Martin faculty-in-residence promotes understanding, connection in and out of the classroom

By Caleb Wheeler | Staff Writer

Between teaching four of five topics every semester and living with his students, Dr. Clay Butler keeps busy. The senior lecturer in English and faculty-in-residence for Martin Hall has been working at the university since 2001 and remains strong in Baylor spirit to this day.

After spending 12 years in computer science, Butler received his Ph.D. and began working at Baylor as an adjunct professor in 2001 and as a full-time professor in 2002. Butler is primarily a professor of sociolinguistics — the interaction between language and society.

“I really did enjoy studying languages and studying Hebrew, just because it’s something curious and interesting, and I’ve studied Spanish,” Butler said. “I took several mission trips and just love [it], … being able to communicate to people who are so different from me. When you go to this new place, especially with Spanish, … you can [see their] life is nothing like my life, but somehow we can talk to each other. We can go through basic phrases and start figuring each other out. I found that really interesting. My interest in linguistics started from studying language and taking mission trips.”

Butler said it is very easy for language to be misunderstood, and culture plays an important role in understanding its intent.

“We have conflicts for a variety of reasons,” Butler said. “One of them we’re most oblivious to — so it’s hardest to correct — are just communication issues. We’re misunderstanding each other because you have a different way of expressing something from the way that I express it, so I think you’re arguing or disagreeing when you’re just doing something else. It’s this cross-cultural problem.”

Butler said he takes note of indirect speech, focusing on body gestures and common phrases in his classes. He said hand gestures and tone are vital parts of communicating.

“Language is meant to be shared, and language kind of lives inside us,” Butler said. “But it’s not entirely a language unless people live in it.”

Butler cited J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings as an example of a language that breathes life and human connection. Specifically, he referred to the language of Sauron, which has German influences that connect to Tolkien’s involvement in World War II. Butler said these kinds of pivotal life experiences influence language, and he hopes his students understand those real applications.

“I hope [students] will see the practical usefulness of the things we talked about,” Butler said. “When we talked about the issues of linguistics, we talked about that they saw that it can help you have a better life … and help you communicate better with the people around you and understand the role of language in your world of experience. On a more personal level, I hope they feel enriched by the friendships.”

While Butler has served as a professor for over 20 years, he has also been a faculty-in-residence for nine years. He began at Texana in 2015 and switched to Martin in 2016, where he has been ever since. Martin is home to approximately 240 students, and Butler said his goal is to connect those students with opportunities and get them involved in a community.

“I do a pancake dinner every Sunday night, every single Sunday night, rolling my wagon out [to the lobby] with all my pancake makings,” Butler said. “It just becomes what the guys do on Sunday nights.”

Butler said part of being a faculty-in-residence is being there for students when they’re wrestling with hard questions. He said he has been in the position where he sits and listens to them, whether they are worried about changing majors or telling their parents they don’t want to be doctors anymore. In these times, Butler said he tries to be a soundboard for students.

“I’m an old guy, but I’m not their dad,” Butler said. “I’m in the hall leadership, but I’m nobody’s boss. That’s a nice thing. It puts me in a real safe space for lots of conversations.”

Butler said to him, being a professor is a side job to getting to know students and guiding them in their lives. He said good kids end up at Baylor, and he enjoys watching them fulfill their potential.

“The years I like best aren’t the years with the most interactions, but it’s a year when I felt like I’ve really made great connections and any year where I really get to know some guys well, among my students in class as well,” Butler said. “If I get to do a thesis with an Honors student, and we have several good, long conversations about not just their thesis but their life goals, that’s good. And the more of those I have, the better.”

Butler said study abroad classes are where he sees the most connection with students. They not only spend prolonged amounts of time together every day but also engage with the world.

“It’s a nice thing to be in a small major like this, that we get to teach the courses we most love,” Butler said.

Plano sophomore Mary Dickinson took Butler’s language and culture course. She said she enjoyed Butler’s class and how much he cared about his students. Dickinson said Butler got coffee with several of her friends to discuss them taking a linguistics class.

“We were just talking about the ways that language and culture influence each other — so the way that the language you speak influences how you see the world, and then the way that the culture you’re in influences the language that you speak,” Dickinson said. “It was really very helpful for me in thinking about that sort of thing, and it kind of made me realize some things about the way I talk.”

Dickinson said Butler was always considerate of students having busy lives. She said he was understanding about them not finishing reading assignments on time as long as they did it before exams, and he recorded his lectures and posted them to Canvas in case someone couldn’t make it to class.

“He really wants you to love linguistics. There’s no doubt about that,” Dickinson said. “And there were definitely a lot of times when we were doing kind of hands-on stuff in class. He was very, very focused on making sure students are good people as well as good linguists.”

Caleb Wheeler is a freshman University Scholar from Tulsa, Oklahoma. My concentrations are in journalism and professional writing with a minor in legal reasoning. In my first year with the Lariat I am excited to experience what it is like to work for a professional publication and further my writing abilities. After graduation I hope to attend Baylor Law School.