current events. And so he chose authors who had different biographies to speak to the diverse culture groups in his classroom in ways that validated and affirmed them. One of his assignments is to read one of many coming-of-age tales and then have students write their own.
“They’re fascinating and the students model the narratives the way the stories are told. When they examine their own experiences — not just reading about others’ — there’s value in helping them understand who they are,” he said. “I want students to have a more refined voice and for them to take authorial autonomy over what they say as a result of experiences had in my class. Even if they may misplace a comma, they will know how to use the language in support of their beliefs and truly know what their voice sounds like in a sea of voices. ”
Rudy, a Valencia grad who served as SGA president (2005-06), attended courtesy of the Soldiers to Scholars program. He credits his pedagogical approach to his one-time English professor, now colleague, Neil Sebacher, who led him on the path of discovering his own voice by creating an environment — asking thought-provoking questions, leaving space to hear their truths and valuing his students’ responses — that left him feeling validated and capable of influencing others in like fashion.
To wit, he also volunteers with Bridges to Success “Making and Modeling of Mature Men” as a mentor. When data showed that black male students had higher rates of attrition at Valencia, in spite of the services provided through Bridges, he answered the call when Bridges to Success Director Tanisha Carter called on her male peers to provide the students with additional instructional material and lecture opportunities to further engage them.
Furthermore, Rudy’s deep involvement in key college initiatives has continued to empower him. He serves as West Campus Faculty Assembly vice president, on the General Education Committee as the faculty voice for Valencia at UCF/Creative Village, has completed SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training and Destination, is a Learning Leadership Council member, a facilitator with the Peace and Justice Initiative and recently earned a 10-month English tenure track position. He also serves as a college advisor to multiple student clubs, including Cru and The Movement. In his spare time, he wrote a forthcoming book titled “The Stupid College Student: The Top 10 Mistakes College Students Make.”
“There’s no greater joy than doing work that’s tied to my beliefs, and it’s great to be given the platform to do the things that matter to me in my in my job, in my community and in my church. Life doesn’t present us at the starting line at the same place. People of color and women very often start behind. Valencia speaks to that kind of disparity and says that no matter where you are, we can level the playing field in education. People are really carrying that charge, and I believe that mine is to model it.”
Know of someone doing great work at the College, who has been an employee for one year or more? Send the colleague’s name to us at The_Grove@valenciacollege.edu. He or she might be one of our featured colleagues, subject to supervisor’s approval.