Enter English Prof. John Rubadeau’s office and it is easy to see why he enjoys teaching so much. Every spare surface on the walls and the ceiling is covered with pictures of past and present students.
In the words of Law student Lindsey Fell, a former student of Rubadeau, “He really wants to be a part of his students’ lives and wants to continue to be a part after they leave his class.”
Rubadeau’s career as a teacher actually didn’t begin until later in life. He worked as a social worker for the American Red Cross in Germany, came back to America for a while and then, after his first wife died, decided to return to Germany.
“And the only way to do that was to be an English teacher,” Rubadeau said, laughing.
He went back and obtained a doctorate at Georgia Tech and began to teach. In 1987, he came to the University and has been teaching English 325 and 425 (and occasionally English 125) ever since.
For his 18 years of teaching thousands of students essay-writing, grammar and a love for the English language, Rubadeau received the Golden Apple award this Monday.
Dressed in flannel and jeans, Rubadeau walked onto the stage at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater to the tune of a standing ovation. With his full beard framing his expressive face, he exuded a relaxed attitude towards his large audience.
As he presented his ideal last lecture, Rubadeau followed the rambling style of his classroom lectures. Continually promising to start his speech, Rubadeau took the liberty to read students’ e-mails congratulating him on his award.
Josh Wyckstandt, a former student of Rubadeau’s, wrote one such e-mail to his beloved professor.
“Dear John,” Wyckstandt wrote. “Congratulations on winning the Golden Apple Award. I voted for Williams, but I guess you can’t win twice, eh?”
And although Rubadeau treated his own speech with characteristic self-deprecation, the audience was constantly entertained and engaged. Prof. Ralph Williams, when introducing Rubadeau, said, “The secret of John’s teaching is love,” and this was clearly revealed in his lecture.
As the packed hall demonstrated, Rubadeau is most valued for the impact he has made on his students’ writing and their post-graduation lives. As LSA senior Mike Richmond put it, “He is dedicated to his students as individuals and as students.”
“I still see him; I’ll be walking down the street, and he’ll shout out to me from his car,” Fell said. According to many students, Rubadeau’s classes were challenging but well worth the time. As Mike Ward, an alum who drove an hour to hear him speak, said, “I didn’t do very well in the class, yet I still learned more than in pretty much any other class I’ve taken.”
Motivated to help his students in their lives outside English class, Rubadeau hands out a list of quotes that he has found useful in his own life at the end of each semester. He went over many of these quotes in his lecture Monday night.
His favorites include “Quid pro quo” (one is rewarded according to the effort one has put into the task, as explained by Rubadeau) and “Scratch your own itch.”
“It has to be your itch, not your parents’ itch, not the community’s itch,” he cautioned. The quotes perfectly epitomize Rubadeau’s personality — a bit of seriousness and a lot of irreverence.
Rubadeau is also known for his quirkiness and entertaining lecturing. Around the time of every holiday, he intertwines objects in his full, wild beard — dreidels for Hanukkah, lights and bows for Christmas and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day.
“I think people need a little madness in their lives,” he explained, paraphrasing Zorba the Greek.
Part of Rubadeau’s success is his enthusiasm for the subject matter. “I love grammar,” he said, “and it’s fun to teach it because you can play with alternate meanings of words.”
In his class, students can’t get away with using words without knowing their meanings. This desire for exactness stems from his love of words; his current favorite is kakistocracy (government by the least qualified or most unprincipled citizens). He also has a passion for writing style and form as well as content.
Fell said the two most important things she learned in his class were “not to be afraid to write about yourself and to carry dog biscuits.” According to her, Rubadeau’s love for his dogs. she said, nearly approaches his love of English.
When he isn’t teaching, Rubadeau spends his time writing books. “From April to September I’m creating in my mind an alternate universe,” he said.
He has a new book that is a satire on the back-to-nature movement of the ’60s and ’70s. The book stems from his experience buying a pig farm and attempting to raise pigs. Though he never wants to touch a pig again, the experience inspired him to write a new novel.
Although he does venture into novel-writing time and again, teaching will always be his most important task.
“I don’t look at it as work; I look at it as fun,” he said. “I’m never going to retire. When I’m 105, I want to be talking about a misplaced modifier with chalk in my hand.”
And despite the risk of sounding maudlin, Rubadeau admits that his students make all the hours of teaching worth it.
“I’m the luckiest man in the world because I get to be touched by young minds,” he said.