'Renegade Professor of English'

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Raised in the South at a time when women were supposed to be wives and mothers, UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Nicole Blair defied expectations and became an accomplished teacher, musician and author.

Nicole Blair’s mother had a vision for her daughter. “My mother told me I was going to marry a Baptist preacher, have kids and live in a nice little house near Laurel [Mississippi],” said Blair. “I thought to myself ‘no, I’m not, I’m not doing that.’”

And she didn’t. Blair married a teacher. She and her husband own a nice little house in Burley (north of Gig Harbor, on the Kitsap Peninsula). Instead of becoming a stay-at-home mother who dutifully catered to her husband and children, Blair became a “renegade professor of English.”

Laurel, Mississippi is roughly 90 miles southeast of the state capital, Jackson. The 2010 census puts Laurel’s population at just over 18,000. The 61-year-old Blair has a complicated relationship with her home state. “I grew up wanting to leave the South and see the world,” she said. “I’d always thought I would live on the West Coast and here I am!”

During the summer of 2017 Blair completed an online certificate program in the blues through Delta State University.Blair’s relationship with her father defies easy description. “My dad was a complicated guy — he could be pretty rough,” said Blair. “There were other moments, good, perhaps even tender ones." Blair’s mother and father both played music. Her father, a lawyer, liked to spend long hours waxing poetic with his daughter. “We would sit up and talk about stuff all the time: stars, God, philosophy, you name it.”

Blair took her first steps toward leaving Mississippi when she left Laurel to attend Mississippi College in Clinton. There she earned a music degree before earning a master’s in English at the University of Southern Mississippi. Blair left the state to pursue a Ph.D. in English at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Blair finished her doctorate and moved to Hays, Kansas and a tenure track position at Fort Hays State University. She taught writing and literature courses including a graduate level class on poetry. “We had this summer program where people would come to campus to earn their graduate degrees, then write papers over the course of the year,” said Blair. “That’s how I met my husband.”

It should be noted that nothing inappropriate transpired between teacher and student. In fact, Blair describes those first interactions with her future spouse as irksome.  “The high school where he taught didn’t end the school year until two weeks after my class started and he wanted me to record my lessons,” said Blair.

Blair didn’t record her lectures. However, she did let this particular student take the first exam a few days later than everyone else. “When I was grading the test, I found that he written a poem to me, thanking me for letting me take the test later,” said Blair. The course ended but Blair and her now-former student kept in contact. “We started writing letters back and forth and it just kind of snowballed from there,” she said.

The couple maintained a long-distance relationship, she in the Midwest, he in the Pacific Northwest. “We’d been together a few years when we decided to get married,” said Blair. “He suggested moving to Kansas so I could keep my job but I told him I’d rather move to Tacoma.”

Blair moved to Washington State and eventually took a lecturer position at UW Tacoma. This was 1995. In the intervening years Blair estimates she’s taught well over a thousand students. She’s now a senior lecturer and teaches a variety of literature courses, as well as first year writing. “I enjoy seeing that light come on for them and watching them becoming successful students,” said Blair.

Blair may have left the South but some of it, most notably her accent, remains. Drawl is a word with too much history and not enough individuality. Blair’s voice is her own. It’s calm with a melodic quality that has a way of making strangers feel like lifelong friends. It’s the perfect voice for a teacher or a musician and, as it turns out, Blair is both.

"I think the diversity among our student body provides a rich and fruitful learning environment," UW Tacoma Senior Lecturer Nicole Blair.When she’s not in the classroom, Blair is somewhere making music whether that’s a studio, tavern or even her office (she keeps a guitar behind her desk). “Music is my heart,” she said. Blair has released two albums and is working on a third. She describes her work as Americana in the same vein as Lucinda Williams or Brandi Carlile.

Blair’s interest in music started in childhood. “I played in piano recitals every year and also played in church,” she said. About six years ago she picked up the guitar and learned to play the blues.  “There’s this blues event called the North Mississippi Hill Picnic,” she said. “When you buy a ticket you can choose to pay a little bit more and take lessons from some of the current masters of the genre.”

Blair’s talents don’t end there. She’s also a writer and recently penned a book about the work of Virginia Woolf. “She really struggled with depression and anxiety,” said Blair. “I have a theory that she was writing about herself, that her novels were a form of therapy.”

The book explores six of Woolf’s novels through the lens of a theory called “literary Darwinism.” The idea challenges the notion that art is not essential to the human experience. “Art is the very essence of who are as human beings,” said Blair. “People tell stories, it’s what we do.”

The story Blair wrote for herself is very different than the one her mother, the time and the place suggested was possible. Blair uses her professional expertise and her life experience to help students write their own histories. “I want to be part of something bigger than myself,” she said. “I want to help my students be successful. I want to help them want to do that. I want to help them navigate all of the ins and outs, ups and downs.”

Written by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge / July 3, 2019
Photos by: 
Eric Wilson-Edge
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or johnbjr@uw.edu