BYU professor traveled the world as a musician before teaching


Michael Dixon teaches Japanese at BYU. Like most professors at BYU he is polite, well-groomed and easy to talk to. Unlike most professors at BYU, Dixon was in a few bands in graduate school that can be found on  iTunes, Grooveshark, Wikipedia and YouTube.

A fact like this can be surprising to students who tend to think of teachers as people from a different generation who might have had interesting lives at some point before their careers.  But the truth is many professors are more relatable than students give them credit for. They can even be … cool.

Dixon is just one example of a professor who strays from students’ conventional thinking.

“When I was in graduate school I spent a lot of my summers working as a touring musician,” Dixon said. “I lived in Bloomington, Ind., which is where Indiana University is, and there’s a pretty active music community there; I just met the right people.”

Playing the role of traveling musician was a pretty nice deal for Dixon. He toured Europe twice with the band DM Stith and played at the South by Southwest festival, once with DM Stith and another time with the band Rapider than Horsepower.

“Playing South by Southwest is a little overwhelming because at any given time there are a lot of shows going on all at once,” Dixon said. “It’s very loud; you can hear the bass coming through the walls and stuff like that, but it’s fun.”

The atmosphere Dixon speaks of is not what students typically recall when they think of professors, but maybe students should change this way of thinking.

“I think people who can become professors typically have to make quite a few sacrifices, so perhaps that attracts a kind of person that has a love for what they’re doing as well as an interest in the world in general,” he said.  “Chances are if you’re deeply interested in one thing, you can get pretty interested in lots of other things.”

One of Dixon’s students, Miya Kodama, a sophomore from Austin, Texas, studying urban planning, said she likes to remember that professors are not one-dimensional.

“I have this strong belief that people are never categories or just your teacher,” she said. “I don’t know where it comes from, but I’ve just found a lot of social boundaries really arbitrary.”

Instead of seeing professors merely as instructors, she has tried to discover who they are outside of the classroom, which has even included paddle boarding and biking with a former physics teacher.

“Sometimes people do think it’s weird that I try to become friends with them, but I also think, why not?” Kodama said.

Kristen DeTienne, a professor of organizational behavior at BYU, might be a good friend to have too. DeTienne has been involved in Autocross Auto Racing with her husband for the past 17 years and said she’s even offered to take students for ride-alongs on the racetrack. DeTienne fuels her passion with help from the Sports Car Club of America, a program which extends the opportunity to race to basically anyone who can find a car.

“There are people who bring race cars to the events, but you can race your everyday car that you drive on the road and that’s what most people do,” DeTienne said. “When we started I think we were racing a 1990 Audi 80 and then when it came time to replace it, it was like, ‘Well we need a car that’s going to be more competitive on the track.’”

And DeTienne isn’t the only unexpected racer on the track.

“People from all walks of life show up because they love racing; they love speed; they love the adrenaline rush,” DeTienne said. “So you’ll have young moms, you’ll have teenage boys, you’ll have grandpa; a very diverse group of people.”

While the racetrack can attract a variety of people, Eric McKell, another professor with an unexpected talent, creates instruments that are one-of-a-kind.

“I have a passion for building ukuleles, and not wood ones, but metal ukuleles,” he said.

McKell, a manufacturing professor, said the interest started with his last opportunity to teach sheet metal forming at Western Washington University. His colleague had just completed an aluminum guitar, but that seemed too complicated for students. At the same time, McKell had just discovered ukulele musician Jake Shimabukuro. And thus McKell’s passion was born, but it didn’t stop there.

“Then we were done teaching that class, but I had so much fun doing it, and being involved with scouting I taught the metal working merit badge and probably made another 30 with boy scouts as part of their merit badge,” McKell said.

In total, McKell said he’s made around 70 ukuleles, and had plans for an electric ukulele and one with a flying v design. McKell was also able to get one of his ukuleles signed by Jake Shimabukuro who partially inspired the journey.

McKell has even taught himself to play the instrument a bit.

“I’m really good at primary songs,” he said. “My wife and I actually teach the CTR7s in our ward and I’ve taken my ukulele and played primary songs a few times in class with them. That’s more of what I do. I haven’t learned to play like Jake Shimabukuro.”

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