UAA’s #1 Professor: Joseph Nunnally

Clay Nunnally vividly remembers the moment he first wanted to be a teacher.

He was in the seventh grade, riding backseat in his parent’s car as they wound through the forested hills of Eastern Tennessee. It was fall; the leaves were a vibrant explosion of reds and oranges and yellows. Nunnally recalls gazing out the car window as they rounded a turn and seeing the spires and gothic architecture of Sewanee University, the University of the South, rearing ahead of them amid the trees.

The sight, said Nunnally, filled him with inspiration.

“There were these beautiful buildings up on a hill, the leaves were falling, the trees were red, and I thought, ‘Nunnally, old buddy, this is where you want to spend your life—something just like this’,” he said. “So from then on I never looked back.”

58 years after that car ride, Nunnally is in his 42nd year as an English professor at UAA. He has won multiple awards, including the UAA Service Recognition Award in 2005 and the 40-Year Longevity Award in 2010, and been voted by students as the best professor at UAA.

“It’s been thoroughly enjoyable,” he said of his long career here at the university. “I think I’ll just keep truckin’ along until something starts failing, and when they have to wheel me in on a skateboard, I’ll know it’s time to quit.”

Dressed each day in a suit, jacket and tie, with a matching handkerchief tucked in his pocket and a fresh carnation in his lapel, Nunnally exudes a Southern gentlemanly charm for which he is well known. His passions reside in Romantic Literature and 19th century England, and he will often recite large passages of Romantic poetry from memory in class. Teaching, he stated, is about fully immersing students in the subject and inspiring them to pursue their own knowledge.

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“He’s one of the few teachers I have met who I feel truly wants his students to succeed,” said Terri Coker, 22, a double major in Japanese and Spanish. “He has this way of bringing the material to life—which, combined with his contagious passion, makes it a disappointment to not attend class.”

“I love Nunnally; I keep taking his classes,” said Janna Chiscin, 21, an English and Anthropology double major. “He definitely cares about his students, and his love for the subject is really evident.”

This love for English has been a pursuit of Nunnally’s throughout his entire academic career.

He attended both the University of New Mexico and the University of Georgia after high school, before committing to Texas Tech University and pursuing a degree in Victorian Studies. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1968 and began teaching at a small college in East Texas, before making the biggest and most spontaneous decision of his life—to move to Alaska.

The notion came from a highly regarded uncle, who had recently moved to the state himself, and urged Nunnally to pursue a job there.

Texas to Alaska is not the most obvious of resettlement choices. Nunnally, however, fully committed to the idea. He contacted David Knapp, the assistant director of what at the time was the Anchorage Community College, who promptly offered him the job. In the summer of 1970, Nunnally made the drive north.

“I came up the Alcan, when it really was a formidable, hideous dirt road,” he said. “I had no idea where I was, no idea how long the Alcan really was—I was just ‘la la la, I’m going to Alaska!’”

Alaska turned out to be just what Nunnally was looking for. He built himself a small home in Girdwood, where he incidentally lives to this day, and settled into work at the community college. From the expansion into a state university in 1977, Nunnally took on a larger amount of English classes, and currently teaches a variety of graduate and undergraduate courses, from Victorian Literature to Academic Writing. He is also involved in the UAA Student Showcase, an annual event in which he serves as a committee member.

In his four decades of teaching, Nunnally has made quite an impact on UAA and its students. His literary passion, his commitment to students, and his carnations make him a widely memorable figure. In return, it’s the responses he gets from students that give him his greatest satisfaction.

“I don’t know how to thank the students enough; they are so kind,” he said. “Whatever warmth I am fortunate enough to receive from them, I certainly reciprocate it. It’s a real honor to teach them.”