You Should Know … Rhea Kennedy

Rhea Kennedy is a lecturer in the Gallaudet University English department. She is also a freelance writer and member of the boards of Gallaudet’s Hillel and Crossroads Community Food Network.

The 36-year-old New Paltz, N.Y., native made a pit stop in the Midwest to attend Oberlin College, majoring in creative writing, before landing in Washington 14 years ago. She’s worked at Gallaudet in some capacity ever since. Kennedy is fluent in American Sign Language, having grown up with a sister who is deaf.

What drew you to writing?

Growing up, I really loved visual art. I loved to sketch and draw and people told me I was pretty good and usually ahead of whatever my age group was doing. At one point, my mom started this greeting card company with drawings I had made — we still have those around from when I was like 9. But I realized what I really liked about the drawing was that I was telling stories [and] soon realized I could just write those. I think that’s why I transitioned.

My [professional] work was always more journalism oriented. I started working here in the development office as a writer. My first profiles were of students thriving because of a scholarship. Then I applied for a position in the communications and public relations office, writing for all the publications. During that time, I dipped my toe into freelance journalistic writing and I think that’s why I decided to apply for the master’s in creative writing in nonfiction [from Johns Hopkins University].

Do you have a favorite subject matter or type of writing?

I’d say food and agriculture. I became really fascinated with sustainable agriculture, but also the ways the Jewish community is getting involved in sustainable agriculture and connecting it to Jewish tradition.

Yeah, I noticed you write a lot about food and sustainability and the Jewish community. What has been surprising to you about the intersection of those topics?

It has been surprising how well they align. With current thinking about sustainable agriculture secularly, the idea of letting land lie fallow and crop rotation is just a mirror image of the concept of shmitta, that once-every-seven-years rest for the land. That kind of thing, I just keep saying, “Oh, this makes sense. It’s in the Torah, it’s in the Talmud.”

Do you have a favorite area or story that you keep coming back to?

That whole idea of what is old becomes new again is really fascinating to me. Like fermentation is really big now — there are a lot of startups doing fermented vegetables — and that’s like a millennia-old technique of preserving vegetables and making them more digestible and more nutritious.

So, what do you like about teaching?

I think I like how much it stretches me and, in many ways, I’ve gone back to my original passion for visual arts. I teach a design course, I teach multimedia composition. Even writing is so interdisciplinary and Gallaudet really encourages its faculty to be innovative and try out new teaching theories, so that, again, helps me stretch and learn and grow along with the students.

Is there a No. 1 lesson you try to teach your students or want them to come away with?

That’s a good question. This is probably something I’ll think of five different answers later. But that [the students] are capable of more creative, wacky and accurate work than they think. And it doesn’t have to be scary to do something new and do something well. That’s something I try to practice myself, to put myself out there — try a new activity in class, try to make videos and do things in ASL and add bilingual teaching techniques that are still new and intimidating to me.

I imagine becoming a teacher is already intimidating and then to have most of your students be deaf or hard-of-hearing can add an extra layer to that.

In some ways, yeah, it’s true because I’m teaching in my second language since all classes are taught in American Sign Language. But in other ways — I remember a student asked me this, about what it means to have a bilingual classroom — it really enriches everything. It’s like I have more tools at my disposal, more ways to discuss writing techniques and stories, so there’s that, too.

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