Zoe Gonzales / Daily Nexus

 “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Rick Benjamin begins our comparative literature class titled, “Reimaging Social Literatures of  Change” with this Mary Oliver quote. 

The classroom was  silent. I could feel us all thinking together. What followed that  quote was the most engaging and thought-provoking two  hours I have ever experienced in an academic setting. 

As an  adjunct professor and the UC Santa Barbara Director of Student Learning  and Community Engagement, Rick’s classes are the model for innovatively  designed courses to create a space that fosters critical thinking,  shared human experience and mutual learning. 

On the last  day of class, in place of a final exam, Rick held a “celebration”  which was quite emblematic of his teaching style. With a  spread of homemade pita bread, hummus and other foods  served in beautiful blue ceramic dishes hand-crafted by a  local artist, Rick encouraged us to reflect on the course and foster meaningful connections with our classmates. His unusual teaching style makes Rick’s classes and curriculum the most effective on campus.

There is a lot about Rick’s classes that are unconventional. The desks are arranged in a circle instead of rows. No tests. No lecture. No professor, just a teacher. 

Insisting that all his students call him by his first name, Rick has removed the word “professor” from his vocabulary, among other words such as “procrastination”, “writer’s block” and “retirement.”

He describes himself as an avid student and rejects the notion that what he has to say is any more significant than that of anyone else in a classroom. 

Rick expresses, “All I really want to do is think with my students in a way that is civically engaged.” Rick explained to my class that he refuses to be a “gatekeeper of our education” by incentivizing our learning with grades and tests. You’d think that a college course with no tests and grades would struggle with attendance turnout. 

Yet week after week, every seat in that classroom was filled, igniting vibrant, passionate thinking and learning. I left every class ablaze with energy, wanting to call my friends and family to tell them about what I had learned and continue our conversations outside of the classroom. Is this what learning is supposed to be like?

Rick stepped into his career at UCSB the same way he does everything: with intentionality, creativity and determination to stretch boundaries. Rick’s teaching expands from UCSB to include local middle school and high school students, youth in juvenile detention centers, community centers and the elderly. Rick teaches classes on topics such as poetry and community, reimagining social change, juvenile justice and wild literature in the urban landscape, just to name four. Being enrolled in one of Rick’s courses extends beyond simply attending his class on the UCSB campus. Rick actively engages his students in the community by collaborating with local non-profits like Freedom 4 Youth, community centers, and local middle school and high schools. He has spent a lot of time forming these partnerships and ensuring their durability over time so his students could join in.

Before his career at UCSB, Rick previously taught at Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Goddard College, Haverford College, Haystack, New Urban Arts and numerous other educational and community settings. Through all of his work, Rick makes sure to balance his community practice, creative practice, intellectual practice and spiritual practice. These four elements blend together seamlessly and beautifully to form an unconventional approach to civic engagement. Despite his role as a university professor, Rick does not have a lot of faith in institutions. He dares to work outside the box and reform the system from the inside out by weaving his community work into his teaching role. He eagerly involves his students in his endeavors outside of UCSB, fostering a culture of integrated community engagement.

The origins of Rick’s civic passion is rooted in his endless curiosity. From his earliest days, Rick’s parents used to joke that as a kid, he would greet and engage in conversation with anyone who knocked on their door. To Rick, it did not matter who stood on the other side. He was enthralled by the endless possibilities of each interaction. Rick’s current office door always remains open, covered in stickers bearing powerful messages such as: “#HateFreeUCSB,” “I stand with immigrants,” “Your fight is my fight” and “Your heart is a muscle the size of your fist. Keep loving, keep fighting.” Rick has always had a genuine openness about him. An openness to strangers, new experiences, and new perspectives. His innate ability to empathize with strangers has stayed with him and served as a guiding principle for his community work — a realm where empathy for strangers is essential. This echoes the message of another quote Rick recited to our class, one from a Naomi Shihab Nye poem that reads, “When a stranger appears at your door, feed him for three days before asking who he is, where he’s come from, where he’s headed. That way, he’ll have strength enough to answer. Or, by then, you’ll be such good friends that you don’t care.” I believe this quote perfectly encapsulates one of Rick’s fundamental tenets in life: the power of genuine connection. Rick’s belief in shared humanity bridges the gap between stranger and friend, informing his approach to community work and everything else he does.

For Rick, it has always been important to have more than one job. As a doctoral student in literature at Rutgers, Rick took on a full-time job directing an HIV/AIDS project with a non-profit called Consortium For AIDS In Education with no public health background. Juggling the demands of writing a dissertation, volunteering at hospice and directing a non-profit might sound completely impossible to some, but Rick approached it as an opportunity to connect his different projects together. Instead of compartmentalizing his endeavors, he convinced his dissertation committee to let him bring his non-profit work into his writing.

Having more than one job satisfied Rick’s itch to connect the dots of two of his passions — language and community building — not allowing himself to settle too deeply into one institution or sector. Rick’s approach to community work is grounded in meeting communities where they are. This work ranges from working with UCSB multicultural fraternities to sign on to the idea of “beloved community”, a manifesto against violence against women with emphasis on creating safe spaces and housing, to teaching poetry to youth in juvenile detention centers. 

While Rick approaches his work with well-informed ideas and plans, he remains flexible, ready to adapt to the needs of those he serves. Some days, this could mean ditching his lesson plan with incarcerated youth and dedicating the whole day to guide them in writing letters to their loved ones. Rick’s love for language is ever present. His office bookshelf is filled with words written by Virginia Wolf and E. M. Forster, and his walls are adorned with poems by Lucile Clifton and Mary Oliver. Among his wall decor is a black and white photograph of Virginia Wolf from The National Portrait Gallery in London, one of the greatest influences to his own poetry. He carried this cherished photograph for a year in a tube on his back during his travels. Rick has poems in his head first thing in the morning.

He is a prolific writer and reader. When discussing his approach to poetry, Rick says, “I treat poems like letters of recommendation. You have to approach it all with the same level of receptivity and kindness. There’s a lot of play in it. I love language. I love being fast and loose enough to do that. And to find the right words effortlessly.” 

Rick uses poetry as a tool for civic engagement through his classes at juvenile detention centers, high schools, and assisted living centers. Rick’s students, spanning from elders to high schoolers and incarcerated youth, typically begin thinking they hate poetry. Many of them have never written a poem in their lives, but Rick sells them on an idea that poetry helps you to do the work that you still have left to do.

Rick spends a lot of time thinking and carefully selecting the right poem that will resonate with certain students.

“I would never walk into a high school classroom and pass out paper. Because that’s death to whatever’s on that paper. I’m not out to bore anybody. I’ll walk into a classroom, even when I don’t know the kids, and I’ll just say a poem. I love it when I go into a high school classroom and they think that they hate poetry.” 

Rick does not impose poetry on anyone. Instead, he presents poetry orally as if it is naturally part of a conversation. By the end of the recitation, his students are often astounded to realize they’ve been listening to a poem. This past summer, one of the elderly women Rick worked with passed away. Her daughter wrote to Rick and told him, “I think she was staying alive for poetry.” Rick’s teaching strikes a chord in a wide range of individuals. “Poetry is a wisdom medium. It carries instructions,” Rick said.

After decades of teaching at Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design and nine years at UCSB, Rick has decided to rewire (his term for retirement) following the conclusion of this school year. Rick worked throughout his youth, taking on various jobs like being a janitor in a strip mall. This taught him to treat all laborers with equal respect and attention. “All work has dignity,” Rick states. For Rick, his decision to rewire does not signal an end to his work, but rather marks new opportunities to do what he loves. As someone who does not have much faith in systems, institutions, and structures, he is constantly thinking of unconventional ways to do his work. Rick has put a lot of thought into this decision, including coming up with a word to replace the traditional term, in order to better express what this shift means for him. He explains, “It horrifies me that some people are just waiting for the day that they can finally be free and liberated from their work lives enough to do all the things they’ve been wanting to do. Well, I’ve been doing what I’ve wanted to do all along.”

For Rick, coming up with the term “rewiring” was a note to himself that he is not stopping what he’s doing. “I’m rethinking it,” Rick said. “I’ve been doing this work gainfully and loving it the whole time, for a long time now. It suddenly hit me that there must be other ways to do it.” In this new chapter in his life, Rick is excited to see what his work might look like beyond the confines of a classroom. Although the specifics remain uncertain, he is eager to embrace the challenge of inventing new rituals to go along with whatever structure he decides to inhabit.

Rick is uncompromising about his commitment to his community, creative, intellectual and spiritual practices — so much so that he has negotiated an unconventional teaching position in order to preserve the integrity of his work. Whatever the future holds, I have full confidence that Rick will approach it with the same passion, creativity and vibrancy that he brings to every element of his life. 

Josie Hurwitz thinks we should have fewer finals and more hummus and pita.

A version of this article appeared on p. 14 of the April 25, 2024 print edition of The Daily Nexus.