PUBLISHED IN THE CHICAGO FLAME, APRIL 2011
At first glance, you would not assume Luis Alberto Urrea is a professor. Constantly sporting a black hooded sweatshirt that reads “Bucket of Blood” on the back and toting around books about ghost stories popular to the Chicagoland area, this professor is far from the Oxfords and argyle that is stereotypical attire. Urrea does not just dress differently, he approaches teaching classes with the same rebellion and familiarity that makes taking a class with him an amazing experience.
Q: Why did you start teaching originally?
A: Gee, I don’t know. When you want to be a writer and a poet, it’s not especially lucrative. (Laughs) I was doing all kinds of stuff; I was a 7-Eleven clerk, a janitor cleaning public toilets at night. That was a lot of fun; I was the human poo expert.
Q: What attracted you to start teaching at UIC?
A: I was in Louisiana and we [ him and his wife Cindy] were pregnant. I had just won the American Book Award and the Dean at that time offered me a job. I was trying to go back to Boulder, Colorado where I felt was my homeland. Boulder had offered me a job and my mentors there had roots in Chicago. My mentors said, don’t be stupid, go see what Chicago has to offer. Chicago offered a higher salary and they also offered me automatic tenure if I would come. I couldn’t pass that up, you know? We also thought that having a baby in Chicago would be better than having a baby in Louisiana. I was also at that time coming out of a real nose-dive, career-wise as an writer, and I thought getting a career rolling in Chicago would be fun. I figured that I would go up to Chicago, teach for a year and go back to the Rockies. (Smiles) Didn’t happen. The kids made me stay. I thought I am no longer just the wild-man single writer. I am a dad now so I had to do something grown up.
Q: How long have you been at UIC?
A: I’ve been at UIC ten years. I came here and thought that I would be here for one year and it turned into ten.
Q: What’s your favorite course to teach at UIC?
A: The one I am doing next semester, the American Road [ENGL 462], just because I am such a fool for that. It’s hard for me to teach it because about halfway through I wanna get in my van and take off. I have this conversion van that I take on my road trips and I just want to go down Route 66. Last time I taught this class a couple of students did, they just bailed and took off. I started getting these insane web pictures of stuff like the Cadillac Ranch and other roadside stuff. I gave ‘em A’s because they really understood what this class is about.
Q: What’s your favorite part about teaching?
A: Hands down, it’s the students and feeling like if you’re lucky, and it all goes well that maybe you can change someone’s life a little bit. Just a little bit, hopefully for the better. A lot of teachers, I think, can change it for the worse, as you all know. In my life, I was really fortunate at every level to have a teacher that delighted me, confounded me or challenged me and moved me ahead. They didn’t know they were doing it necessarily.
Q: What would be your least favorable part of teaching?
A: Everything else. (Laughs) I think the administrative stuff is really hard for me, to just buckle down and do it. Not that I don’t do it or am irresponsible; well, I may be; I just get so caught up in everything. I know that teaching is my day job, but when I am going on book signings and stuff, to me: that’s my real world. To you guys, I am just an English professor, but when I go do the other stuff, I mean, people will wait an hour in the rain just to have me sign a t-shirt. The hardest part is just trying to find the balance between the two worlds.
Luis Alberto Urrea will also be teaching the Advanced Writing of Nonfiction Prose workshop in the spring semester, English 492. Urrea is not only an extraordinary professor, 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for nonfiction, and member of the Latino Literature Hall of Fame, but also a productive and much-admired writer who enriches the lives of his students just by being himself.