Ask a Professor: John Helton

The Paisano asks Professor John Helton some questions in order to get to know him better in this weeks “Ask a Professor”.

Paisano: What University did you attend?

Helton: UT Austin      

Paisano: What was your major?

Helton: I was a Plan II Honors student with a concentration in pre-med; I was supposed to be a doctor.  I decided to become a writer though instead at 19 so I dropped in and out of college for years to work construction and pursue my writing.  In the end, I had to switch to an English major to graduate.      

Paisano: What was your most exciting achievement in college?

Helton: I had one of the first short stories I ever wrote published in my sophomore year in a literary magazine called The Missouri Review.  The story also won a Pushcart Prize and so I thought, “This writing thing is gonna be easy.”  Man, was I wrong. I kept writing but I wasn’t published again for almost 20 years.

Paisano: Were there any movements you strongly wanted incorporated on campus?

Helton: Back then, most of us wanted our president Ronald Reagan and the Republicans in Congress to quit supporting the country of South Africa.  We wanted the South African government, which was run by the very small minority white population, to free Nelson Mandela from prison and to end the racist policy of Apartheid.  I was somewhat politically active in participating in debates and protests on the West Mall, but I was also a pretty stereotypical, self-absorbed, American college student, consumed by my own “problems” which, in retrospect, were not that big of a deal.

Paisano: Why did you choose to become a professor?

Helton: I became a composition professor because it is a good, steady job that gives me some free time to write and it is directly related to my own passion for reading and writing. I didn’t choose UTSA so much as the late Judy Gardner chose me.  I called her up looking for work ten years ago and we had such a good talk on the phone, and then in person, she hired me on the spot.  Judy taught me how to be a real teacher, by the way.  It took me several years to get it down.  Teaching is an extremely challenging and difficult profession.  That whole “those who can, do, those who can’t, teach” cliché is total bullshit.  Unlike other majors, industrialized democracies, America often only pays lip service to education.  Teachers are paid very little money in relation to the value that they add to a high school or a university and society in general.  We are also denigrated in films and on the vapid, boring wasteland that is your television set. It’s part of a larger anti-intellectual bent that politicians and corporations have been pushing for years to dumb down the masses and keep us placated and ignorant.