R. J. Jenkins: He can teach you all about sex, primates, and Jake Gyllenhaal

“High seriousness is the enemy of intelligent thought,” says Robert Joseph “R. J.” Jenkins of his personal teaching philosophy. As the Head Teaching Fellow for the extremely popular English 154: “Literature and Sexuality,” Jenkins is known for his charismatic, candid teaching style, 24-7 availability to his students, and outspoken opposition to the traditional response paper, a commonplace assignment at Harvard which he calls a “soul destroying genre.” Jenkins’ refreshingly irreverent classroom methods have made him so popular that he seems to have become one of the main attractions of the course.

Jenkins divides his time between serving as a TF, a tutor at Lowell House, the Director of Sophomore Advising, and a Ph.D. candidate. Studying primate biology as an undergraduate at Columbia University, Jenkins never expected to end up where he is today. But after contracting malaria during a research trip to Kenya, Jenkins decided to switch to literature to feed his obsession with the Victorian novel. Though the two topics seem unrelated, Jenkins sees a clear connection. “In both disciplines, you are searching for great significance in the tiniest details, great meaning in minute actions and things,” he says.

Making connections, especially with students, is one of Jenkins’ specialties. “My life is as ridiculous and full of foolishness as the lives of my students,” he explains. He recalls an incident last year when, late to class, he hastily hooked up his computer to the projector, only to display his desktop background—a flirty picture of Jake Gyllenhaal—onto the screen. “Instead of acting embarrassed, I greeted him. ‘Why hello Jake! Class, meet Jake. Jake, class’” Jenkins recalls. “Teachers are human beings too.”

Chava E. Kenny ’12, a student in his English 154 section last year, explains, “R. J. can always make you laugh or smile.” Kenny acknowledges that Jenkins has had a significant impact on her academically. “He helps you along with your ideas,” she says, “without forcing anything on you. And he completely changed my approach to writing papers.” Jenny J. Lee ’10, an English concentrator who took his Junior Tutorial last year, agrees that Jenkins is one-of-a-kind. “R. J. is the kind of person you would want to be at your wedding,” she says.

Assistant Professor of English Matthew B. Kaiser, who teaches English 154, also appreciates Jenkins’ exceptional teaching methods. “R. J. is my platonic ideal of a TF,” Kaiser said in an e-mail. “He teaches from a place of love and joy,” he said, “not a place of control and discipline. That’s why students respect and admire him.”

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