UB celebrates Bruce Jackson's excellence in the arts

New annual tribute at UB selects Jackson as its first choice

The Spectrum

Most UB professors have narrow subjects of expertise. Damien Keane teaches Irish writing, transnational modernism and sound. Ruth Mack is an 18th-century British literature expert. Hershini Young specializes in contemporary Black Diasporic literature.

Bruce Jackson doesn't have a Ph.D.

He considers himself a storyteller; he takes photos of death row inmates and doesn't use textbooks in class. He's a SUNY distinguished English professor, is married to a former nun and has published 32 books.

He thinks UB could use more freethinkers like himself. The university is too rigid and technical and is not focusing enough on the arts the way it is on the sciences, he said.

On Friday afternoon, Jackson was honored for his worldwide accomplishments during a special tribute, "A Celebration of the Arts to Honor Bruce Jackson: Working in Time," which was held in Slee Hall.

He received the honor his way, not the standard academic way.

There were no dry speeches. Instead, he and his artist friends put on a show. David Felder showed his multimedia piece, A Garland for Bruce, with a cello performance by Jonathan Golove. Fredrick Wiseman, a famous filmmaker, came from Paris to show one of Jackson's favorite films, Crazy Horse.

Jackson himself showcased images from his forthcoming book about capital punishment in Texas and Arkansas.

"I thought it would be good to try to remind people what a strong artistic background [UB] had not too long ago and maybe to suggest we start building that up again," Jackson said.

His wife, Diane Christian, who went from the convent to UB in 1970 and is now also a distinguished professor, spoke about Jackson's artistic background both at UB and worldwide.

Jackson's fingerprints are all over campus. He's been at UB for 45 years and teaches in numerous departments and graduate programs - including law, sociology, and architecture. He has served on multiple committees, including the search for the new provost and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Although Jackson was once in UB's faculty senate, along with the provost search committee and dean of arts and sciences search committee, he is less active now. But he still remains a vital figure on and off campus.

A mixture of Santa Claus and Grizzly Adams, Jackson has tremendous presence and charm. Christian calls him "sexy."

Jackson is something of an accidental professor. He stumbled into comparative literature at Rutgers in the late '50s, fell in love with it and earned an MA in comparative literature at Indiana University.

He was then chosen among seven others to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard. There, he was allowed to study whatever he wanted for three years. He never had to report to anyone about it, had no teaching responsibilities and all his expenses were paid. To him, that's much better than a Ph.D.

"It was the luckiest break of my life," Jackson said.

For four years (Harvard gave him an extra year) he did field work in folklore and prisons, recorded music and made a film with Pete Seeger about convict work songs - which was nominated for a Grammy Award.

"But what was great about it was it didn't force me to settle down into one department," Jackson said. "And so that continued when I came over here. Buffalo didn't force me to settle down in one department, either."

His big complaint about UB now is the English and art departments are becoming too technical. When he started in 1967, he remembers a freewheeling time when people could merge into all different departments. He laments that loss and thinks it's a big loss to academia and to students. People have been much more rigid and career-oriented.

He said UB should hire more people like him, whose work can cross into other departments and cross into the real world to create a vibrant community that students can grow in.

"I think we need more really top people in art, in music, in media, in theatre and in writing," Jackson said. "We had them in the '60s. We made a concerted effort to get them, and I'd love to see us make the same the same kind of concerted effort to do it again. We do that in the sciences, but I don't think we do it in the arts."

Cristianne Miller, the head of the English Department, said her department had twice the amount of faculty members in the '60s than it does now.

The English Department has very few opportunities to hire, and when it does it strives to hire both creative and critical professors, according to Miller.

"Bruce is one of the most productive faculty members in this department," Miller said. "The fact that he is celebrated in multiple fields is also unusual ... very few people excel in one of those fields, let alone at so many."

Aside from UB, Jackson was president of the American Folklore Society; editor of Journal of American Folklore; member of the board of directors then chairman of the board of the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress; member of the board of directors and vice-chairman of the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center in Buffalo.

He was also a member of the editorial board of Inter-Nord, a journal published in Paris. The French government honored him in 2002 as Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres and again in 2012 as Chevalier de l'Ordre National du M?(c)rite - two highly regarded national awards.

He keeps himself informed about what's going at the university, including the recent fracking controversy that's erupted on campus. He feels publications are implying UB's guilty, but he hasn't heard anything evidentiary dishonest about UB. He would like to see the issue explored "intelligently, fairly and ethically."

Jackson's English professorship has the same roots it did when he was hired 45 years ago.

Just as the New York City native made his own rules as a kid exploring the subway, he continues on his own path within UB - going wherever his academic vision takes him.

Jackson is very important to the English Department for its creative, artistic and critical reputation, according to Miller.

"He'll be impossible to replace."

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