lake and beyond
The prolific professor
Average number of words he writes each day: 1,000+
Number of followers on Twitter: 4,086
Number of tweets since February 2011: 61,942 and counting…
Paul Thomas, PhD., has a lot to say. Born with a brain he describes simply as “verbal” and rarely afflicted with the plague of writer’s block, Thomas strives to not only share his views, but to engage students, fellow scholars, and community members in issues of the day.
Now beginning his second decade as an education professor at Furman, Dr. Thomas displays a passion for empowering his students just as strong as when he entered his first classroom at Woodruff High School as a teacher 30 years ago.
It wasn’t Dr. Thomas’ plan to teach. When he entered Spartanburg Methodist College in 1979, he had intended to major in physics. After a class with British literature professor and Dean A.G. Carter, all that changed. Dr. Thomas wrote his first poem, became a part-time tutor,and discovered his love of teaching.
“God bless Dean Carter,” Dr. Thomas said.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina-Spartanburg, Dr. Thomas headed back to his hometown, where he began teaching English at Woodruff High School, following in the footsteps of his sophomore and junior English teacher, mentor and friend Lynn Harrill. Harrill, who also later taught at Furman, encouraged Dr. Thomas to enter a doctoral program while teaching.
One of Dr. Thomas’ pet peeves with student writing? Two words, “I think.”
“Often, my high school students would draft a sentence that began ‘I don’t think,’ and I would highlight or circle the construction and then comment: ‘If you don’t think, why should I listen?’” Dr. Thomas said.
The goal? “To develop in my students a purposefulness and care for not only the words they chose, but also the assembling of those words,” he said. “Words are how humans define the world, and how we are equipped to re-define the world.”
It’s an idea that has carried over into his undergraduate and graduate classes.
“I think I didn’t really understand what it meant to engage in the writing process until I had Dr. Thomas,” said Nicole Amato ’12, who took Current Trends in Literacy with Thomas and earned her master’s degree in literacy from Furman.
“I never had a teacher encourage us to turn in as many rough drafts as humanly possible. By the end of the process, I didn’t even care what my grade was because I knew it was the best version of my writing possible,” said Amato, who now teaches at Pritzger College Prep charter school in Chicago, Ill. “I think classes like Dr. Thomas’ helped me become a critical thinker versus a student just swallowing knowledge.”
Tackling controversial topics, either in classroom discussions or through his blog, is the order of the day for Thomas, who also serves as Furman’s faculty director of First Year Seminars.
Whether it’s weighing in on evolution (a “credible theory”), on spanking (an emphatic “no”) or the renaming of Tillman Hall at Clemson University (yes, the name matters, and should be changed), Dr. Thomas is always ready to share an informed perspective.
“In many instances people cling to ‘I believe’ without having challenged those beliefs, and with little regard for evidence that contradicts those beliefs,” Dr. Thomas said. “For those of us in academia, claims and evidence are a way of discourse and the foundations of knowing the world.”
But Dr. Thomas doesn’t want his conversations to be insular, just scholars talking to scholars. “I see public engagement as an extension of the classroom,” he said.
That’s one reason Dr.Thomas believes blogging is more important than traditional scholarship.
“If I write and submit a piece to a traditional publication, it may be a year before anyone sees it,” he said. “If I have an idea, I can blog it this morning and several hundred people will see it.”
His work is getting noticed.
Diane Ravitch, an education historian and research professor of education at New York University, called Thomas “so prolific and so well-informed… that he has emerged as one of the most articulate voices in the education reform debates today.”
His work is regularly featured in the Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet, The Conversation UK and US, The State and The Greenville News.
Dr. Thomas researched and co-developed the grade retention policy adopted this year by the National Council of Teachers of English, stating that “holding students back to repeat a grade does more harm than good.”
He was also the 2013 recipient of NCTE’s George Orwell Award, which recognizes an author who has made outstanding contributions to the honesty and clarity in public language through critical analysis of public discourse.
“Dr. Thomas’ is a powerful voice for change, but ultimately, his greatest influence is in the way he empowers others to speak,” said Alison Williams ’14, an English teacher at Carolina High School.
For Stephanie Johnson ’06, now a teacher in Washington, D.C., public schools, Thomas remains one of her all-time favorite professors:
“He continues to be a model for me of the type of teacher that I always want to be for my students: committed, passionate, and real.”
In between teaching and writing, Dr. Thomas still finds time to bike 9,000 to 10,000 miles each year with local cycling clubs, including Globalbike Inc., a non-profit organization in Spartanburg that purchases bikes for women and community health care workers in Tanzania.
He and his wife, Fran, a physical education teacher at Woodruff Elementary School, also enjoy spending time with their daughter and son-in-law, Jessica and Jermaine Johnson, and their granddaughter, 8-month-old Skylar.