Dr. Jeffrey Gonzalez has been at Montclair State for just over a semester, but has already established a reputation as an American Literature virtuoso and an exceptional professor.
At 37, he looks the part. He wears tan oxfords, pairs a sweater over his button-up, and fidgets with his glasses. His watch, which doesn’t fit him properly, rests on the lecture podium during class instead of his wrist. He’s handsome. His language is thoughtful and deliberate.
His fervor for whatever he teaches feels unrivaled—there is a quality in his passion that suggests it lives outside the classroom.
Rewind ten years and Gonzalez was in his twenties, teaching high school, spending the afternoons at a Barnes and Noble with a fellow high school teacher who he was dating.
“I was talking about this book I’d read, this movie I’d seen, and an interesting connection between the two of them, and she said to me, ‘You need to find someone who wants to talk to you about books all the time.’ Because she didn’t want to,” he said.
It hadn’t occurred to Gonzalez that his colleagues and his students didn’t have the same vehemence he had. He was teaching his students “Huck Finn,” which he had become obsessed with. They didn’t get it. He went home, got a sack of White Castle burgers, drank two beers and wrote his class a thirteen-page letter.
“That, I think, told me that I needed to be someplace where I could talk about these things,” he said.
Gonzalez got his Ph.D. in English from Penn State, specializing in contemporary and twentieth-century American literature. And he was absorbed by it.
“My whole life was get up, read, go to class, read, write, teach, read, write, go to bed, go to the gym,” he said. “But that was so satisfying to me. I felt like I was getting smarter every day and I felt like I was learning every day and I didn’t feel the absence of some other thing people call a ‘real life.’ It was as edifying as any sort of stretch of my life has ever been.”
He taught at Oberlin College in Ohio in 2011 and then Borough of Manhattan Community College for a few years. He was hired as an assistant professor at Montclair State University after he and his wife moved from Jersey City to South Orange, so that they would have better services for their 3-year-old son with special needs.
“I had no hope I was going to get this job. None whatsoever,” Gonzalez said. This came as a surprise to his current students.
“He was especially aware of how he was doing, asking for our feedback, always looking to improve,” Joseph Glinbizzi, one of Gonzalez’s first students, said. “I think that quality is representative of his spirit as an educator.”
Another of his students, Fe Reyes, described him as having a “gracefulness.” A senior English major, she took one of Gonzalez’s first courses at Montclair State—a seminar in American Literature.
“He’s very student-based. He’s always willing to learn,” she said. “And I’ve always appreciated a professor who, in addition to caring about their research, cares about the success of the student. That comes with being humble.”
And humble might be an understatement. On Rate My Professors, Gonzalez has an overall quality rating of 4.8 from Borough of Manhattan Community College, 5.0 from Penn State, and 5.0 from Montclair State. All three schools have also awarded him a chili pepper, which indicates a professor’s attractiveness.
“I’ve never really thought of myself as a particularly good-looking person,” Gonzalez said. His students disagree.
“I think he is adorable. I think he is attractive,” Reyes said. But she knows that doesn’t factor into her success; it doesn’t contribute to her academic experience. She respects his expertise in the field and his effectiveness in the classroom far more.
Firorella Medina, a student in Gonzalez’s American Literature class, said, “Once he walked in [the classroom], I couldn’t help but realize he was appealing to the eye.” But she added, “Once he started to talk about how passionate he was toward English, I was hooked and just wanted to be in that class forever.”
“If I’m being fully honest, it is a compliment,” Gonzalez said. But he doesn’t want his appearance to be the reason students enroll in his class. He doesn’t want students, or anyone observing his classes, to mistake charisma for quality of instruction.
“We’re not talking about anything sexy,” he laughed, even though Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Sexy” appears on his syllabus.
“I do have this fantasy, I still maintain this fantasy, that my class is going to be the one that really matters to you in the course of the semester,” he said, addressing his students. But he is realistic about that not always being the case.
“You might walk out of here with two or three things—or even two or three feelings—that I hope really matter to you further on.”