John Damaso Q & A - March 2019
English Department Interview Series
Are you a native Phoenician? If not, what brought you to Phoenix?
No. I was born in the George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. when Jimmy Carter was President. We lived in McLean, Virginia, and I attended a local Catholic school. On July 4, 1989, my family decided to “light out for the Territory” and move to a 116-degree Phoenix, AZ, where my grandparents lived, to attend St. Francis Xavier. I’ve learned from students and friends that many people come to the desert for reinvention, and I suppose the Damasos did, too. I am the the third and youngest child (Mike, BCP ’94; Karen, XCP ’92), and my folks still live nearby in Scottsdale.
We know that you graduated from Brophy in 1997. Did you know – during your time as a student – that you would come back and teach English at your alma mater?
I tell students now that I simply loved being in a school, so perhaps returning to teach was inevitable, but, no, I didn’t know at the time I would teach at Brophy one day...and now for fifteen years. In fact, I still say I’m not sure I am a teacher. Something about keeping the door open to other opportunities -- open to growth, right? As a student in the 90s, I knew I loved words, language, and publication. I was the Editor-in-Chief of the Brophy yearbook, and I thought I would become a journalist. TIME Magazine was the goal back then. The other plan was to go study architecture at the University of Virginia. I had visited Charlottesville and was mesmerized by Jefferson’s architecture, especially his serpentine (technically, crinkle crankle, I just learned) garden walls.
What was your major at Georgetown University? And who inspired you to secure a master’s degree in linguistics from Queen Mary University in London?
I registered “undeclared” as a first-year student, but I was pretty sure I was an English major with a concentration in writing. Then I took an Introduction to Languages course in linguistics from a graduate student and got hooked. I had finally found a discipline that combined my interests in language, analysis, society, and, frankly, minutiae. I graduated with a double-major in English and Linguistics. Factoid: Since my majors were in two different colleges at that time, the Georgetown Registrar gave me the option to receive a BA (English) or a BS (Linguistics), so I chose the BS because BSLI sounded cooler!
After teaching at Brophy for three years, I was keen on pursuing more education and wrote to a Georgetown Linguistics professor who had mentored me. I wrote that I was having a “¼ life crisis” and didn’t know what to do next. She emailed back that she was in London and that I should come do an MA at Queen Mary and help her with her book investigating the language of journalism (News Talk
from Cambridge Press). That year was formative for me, partly because of the research I did on slang lexicography, partly for the access to London, but also because I lived in a graduate student flat with four LLM (law) students from Nigeria, Thailand, India, and Greece. Can you guess who cooked with the hottest peppers?
How did you end up back in Phoenix?
What are some of your highlights as English Department Chair?
Our English faculty amazes me daily. Steve Smith’s dedication to freshmen and getting to know them and their families deeply influences their Brophy trajectories. Susan Maynard’s care for her students stems from rigor and compassion both, and she is always experimenting, creating courses like Emerging Voices and devising this year’s Summit Reflection Guide. Chad Unrein might just be the best storyteller on campus, and Deb Kauffman is by far the best-read person I know.
As chair, I’ve enjoyed creating the Fr. Renna Reading Room in Brophy Hall to preserve a couple thousand books and give students a quiet place to read, study, and relax. Some educational technology like Membean and No Red Ink have become integral to our foundational English classes, and other emerging technologies (CommonLit and Albert) allow for easier test prep. In the past couple years, we’ve hosted professors from Barrett at ASU for discussions of best practices. The Poetry Out Loud program, now in its tenth year, allows students to feel and witness the power of the spoken word in spirited classroom and school-wide contests. Sophomores in English 2 learn about literature and the world through a framework of life of St. Ignatius, which helps align our curriculum to our Jesuit mission. I am proud of how the department has incorporated The Graide Network, an organization of undergraduate and graduate writing tutors who provide substantive writing feedback for our students, as another layer of writing instruction. In addition, the Peer Editing Network
(PEN), is an online writing center run by Brophy students who provide tailored feedback to students within 24-48 hours. PEN is in its 5th year! Speaking of student-led initiatives, I admire work like Kevin Yin’s (BCP ’20) Membean Word Counter
that he coded from scratch to fill a need at the school. Finally, I am excited to introduce curricular changes for the 2019-20 school year that will place juniors and seniors together for the first time in exciting elective courses like Creative Writing, The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway, Writers & Current Issues, and Science Fiction.
How many years have you served as an adviser to BLAM, Brophy Literary & Arts Magazine, and what are some of your proudest moments as BLAM director?
The 2018-19 edition of BLAM, “Serramenti,” is the tenth volume I’ve helped to advise. Scott Middlemist and Chad Unrein co-advised with me in the first years and Austin Pidgeon has done so the last few.
I am most impressed by the way students have identified and created ways to engage the school community all year long and not just with the annual publication of the magazine. BLAM staffers have hosted a half-dozen writing and art contests per year, a reading of student prose and poetry at Fine Arts Extravaganza, Black History Month videos and biographies, and Poetry Out Loud. We maintain an archive of student writing and art at blam.brophyprep.org
. Every couple years, we take the BLAM staff to visit the printing press that produces the magazine, a visit that demystifies publishing, and students see the intricacies and challenges of making BLAM such a beautiful product. As far as back issues, I have a soft spot for BLAM: Full Connection
(2010), BLAM: Remix
(2013), and BLAM: Explore
(2014), and BLAM: Roots
(2017). Each contained an innovation pushing the publication forward.
Students enjoy your passion for words. When did the study of words -- etymology and linguistics -- begin to fascinate you?
When I was 7 or 8, I went to speech therapy and was given a book I recall being titled Oodles of Noodles. I struggle(d) with /s/ and sibilants generally. That’s probably when I became aware of words as words. At Brophy, I deepened my adoration for words in classes with Fr. Becker and Fr. Renna, and in college, while working one summer at Barnes & Noble in Chicago, I discovered the Oxford English Dictionary single-volume edition (that came with a magnifying glass!), and I was hooked on word origins and word futures -- how slang can become mainstream with time. Tolkien, famed Lord of the Rings author, once said that one of his most rewarding professional experiences in his life was the time he worked on the OED.
Congratulations on your chapter “'Mr. D, Is This, Like, a Real Word?' Stories of a Linguist in a High School English Classroom” in the new book Teaching Language Variation in the Classroom. How did this opportunity come about?
I’m in a Facebook group called “High School Teachers Incorporating LINGUISTICS” and have a loose affiliation with a committee aiming to create an AP Linguistics course through the College Board. The Facebook group leader forwarded my name to a couple of professors at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. They were seeking chapters by high school teachers as well as linguists. After a few email exchanges, we settled on the idea of my writing vignettes from the classroom that illustrated my attempts to discuss language variation with my students at Brophy. The chapter focuses on times when the lesson plan went haywire, when student interest in language change trumped the current classroom focus -- when the tangient becomes the lesson.
We hear you have a new addition to your family. Can you elaborate?
Her name is Gia Celine Damaso. She’s the first Damaso in 39 years. Sophie and I are very excited to watch her grow, learn, and become herself. When she begins to acquire language, I may call in sick for two weeks, just to observe the miracle. (I once heard of a Linguistics PhD candidate at Georgetown who was raising his child bilingual in English and…Klingon. At some point, the toddler told his dad he didn’t want to speak Klingon anymore -- at least, that’s how I remember the story.)
If you had to take five books with you to a deserted island for the rest of your life, what would they be?
- The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
- Oxford English Dictionary single-volume compact edition (with magnifying glass for reading and starting necessary survival fires on deserted island)
- How to Hide Anything by Michael Connor (purchased from Spy Headquarters in the 1990s).
- Any Choose Your Own Adventure novel
- The Collected Works of William Shakespeare