By ELISE STAHL
Scores of unusual objects line the tops of Kenneth Vorndran’s office cabinets.
One object appears to be a miniature brain sitting in a pan. Another is a dog toy with an Icelandic address written on it. Still another is a stuffed canine being skewered by a small nail.
And there are dozens more. What do they mean?
Vorndran, 55, a writing instructor at Pima Community College’s Northwest Campus, explains that each object is an excuse letter.
“I require that my students do an excuse letter that is fictitious and that is entertaining, and it’s good for one day late on one assignment one time during the semester,” Vorndran says.
The brain in the pan, then, is a representation of a student whose “brain was fried.” The Icelandic dog toy argues that one student’s excuse was “far-fetched.”
And the little dog getting stabbed? It symbolizes the phrase “screwed the pooch,” which means just what it sounds like: messing up terribly.
Vorndran says the excuse letters afford students “an ability to be human.” He recognizes they will likely either forget, misplace or fail to properly allot time for an assignment sometime during the semester.
“That’s the way it goes,” Vorndran says. “We’re all human beings.”
Vorndran has taught writing for 34 years, but his approach differs from most mainstream instructional techniques.
“I’m not a good lecturer,” Vorndran says. “I’m very good at facilitating. I’m very good at conversation.”
Thus, he structures his classes around questioning and discussion.
And not just on subjects of his own allocation.
“I don’t assign topics,” Vorndran explains. “My goal is to say, ‘What do you want to write about, and what do you want to research?’ and to try to give you the latitude to be who you are.”
Vorndran has taught writing at high school and university levels, but believes he belongs at a community college.
“This is not a default,” he says. “This is where I want to be.”
Vorndran says he feels a special connection to community college students because his situation was once the same as many of theirs: working through college, unable to afford the more prestigious universities.
“I identify with my community college students,” he says.
His ability to connect with students often leaves a lasting impression. He stays in touch with students from years past, like Renée Schafer Horton, the internship coordinator for the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism.
Horton took Vorndran’s short story writing classes in 2006 and 2007. She remembers that, as a journalist whose occupation depended on the accurate reporting of facts, she was unused to inventing stories.
“I was sitting at the table, writing and scratching out … and he comes over and he squats down in front of the table so … he’s eye-to-eye with me,” Horton says. “He said, ‘Report what you see in your head,’ meaning, ‘Do it like a reporter.’”
She says Vorndran’s words fit fiction writing into a context she understood.
His willingness to work within her framework left an impact on her.
“He’s one of those rare teachers, that he really cares about undergraduate students,” Horton says. “[He] will always advocate for the student.”
Vorndran’s heart for his students has kept him at Pima for 15 years. He’s not sure where his future will lead him, but he is clear on his legacy.
“I want to help people,” he says. “I want them to be saying sometime down the road, ‘You know … I really had this good connection.’”
In conjunction with his desire to foster connection, Vorndran holds strongly to a philosophy of acceptance.
“Acceptance … doesn’t mean we have to like something,” he explains. “But just saying, ‘OK, this is the way it is. How am I going to work with it?’”
Vorndran especially cares about accepting other people. “I want to look at you … and go, ‘You are a full, complete human being who’s going to love, who’s going to hate, who’s going to succeed, who’s going to fail, who’s going to have this complicated life,’” he said.
“If I start there, with that full acceptance of you as a human being … that’s the connection. And it starts with acceptance – very, very deep levels of acceptance.”
And that is the epitome of what Vorndran represents. From an amusing excuse letter policy to the ability to approach writing from the perspective of people like Horton, he accepts and works with others’ differences.
“The world is what it is,” Vorndran says. “Let’s come to accept this. If we can do that, we’ll change the world.”