On the first day of each of his classes, before diving into a course’s contents or discussing its required materials, Dr. Jonathan S. Cullick asks his students to turn to the back of the syllabus, which features a list of supportive services for those in need. For Cullick, a professor of English at Northern Kentucky University and the most recent recipient of the college’s annual Frank Sinton Milburn Outstanding Professor award, it is NKU’s vast network of resources like its Student Emergency Fund and FUEL NKU that makes the school a rewarding place to work.
“As we grow, we’ve never lost our small college feel,” he says. “It’s a place where you can find people who love what they’re doing, love teaching and truly care about their students. It’s so empowering to know that I have a full toolkit of resources and referrals I can give to a student in need.”
“In English, whether through writing, literature or teaching, we’re learning how to understand and communicate with other people. We learn through stories and communicate through stories.”
Though Cullick benefits from these resources as a faculty member, he is also dedicated to fostering this culture of support on campus and its neighboring community since 2001, when he was hired as the director of NKU’s Writing Instruction Program. In addition to mentoring new generations of English teachers, Cullick has helped introduce more than 440 students to community engagement through the Mayerson Student Philanthropy Project, a nationally recognized program that asks students to evaluate and invest money in nonprofits of their choice. He also serves as the treasurer of the Campbell County Public Library’s board of trustees.
“Libraries have been important to me throughout my entire life. Some of my favorite memories as a kid in school relate to libraries,” Cullick says. “For a kid, being able to get your own library card is so significant because it’s something you can do independent of adults. As someone who teaches writing, my number one advice to writers before telling them to write a lot would be to read. As a teacher educator, I always introduce the English education students to the resources that the public library can offer them.”
In addition to English 101, which helps students get on the right track in a university setting and introduces them to philanthropy through the Mayerson Project, Cullick’s favorite classes to lead are his Methods of Teaching courses in writing and literature.
“It feels great to know that I’m preparing future English teachers because it means I’ve come full circle,” Cullick says. “I’m amazed by them. I learn so much from them, and they tell me they’ve learned a lot, too. I love it when they write to me, even in their first year of teaching, and they'll tell me, ‘Hey, Dr. Cullick, remember that unit plan I designed in your methods course? I’m using it now with my own students.’ It’s so fulfilling.”
Before coming to NKU, Cullick earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English Secondary Education from the University of Houston, student teaching at a high school level and eventually landing his first teaching job as a middle school instructor. He then received his master’s degree from Marquette University, and specialized in literature of the American South while studying for his PhD. at the University of Kentucky.
“It’s interesting, because that’s not really what I’m doing now,” Cullick says. “But you never know what doors will open for you. It’s a cliche, but it’s true.”
While he was working on his doctoral program, the assistant director of UK’s doctoral program announced that they would be away for the summer, leaving an opportunity for a graduate student to help run the program. The director offered Cullick the role, which he accepted. The arrangement worked so well that he was offered the same job the next summer.
“At this point, I started to discover that I was kind of enjoying administration, especially writing program administration,” Cullick says. “By the time I was getting my doctorate at UK, I was interested in positions in southern literature, but I was also pretty interested in writing program positions. My very first position out of grad school with my PhD was as associate director of the composition program at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.”
When Cullick interviewed for the writing director position at NKU in 2001, he was struck by the English department’s welcoming spirit.
“I interviewed over the phone for the initial application, but when I was here, I felt so calm,” he says. “I really enjoyed myself and felt so comfortable around everyone. I remember getting back to the hotel and talking to my wife Cheryl, and telling her that it felt more like a vacation than an interview. My impression was very positive—these were good people that I wanted to work with.”
Though the humanities are sometimes overlooked in the context of contemporary academia, Cullick believes that English—and English teachers—are as important as ever.
“When I was a student, reading was a transformative experience. It opened my mind to ideas I didn’t even know existed,” he says. “The humanities pull us out of ourselves in a crucial way. My colleague Jonathan Reynolds, a previous Milburn recipient, said at the graduation ceremony that the humanities teach the most important job skill, which is understanding other people. In English, whether through writing, literature or teaching we’re learning how to understand and communicate with other people. We learn through stories and communicate through stories.”