By Dawn M. Aerts
Iron County Today
CEDAR CITY–Todd Petersen, writer, author, poet and professor, appreciates the curious outcomes of providence. As a professor of English and the Director of Southern Utah University’s project-based learning program, he works with students who are not content to follow a proscribed path toward a standard degree but who are willing to venture off, into an unknown experience where they may find a new path, or simply earn 3 credits.
“It’s been a wonderful, happy accident to work with this program, to become a professor and still have the timing and the track to pursue my own interests in writing,” said Petersen, who authored his third book, It Has to Look Like We Tried, published May in (Counterpoint Press).
Petersen has roots in Oregon, and first completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in telecommunications and film at a university there; then earned a Master’s degree in English at Northern Arizona University before earning a Ph.D in English (rhetoric and critical theory) from Oklahoma State.
The early degree led him to work as an assistant program director with the YMCA, working with summer camps and later to Seattle, Wash., where he found a niche partnering with environmental education and field science curriculum. It was this natural partnership in developing programs about eco-systems and environment that led him to experiential learning.
“Project-based learning is fairly common in a Liberal Arts education,” said Petersen of his own early track in screen studies and filmmaking, “But in addition to traditional course work, we can also look at how to build a (self-guided) program that students can design for themselves from beginning to end.”
It was those questions on where a student wanted to be, the twists and turns of degree plans and for Petersen, designing his own blueprint for a career in writing. “As a writer I’ve always enjoyed working with the short story or poetry, and then opportunities can come about, in your job or through an experience that provides another track to follow.”
According to Petersen, it was only after a move to Cedar City in 2001, and later the opportunity to become a tenured professor, that he would find the right place and time to write and publish a book.
In his first book, Long After Dark (published 2007), Petersen made an attempt to compile and convey what it means to be ‘religious.’ “I wanted to write about the personal experience of that, going through the interview process with older people and empty-nesters, the family history and telling those stories.”
In Petersen’s second novel, Rift (published 2009) the focus is on Sanpete County, the circular valley situated off Interstate 15 that he describes as a place that seemed to exist 20 years in the past. “It was a story about some of the older ‘dudes’ in town, the barbershop on Main Street and some of the rifts and feuds that can develop over time.”
But it’s Petersen’s role as professor and published author that can now benefit students. “In teaching and in the Project-Based Learning program, students are challenged to rise, to take a detour. It’s not just sharing knowledge, but to help them develop a confidence in themselves and how they can pursue new goals in the process.”
Those students have developed dozens of individual-learning projects under his guidance at SUU. “I’ve had an Edge student who wanted to be a doctor, but also wanted to pursue music, so she structured a recital event, composing and playing her music at a retirement facility,” said Petersen of the program.
Other students have designed and completed internships with the U.S. Forest Service, at a women’s shelter, working with a clinic in the Dominican Republic and one who hoped to climb the Denali Summit. “So this program is all about being self-directed, and developing a pattern of experiences and of success.”
According to Petersen, he has always had a fascination with providence, the failures and life-altering events that we experience along with others. “Balancing time in raising a family, teaching, and becoming an author has been a challenge for me,” said Petersen. “So sometimes I feel like one of those old performers who keeps dozens of plates spinning while they run around like a crazy person.”
In the end, it was the first 50 pages of one book that kept him moving forward.
“In the novel, “It Has to Look Like We Tried,” I explore a theme where the main character takes an (unexpected) detour through California, into a chain of events, and over 80 days which focuses on the inter-connectivity of people we meet and how our failures can sometimes work in another person’s favor.”
Petersen is currently working on his new book, “Picnic in Ruins,” and hoping to complete it by 2020. “Writing these books has been a wonderful, happy accident for me, and like the title says, ‘It has to look like we tried.’”
Photo Caption: Dr. Todd Petersen, a professor of English and director of Southern Utah’s project-based learning program, recently published his third novel. He lives in Cedar City with his wife, Alisa, and three children.