Instructor Spotlight: Dawson Talks Problem Solving, Building Trust, and Ditching Perfection

CATEGORIES: Foundation Courses

The story of Jake Dawson’s start as a lecturer in the ISU English department is a whirlwind. In May 2014, he received an MFA in Creative Writing from NYU. He spent that summer living with his parents and applying to lecturer positions at 4-year institutions and community colleges, as well as academic advisor and writing center consultant positions across the country. “By the end of July, I’d applied to 112 job posts and heard absolutely NOTHING. Having given up on teaching and the world of higher education, I began applying to other jobs. I was literally filling out an online application for a “Moving Laborer” position at a local moving company when I received an email from Volker asking if I was interested in interviewing for a Lecturer position.” Fast-forward to August 3rd, he interviewed for a Lecturer position; on August 6th, he received a job offer; on August 9th, he arrived in Ames with a suitcase and a backpack; and on August 16th, Jake started teaching. 

In addition to his MFA, Jake holds an MA in Rhetoric and Composition from Eastern Illinois University and is working with Associate Teaching Professor Kristin Stoner to develop a Term Faculty Mentorship Program. Expected to launch in the Fall, this program will provide coaching and development resources to term faculty members who are new to the department.

Jake’s willingness to tackle a job like co-creating a mentorship program for term faculty probably comes from his father’s influence, who told Jake, “If you see a problem, don’t complain about it like everyone else. Be the one to solve it.” Jake recalls, “Whether it was about baseball, school, drumming, or yard work (which I still hate), my father has always been full of little gems like this. But that mantra has served me especially well in my professional life.”

His teaching style, which he characterizes as built upon trust, was influenced by a professor at Eastern Illinois University, Letitia Moffitt. “I took my first fiction workshop with her, and it changed my life. Unlike other professors I had, she was REAL. She talked to us like we were people. She asked about movies we loved or were watching, books we were reading, music we were listening to, and she asked us about our lives—what we were winning at and what we were sucking at and what we learned from all those things. She consciously crafted a space for students to be heard and seen, which built an economy of trust that I try to create in every class I teach.” An economy of trust like the one Jake describes is crucial for setting students up for success in any course, but especially in Foundation Courses, which are smaller in class size and more intimate in discussions, learning activities (like peer review), and in writing itself, a skill in which some students lack confidence.

“Building the room” is Jake’s favorite part of teaching. “I work hard to make students feel like people and not just a name in my grade book. I ask about their classes and check in on their personal lives to make sure they’re staying above water. Every Wednesday, we start class with Wednesday Wins, which is an opportunity for students to share BIG SUCCESSES, like acing a test, crushing an internship interview, or going on a date. Before class starts, we chat about books, comic books, movies, tv shows, music, sports, and more. What I’ve learned is it’s the small moments that build the room. It’s the small moments that earn their trust. That trust creates a warm space where students are excited to engage in the material.”  

Jake’s main piece of advice to new instructors is, “Don’t be perfect. Be good enough.”

He doesn’t remember where he heard it said, but he says that it fundamentally changed his mindset as an instructor: ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ Jake explains, “As an instructor—especially when I was new to Iowa State—I put an impossible amount of pressure on myself to deliver a perfect course. Needless to say, somewhere in that first semester—probably while I was drowning in one of my four sections of ENGL 250 essays—I was forced to admit that perfect wasn’t sustainable anymore, and it was actually preventing me from enjoying my work. So, I had a choice: burn out or pivot. ENTER: ‘Perfect is the enemy of good.’ Perfection always gets in the way of performing and learning. Instead, I learned to be good enough. The good enough mindset didn’t mean I compromised the quality of my students’ learning experience. Rather, it taught me to focus my attention and effort on the areas where the return on investment would be measurable and real. This mindset shift also allowed more space for me to take risks and try new things in my lectures and activities because failure wasn’t a boogeyman anymore.”  

Jake likes to spend his free time writing, exercising, practicing jiu-jitsu, camping, trying new places to eat and making coffee. He also loves to read and says he’s looking forward to “burning through a fat stack of books” this summer.  

Jake is an excellent example of the commitment to student success shared by all of our Foundation Courses instructors. His approach to teaching, characterized by creating an atmosphere of trust and being good enough rather than perfect, is a testament to his commitment to helping students succeed.