Prof-iles: Meet David Bowie, the UAA professor, not the singer-songwriter

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“I flunked out of college and have an Ivy League Ph.D.,” David Bowie said. No, not the English singer-songwriter, but David Bowie, pronounced Boo-ee, one of the associate professors in the English department. Bowie, wearing his signature bow tie, has lived the majority of his life sharing his name with the more famous David Bowie.

“My parents swear that they had no idea who he was,” Bowie said. “I went to a semi-rural southern high school, and sharing the name of a bisexual glam rock star was not really comfortable. I promised myself, the moment I turned 18, I was changing my name, but for all that starting college was academically an issue. I discovered that socially, my name was an asset. I stopped signing my name with my middle initial. I was like, ‘I’m going to own this.'”

For Bowie, college was academically an issue because the expectations were different than what he had learned in high school. In high school, Bowie was a self-described smart slacker type. It took getting kicked out of Carnegie Mellon for having below a 1.75 GPA for two consecutive semesters as a freshman for Bowie to realize he needed to change.

“Sometimes, you just have to get woken up,” Bowie said. “Flunking out of college, this was something that I had never experienced anything like that before. All of a sudden, I realized I actually had to work at it.”

After flunking out of college, Bowie attended Prince George’s Community College and earned his associate’s degree before applying to college at University of Maryland College Park. There, he found his future academic calling, but by accident.

Without realizing the future impact it would have, Bowie became a part of the linguistics department, solely because he wanted to be in one of the smaller departments. At University of Maryland College Park, he enrolled in several linguistics classes. At this point in his college career, Bowie had learned that reading the beginning of his textbooks was an effective strategy for succeeding in new classes. One of the textbooks introduced linguistics with the idea that language is fluid, and that idea resonated with Bowie.

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“[The textbook said] the only place that the English language exists, is in the brains of its speakers,” Bowie said. “We’ve all basically come to an unspoken agreement that this is how we speak English… English is bigger than we tend to think. I grew up border Southern, I grew up being told all my life that I was talking wrong, and it kind of annoyed me. No, this is the way I talk, and so I was fascinated. There are actually people out there who think about language the same way I do.”

Bowie became very invested in the subject, eventually applying and attending University of Pennsylvania for his Ph.D. He was hired straight out of graduate school to be an assistant professor at Brigham Young University for four years before moving to University of Central Florida for six years. In 2009, Bowie was hired as an assistant professor at UAA, and he’s been in Alaska ever since.

Sharing the name David Bowie with a famous singer-songwriter has presented some interesting situations for Bowie, but the oddest moment of all occurred at the Anchorage International Airport, right after the singer had died.

“You’ve not lived until you’ve come in on a really rough landing, come up, really late, the flight was delayed, the airport was deserted, you walk into a deserted airport terminal and you see on the CNN airport news thing, ‘BREAKING NEWS: Your name, dies,’” Bowie said. “That’ll make you pause for a second until you realize, whether you believe in an afterlife or not, you have to agree that whatever one’s conception of an afterlife would be, it is not the Delta terminal at Anchorage International Airport.”

As a student of both a community college and an Ivy League University, Bowie said he can be empathetic of his student’s struggles while also realizing that an F isn’t the end of the world.

“[My own experiences] makes it easier to not draw generalizations about the students themselves from what I see in class. Perhaps on the less comforting to students’ side, it also taught me, if you flunk a class, it’s not the end of the world. It’s painful. And can be expensive, but it’s not the end of the world as long as you pick yourself up and deal with it,” Bowie said.

For the future, Bowie wants to continue studying the role of an individual in a society at large, he looks forward to raising his four daughters and he hopes to one day have contributed research for an atlas of regional varieties of English in Alaska. He is specifically interested in seeing how regional varieties of indigenous languages and varieties of English in Alaska interact.