By TIM DRUGAN-EPPICH, Contributing Writer
Jaed Coffin looks like a guy that, if he wanted to, could easily take your lunch money. Coffin has a tall, athletic build that could easily throw an unruly student across a classroom. When he has a serious look on his face, he looks downright intimidating. Or sexy, as the chili pepper on his Ratemyprofessor.com page indicates.
“If I were ever stuck in a situation where I had to fight my way out, like if I got surrounded by motorcycle thugs or something, Jaed would be the professor I would choose to be there with me. And I mean out of any professor I’ve ever had,” said Josh Foreman, one of Coffin’s graduate students.
The façade is broken up by a goofy smile and a laugh that has charmed both his students and fellow faculty. The ease with which he interacts with his students is illustrated on the first day of class when he insists on only being addressed by his first name.
“Just call me Jaed,” he says.
“He has created quite a strong student following,” said Sue Hertz, a journalism professor who chaired the hiring committee.
“A combination of the student’s enthusiastic support of his candidacy, his strong publishing record and his work ethic that made him our first choice,” Hertz said. “Nobody works harder than Jaed.”
Coffin has been hired as an assistant professor in the English department. His teaching concentration is undergraduate and graduate courses on nonfiction and memoir. What does he bring to the classroom? A unique perspective on the world as well as an incredible sheet of credentials.
Take your pick of his being named one of the six notable Buddhists of the next generation by Shambhala Sun, taking home enough literary awards to warrant the swagger in his step. Coffin’s accolades include: runner up for the 2008 Maine Literary Award for Nonfiction; the 2009 William Sloane Fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference; and the 2010 Wilson Fellow at Deerfield Academy.)
“I’ve done a lot of freelance work,” Coffin said.
Writing stories varying in subject matter from tuna fishing to a night out with Justin Timberlake, Coffin has spent quite a bit of time out and about.
“I love being in the field,” he said. “I love reflecting on my personal experience through writing. And I love learning more about my world through research.”
Research, when it comes to Coffin, means putting himself in situations that would cause the average citizen to need a change of underwear. Activities like hitchhiking across the country, sea kayaking solo from Washington State to Alaska and boxing in barrooms, to name a few.
“He is this combination of Earnest Hemingway for is external life of adventure and bravery, and the pensive poet soul of a Monk like Thomas Murton,” said Tom Paine, a professor and colleague of Coffin’s in the English department. “We are so lucky to have him join the faculty.”
Paine also thinks that the reason students enjoy him so much is his teaching ability.
“He has an incredible ability to cut to the heart of a story,” Paine said. “For all those tough guy traits he has, he is amazingly simpatico.”
Coffin has been enjoying his classes as much as his students.
“Classes have been a blast,” he said. “I really enjoy getting to know where a young person comes from, where they want to end up, and what, right now, is speaking to them.”
Coffin says he hopes to provide his students with a set of skills that will help them in a “post-campus universe.” Skills, like storytelling, communication, and cultural criticism.
“He’s actually one of the few teachers I’ve had who has actively tried to show his students how to make a career with their degrees,” said Thomas Berry, an undergraduate student of Coffin’s. “It’s not just learning the subject with him, it’s also applying it.”
But Coffin isn’t just applying subject matter in undergraduate courses, his graduate students were equally as inspired by his teaching style.
“I found Jaed’s class to be fresh in its perspective towards writing creatively,” said Joshua Folmer, a graduate student who had Jaed in the fall semester. “Jaed has a magnetic resonance which comes from his passion for writing, and by extension, teaching writing.”
But after a life of hustling different story ideas, constantly on the move, always looking for the next adventure, is teaching enough? Isn’t he getting a form of cabin fever from the inertia that begins to set in as a professor? Not really.
“I’ve got two little girls now, and the best part of my day is walking my first grader to school,” he said. “Despite the adventures I have behind me, there’s nothing more fascinating than seeing the world through her eyes.”
Coffin is still finding time to write even with a teaching load. He is currently working on a book, “Roughhouse Friday,” about the year he won the middleweight title of a barroom boxing show in Juneau, Alaska.
“I always liked to get to know my opponents,” he said. “Perhaps because I knew one day I would write a book about them.”