Barbara Finlinson @bubblestweets
The office is cluttered, there are papers strewn across the desk in piles and bags, even a few wadded-up pieces on the floor, but Dr. Phil Gordon has a relaxed smile on his face. With a giggle and a devious look in his eye he leans in as if to share a dirty little secret. “I’m on a mission from God to teach the Mormons to be liberal, and I’m succeeding!”
He almost comes across as joking, but his statement has an air of seriousness. He’s not kidding. Gordon has the uncanny ability to speak to a classroom full of conservative Mormon students, tell them their beliefs are wrong, make everyone laugh and no one is offended.
“They’re nice people. They’re just misguided.” Gordon says. “Their ideas are my enemies. The people aren’t.”
And Professor Gordon’s ideas are radically different than the majority of the students he teaches.
“I always was a political-progressive, radical liberal. Even as a kid, I didn’t like saying the Pledge of Allegiance.” His easy smile fades and his demeanor changes. It is a complete transformation. He has gone from easy-going to matter-of-fact serious in a heartbeat. “There’s something ugly about it to me. It feels like Fascism.”
And these ideas are genuinely his. He claims nobody taught him how to think or forced their opinions on him. “I just remember being a kid and being critical.”
Gordon grew up reading comic books and watching movies. When he speaks of it, he becomes almost child-like in his excitement. “I absolutely love American pop culture.” This seems to have been the avenue that led him to a career as professor at Utah Valley University teaching classes on the subject.
He didn’t always know he wanted to be a teacher and he struggled with different career possibilities for years. When he attended college he fell in love with academia and knew he had found what he was looking for.
“I felt a connection. I loved it. I just thought the professors were so smart and it was such an interesting place. I loved hearing all of the ideas and the debate and argument and the freedom of it. You could say anything.”
Through years of trial and error, Gordon was finally able to decide on a degree path.
“I was pre-med then pre-law and then creative writing. I took classes that interested me and I inadvertently discovered communication.”
One man had a lot to do with Gordon’s academic transformation. Larry Grossberg was one of his professors. Grossberg was recently nominated for “Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement” at the University of North Carolina. Gordon wrote a letter to the deciding committee on his behalf. In the letter, Gordon wrote: “On the first day of the first class I took from him, he gave an extraordinary lecture. It unlocked my mind as surely as you turn a key in a smooth, deadbolt lock—“click”—and everything was changed.”
Phil Gordon is comfortable in his job and in his skin. He is relaxed and it shows; but this ease and relaxation did not come free. It is a trophy awarded to him for the countless hours of work and dedication during his earlier years.
“It was so hard in my 20s and 30s. I just remember working, and working and working. I worked myself to death.”
Writing his dissertation nearly killed him and he’s not sure if he would do it again. “Maybe I should have just gone somewhere and taught English as a second language.”
Ultimately, that life would not have satisfied Professor Gordon. He lives for the debate with his communication students. In the classroom, his goal is to create a safe environment for students to express their ideas. “I get away with what I do by respecting the opinions and freedoms of my students,” Gordon said. However, he readily admits that his students are now “more open-minded” and there “isn’t as much debate going on.”
“It’s definitely less exciting, but that’s a good thing” he says. “It was a little too exciting for a while.” He is referring back to the fiery controversy caused by Michael Moore coming to speak at UVU in October 2004.
“There was hatred and anger in the halls. Things have definitely changed.”
Maybe it’s a different time in the world or maybe Gordon really is winning his fight with Conservatism. “The Mormons are way more liberal than they were 15 years ago when I got here; mostly because of me.” He smiles that quirky smile again, leans back in his chair, props his feet up on the desk and chuckles. “An Oscar Wilde quote comes to mind: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.’”
It’s clear that Professor Gordon cares about his students, no matter what they believe. “Life is beautiful. Follow your dreams.”