- English professor at Cal Poly for 21 years
- Jazz music fan
- Admired for unique personality
- Encourages non-conformity
Dr. James Cushing has been an English teacher at Cal Poly since 1989. Students and faculty agree that Cushing is one of the most original characters that they’ve encountered on campus, if not during their whole life.
As well as being a professor and poet, Cushing hosts a weekly jazz program called “Miles Ahead” on KCPR.
Originally born in Palo Alto, Cushing’s family moved to Los Angeles where he spent most of his childhood. At the age of 6, Cushing received a typewriter that he still uses to this day.
During his 7th grade English class, a recording of Dylan Thomas reading a short story is what ignited Cushing’s dream of becoming a writer.
In the middle of 8th grade Cushing enrolled in Harvard-Westlake School, which at the time was an all-boys Christian military academy. Coincidentally it is also the school that the Gyllenhaals and Hilton sisters attended. Cushing resented his time at Harvard-Westlake, saying that “They spent a lot of time and energy on things that aren’t important”.
Cushing said that it was his dream of becoming an English professor that kept him motivated during his military school days.
“It was something that mentally and spiritually sustained me because I had a secret. I knew what I wanted to do. I knew what I had in me and I knew who I was” said Cushing.
Turning ten right before Kennedy’s assassination gave Cushing a front row seat to the 1960’s cultural revolution. He fell in love with the improvisational rock music – specifically with the Beatles, Cream and Jimi Hendrix. “I was struck by the way the instruments could create an entire universe and an emotional experience” said Cushing.
Cushing describes his experience of the 1960’s cultural revolution:
Cushing’s transition to jazz music occurred in 1972 when he went to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go club in LA to watch the Mahavishnu Orchestra featuring John McLaughlin. Cushing says that he loves the unpredictability of the music.
“I like the sound of surprise. I like things that surprise and delight me. I’d also like to do that in my poetry – I’d like to surprise people” said Cushing.
In Cushing’s poetry books The Human The Night and The Music and Undercurrent Blues, he incorporates specific jazz songs into his poems.
Cushing said that his poems are based on his current situation. “I write about things that are happening in my mind at the time I’m writing” he said. Cushing feels a deep attachment to his poems – referring to them as his “kids”. All of his poems undergo a massive revision process because he isn’t satisfied until they convey what’s going on inside his mind on paper.
“I want people to be reading my stuff a 100 years from now as well as today, so I want to put as much meaningfulness and density into it as I can” said Cushing.
Cushing knew since the age of 11 that he wanted to be an English professor because his mother told him stories about her experiences at college and graduate school. “It was the idea that a university is a place where you don’t have to apologize for being smart” he said.
Cushing went to UCSC for his undergrad and then UC Irvine where he received his masters and doctorate. He taught at UC Irvine, Pasadena City College, UC Davis, and Questa before coming to Cal Poly.
In his classes, Cushing teaches Franz Kafka’s idea that “The surfaces of the world we live in are a kind of mask for the bizareness of the truth – the mystery of existence” he said.
“I see everyone’s mind as a house with hundreds and hundreds of rooms. So far in your life experience many of your rooms have been opened, but there are many rooms that haven’t been opened” said Cushing.
His goal is to open some of those doors. “If I can help someone discover his or her own true self…then I think I will have done my duty to the spirit of the poem” said Cushing.
Cushing also encourages students to embrace their individuality. “The most wonderful and natural and difficult thing to do in this life is be true to yourself” he said.
Students and faculty alike admire Cushing for his unconventional personality. “He is one of the most bizarre and brilliant teachers that I’ve ever seen in my whole life” said English professor Annie Garner.
Students name him one of their favorites because of his apparent eccentric character. “You don’t see especially unique people every day so a quirky professor can be very inspiring” said freshman Parks and Recreation major Amanecer Eizner.
“Unusualness and exceptionalism have been the tail on the dog of my life” said Cushing.