By: Kristal Kinloch-Taylor and Kole Matheson

Kole Matheson joined ODU’s English department as a lecturer in 2017. A two-time ODU graduate, Matheson is passionate about literature and mentorship. Mentorship is also an important part of his continued success as an ODU faculty member. He credits fellow English faculty Dr. Drew Lopenzina and Dr. Kevin DePew with helping him grow professionally. Recently, DePew and Matheson co-authored a chapter that was accepted by “Writing Across the Curriculum” (WAC). Matheson acknowledges past partnerships with the CFD for helping him develop the chapter.

In addition to English Composition, Kole Matheson is teaching English 114 this semester, “American Writers, American Experiences.” The course “introduces students to the diversity of American culture as depicted in American literature.” Matheson has elected to focus on Native American writers. Authors featured include Tommy Orange, Thomas King, Sherman Alexie, and James Welch.

Tell me about your upbringing. Who inspired you to pursue multiple degrees? 

For as long as I can remember, I have had a deep and abiding love for language and literature.  I attribute this love, first and foremost, to my mother who read to me nightly well into my middle school years. Those bedtime stories ignited a lifelong passion for literature and storytelling.

Influencing me from a different era, my grandfather, Roger Swan, was a lawyer in Oklahoma. His commitment to civic engagement and continuous learning was exemplified when he once pointed out a factual error in a public address by Franklin Delano Roosevelt. To his surprise, FDR not only acknowledged the mistake but also thanked my grandfather for his diligence in a letter that I still have today, authenticated and professionally preserved by PSA.

The legacy of my mother's love for books and my grandfather's commitment to learning and civic responsibility has shaped my values. They instilled in me a deep appreciation for knowledge and a sense of duty to engage meaningfully with the world around me. Their influences continue to guide me, emphasizing the enduring importance of literature, learning, and civic engagement across generations.

In 2017, you were awarded the Faculty Member of the Year Award by the International Student Advisory Board, Office of Intercultural Relations. What did this award mean to you?  

The Office of Intercultural Relations (OIR) successfully fosters cultural understanding and global connections. For me, these connections began years ago when I volunteered for the OIR’s Global Monarch Club, an initiative dedicated to creating a sense of community among international and domestic students alike. In partnership with Dr. Rachawan Wongtrirat, we created a collaboration between my English Composition classes and a group of international students at ODU. The idea was to assign each of my writing students a connection with an international student, fostering a unique opportunity for friendship and cross-cultural exchange. 

The initiative not only resonated with the students involved but also caught the attention of the International Student Advisory Board at ODU. Recognizing the impact of these connections on the campus culture, the Board decided to honor my efforts by selecting me as the Faculty Member of the Year. 

The success of this collaboration went far beyond the confines of a classroom. It became a testament to the transformative power of intentional intercultural engagement. The friendships that blossomed between my students and their international counterparts not only enriched their academic experience, but also contributed to a more inclusive campus environment.

How can faculty implement equitable teaching practices?  

I believe that faculty can implement equitable teaching practices by adopting methods of alternative assessment, such as contract grading. For example, in my composition classes, I identify specific ways in which students can demonstrate target practices and knowledge as they complete their writing assignments. I then include these specific target features in the grading contracts for the assignments. Prior to major deadlines, in class, I create opportunities for students to practice these outcomes, so they might fail productively, without risking a bad grade, while also receiving feedback along the way. I then remind them that what we practice in class is an expectation for the upcoming assignment’s grading contract.  

If the goal of the assignment, moreover, is to demonstrate the written structure of a particular genre, I identify specific structural features that students can express in writing. For a rhetorical analysis, students might follow the current-traditional (five-paragraph essay) structure, while a literacy narrative might be devised according to a story arc. Once students demonstrate the target features of the assignment grading contract, their grade is guaranteed. Connecting the dots between student writing and course outcomes via grading contracts is a way to ensure both course rigor and equitable grading practices. 

Writing can be intimidating for some students. How do you encourage them to find their voice? What do you enjoy most, and/or least, about teaching in higher education?

It is in the spirit of service which I have come to believe that good teaching really is good mentoring, and good mentors focus on building relationships with their mentees. Mentors invest themselves wholly with a deep concern for the wellbeing of those whom they are responsible for guiding. Students can sense when they are valued, and that can make or break some learning experiences.

Every day in class I make it a point to talk with each student, to connect with them on multiple levels, both academic and popular. I become a guide between worlds, someone who can speak both languages, the language they come with and the language of the academy. In establishing this connection with students, I become an ally who can navigate both worlds, which makes the academic world less intimidating, far off, exclusive, pretentious, and sterile.  

Once students see my personal investment, that I am their mentor and ally, they are much more likely to open up, stake a claim in the course, and produce their best work. They are more likely to engage with an instructor they respect, admire, and desire to interact with. This motivation is powerful for a student, and only greater academic progress manifests itself as a result. 

But good teaching requires more than passion and relationships. Good teachers, and more importantly, engaged students, are discovered in a safe place that encourages self-expression and risk-taking. I’m reminded of Stephen Krashen’s affective filter idea—that under stress, the mind has no space for learning, no matter the quality of an instructor’s pedagogy. Students will only get closer to their educational goal if they can find a place where their ideas are respected, challenged, and developed.

From this point in the semester, once everyone is acquainted and comfortable with me, each other, and how the class is run, quality content becomes the driving force to inspire a genuine hunger for questions and knowledge. On a daily basis, I challenge my students with real-world and English-specific questions to get them used to sustaining informed and respectful discussions in the academy. As the class begins to reach its full potential, many days students need more than 50 minutes.

After all the class meetings, assignments, lessons, conversations, and breakthroughs, after true relationships are formed between instructor and students, after the door of learning is opened, and we walk through it together, we discover a wonderful place where the maturation of students, both socially and academically, is achieved.

This process is what I love most about teaching. Every semester I see my classes evolve, similar to how all relationships evolve. It is through these relationships that I believe my students find a passion for learning that will serves them for lifetime.

What is your all-time favorite book and why? 

A book I wholeheartedly recommend to both family and friends, especially those interested in gaining a profound understanding of an indigenous perspective, is Fools Crow by James Welch. This novel is a literary masterpiece that delves into the cultural and historical nuances of Native American life, specifically the Pikuni tribe during the mid-19th century. James Welch's evocative storytelling takes readers on a captivating journey, providing rich insights into Indigenous traditions, spirituality, and the enduring resilience of the tribal community. Fools Crow not only offers a compelling narrative but also serves as a powerful educational tool, shedding light on the complexities of Native American history and culture, making it an invaluable recommendation for anyone seeking a more complete understanding of this vital aspect of our nation's heritage. More than anything, Welch is a masterful storyteller; in fact, I recommend all his novels.

What are your future plans? 

I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and I embrace the responsibility of Gadugi, a Cherokee word which translates as “the spirit of working together.” I hope to contribute to the Nation’s understanding of its tribal history through a research project on Black Fox, Enola, Cherokee Principal Chief 1801-1811. Currently, there’s no academic monograph on this important historical figure of the Cherokee Nation, and unfortunately at this time, most historians refer to him in less than positive terms, namely for his involvement in the sale of Cherokee land in 1806. Despite the apparent consensus among historians of Black Fox as driven by self-interest, my research is oriented from an indigenous perspective. I examine the historical archive of hundreds of documents that bear Black Fox’s signature, to include council records, letters, and annuity receipts for the purpose of offering a more accurate and complete understanding his life in the decades leading up to the Indian Removal Act.