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Friday, May 7, 2021

Set in his wacky ways

Imagine going to class and having a fellow student show up in a gorilla costume or a class where the professor tweets his entire lecture.

That’s only a taste of what students can expect in Tony Prichard’s classroom.

“For me, the classroom is ultimately a kind of stage. It has its own ethics. It has its own aesthetics,” Prichard said.

Prichard is a senior instructor in the English department at Western and is known for his distinctive teaching methods.

Prichard grew up in a suburb in Alaska before moving to Anchorage for his undergraduate degree at University of Alaska Anchorage. There, he found himself unexcited about the content he was learning for his bachelor’s in English.

“I liked what I was learning but I was often wanting more,” Prichard said. “I didn’t feel like I was being reached.”

Even as a student, Prichard found himself  drawn toward teaching. Feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with his education, Prichard moved to Bellingham and took a class at Whatcom Community College before moving on to get his master’s degree at Western.

While at Whatcom, Prichard worked as a tutor in the writing center and enjoyed the environment. He said the setting was stimulating and made him want to keep teaching.

While working toward his master’s, Prichard was nominated for a teaching showcase along with Dawn Dietrich, an associate professor of English at Western and director of Western Reads. Prichard and Dietrich were nominated for their work together when he assisted in the teaching of her English 364 class.

“For me, the classroom is ultimately a kind of stage. It has its own ethics. It has its own aesthetics.”

Professor Tony Prichard

“It was really unusual because it was a student and a faculty member collaborating in the classroom. He was a co-teacher with me,” Dietrich said. 

After receiving his master’s degree, Prichard was presented with a rare chance to move to Switzerland for his doctorate. The experience was a non-traditional and remarkable opportunity, Prichard said.

Prichard completed his doctorate in 2013 and moved back to Bellingham where he was hired into the English department at Western.

Emma Levy, a graduate student in the English studies department, said Prichard has impacted his students through his unique lessons and advice. She said Prichard was a mentor of hers.

As an undergraduate student at Western, Levy had only started thinking about applying to grad school. Levy said it was Prichard’s advice that helped cement her decision.

Levy said Prichard’s teaching style is incomparable. Levy remembers a day when Prichard walked into class silently, logged onto Twitter and displayed it on the projector. He typed parts of his lecture until more and more students logged on and began conversing with him on Twitter, Levy said in an email. His method of teaching that day, while unusual, was relevant to the class content, Levy said.

While not every class involves lessons with such unconventional methods, Levy said he always leads the class with conversation rather than presentations.

Prichard said one of the benefits of being non-tenured track faculty is that he can continually change things, which he often wants to do. This is caused by his love of reading and research which constantly presents him with new ideas, Prichard said.

It’s clear to anyone who walks into his office that much of Prichard’s free time is filled with reading. With an entire wall covered in books, Prichard’s office overlooking Red Square lends itself to a library-esque feel.

Tony Prichard in his office on Feb. 21. // Photo by Harrison Amelang

“I don’t know how he reads so much with his teaching load,” Dietrich said. “He’s just on top of the new stuff that’s coming out and they’re really interesting stuff. He reads a lot of reviews and blogs and keeps up on the interesting people who are doing work out there.”

Prichard said his favorite books are always the ones he is reading at the time.

“If I were to say a book that’s probably the most influential [to] me, it would be Jean-François Lyotard, ‘The Differend: Phrases in dispute,’” Prichard said. “He effectively goes after the way in which narrative control takes place particularly with Holocaust deniers.”

Senior Jamie Chevalier has been in two of Prichard’s classes and found his course content to be leagues above the readings she saw in other classes. Chevalier described his teaching style as interesting and erratic. The weird and intriguing methods he uses in his classes always have a point, Chevalier said.

“The point is not always entirely clear, and you have to want to participate and understand,” Chevalier said. “But if you do, you’re not getting the same experience from any other professor.”

Chevalier said Prichard’s classes have been impactful on her personal philosophy and principles.

“He has a lot to say about identity and how it’s not necessarily quite as clear a construct as we might think it is,” Chevalier said. “I would say in my time at Western, I have had probably four really good professors and [Prichard] is definitely one of them.”

When not reading or teaching, Prichard enjoys playing, writing music and spending time with his family.

In his early teens, Prichard wanted to learn to play the guitar. His parents had already bought one for his older brother, who never learned to play it. When Prichard asked for his own, his parents expected him to show he was committed by learning to read music and guitar chords before buying him the instrument.

To prove himself, Prichard cut a paper towel roll in half, used some cut-up poster board as the fretboard, taped them together and used it to learn the notes on a guitar.

“I had to have seriousness in order to play,” Prichard said. ”I want my students to demonstrate that [English] is serious to them. That doesn’t mean that they can’t play at it.”

Prichard said he always tries to set up his classes so there is a clear connection to the content and make his class an experience for his students.

“I hope they learn some things, and I hope they unlearn some things,” Prichard said “What those are, will ultimately be up to them because each learner is incredibly unique and different.”


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