Dr. Bryce Christensen, a professor of English at Southern Utah University, is retiring after over 30 years of teaching as he undergoes treatment for cancer.
While battling cutaneous T-cell lymphoma, juggling the technological challenges that both in-person and online teaching have resulted in, and dealing with a pandemic, Christensen is the prime example of what being a resilient and hard-working faculty member at SUU entails.
“Though the realization that my cancer may well end my life sobers me, it does not throw me into despair,” Christensen said. “My religious faith — reinforced by the faith of my wife, my sons and my grandchildren, and my fellow church members — sustains me. I live in the hope, the conviction, that regardless of what happens, I am surrounded by what Dante speaks of as ‘the Love. . . that moves the sun in heaven’ and all the stars.’”
A Utah native, Christensen grew up in the Provo area and received a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in chemistry from Brigham Young University, later graduating with a master of English with a minor in philosophy in 1980, also from BYU.
After moving to the midwest with his wife, Christensen taught as a high school chemistry teacher and, after receiving a Ph. D. in English literature from Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, taught at Rockford University for 15 years.
Continuing on with his love of teaching, Christensen was invited in 1996 to take the position of the Director of the English as a Second Language Program at SUU, and he transferred to the English Department in 2000.
He has remained a Professor of English ever since, teaching various courses including composition, grammar, nonwestern literature, Victorian Era literature and even a class on science and human values.
“The best part of teaching is seeing students discover a poem they really love,” Christensen said. “My highest aspiration is to help students kindle such an intense love for poetry that they are still reading great poets ten years — twenty years — after graduation. If students leave poetry behind when they graduate, then I’ve failed as a teacher.”
As a professor, Christensen was also an avid researcher, writer and poet, publishing a plethora of articles in scholarly journals, publishing the novel “Winning” and two non-fiction books, and even had his poetry anthologized.
SUU wasn’t the only institution to acknowledge his exceptional work as a professor, however, as he received the prestigious Fulbright Scholar Grant and taught classes in American literature and poetry as a Fulbright Professor at National Taiwan University from 2019-20.
Christensen was in Taiwan when the pandemic began, and although larger classes at the university went online, Christensen’s smaller English classes did not.
Like many others, Christensen was blindsided by the pandemic, but his thoughts still turned to his students.
“I did not know what to think because I’d never been through anything like it before,” Christensen said. “I just hoped that I would be able to continue teaching.”
Although the Fulbright program suspended their services due to the pandemic, Christensen and his wife were able to stay in Taiwan, as they had the option to remain as private citizens. He continued to teach face-to-face or, “mask-to-mask,” in Christensen’s words.
“I couldn’t go into campus buildings without getting my temperature taken, and I couldn’t get onto campus without my identification as a faculty member,” Christensen said.
After finishing the semester in June, Christensen and his wife came back to Cedar City in July of 2020, and Christensen began teaching again at SUU in the fall.
Throughout Christensen’s 31 years of teaching, technology has changed immensely. The increased use of technology during the pandemic added to the drastic shift Christensen observed compared to when he began teaching.
“I remember using overhead projectors when that was the cutting edge of technology. It was a challenge for me when we went completely online [after Thanksgiving break],” Christensen said. “My guess is if you were to talk to the Canvas support team, the people there would say, ‘Oh yeah, I know Bryce Christensen, he’s calling all the time.”
Christensen said that although teaching both online and in person is a juggling act that he said he “sometimes doesn’t handle really well,” he strives to pay extra attention to his online students.
“Some students that join in virtually are very conscientious, they tune in; they do all the reading, they listen to everything,” Christensen said. “I want my cyber students to feel like I want them engaged and involved.”
For Bethany Hammer, a student in his Literary History Victorian Era class, Christensen has done just that.
“I’m really grateful that I can attend my classes virtually during this pandemic,” Hammer said. “I like how Dr. Christensen engages with both virtual and face-to-face students. It makes me feel like he’s considering everyone in the class discussions.”
Although the increased use of technology has been a challenge during Christensen’s last year as a professor, he said that he’s seen positive effects, especially through his battle with cancer.
“In December, I started receiving radiation treatment for cancer. Fortunately, that treatment coincided with the university going all online,” Christensen said. “I was able to teach all my classes in the morning and go in for radiation in the afternoon.”
Christensen was diagnosed with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma over 10 years ago, a rare type of cancer that begins in white blood cells called T-cells. He managed it over a decade through steroid and light therapy treatments.
“Because I had become accustomed to dealing with cutaneous T-cell lymphoma as an annoyance, but only an annoyance, I was taken aback when suddenly… [I was sent] up to the Huntsman Cancer Institute in [Salt Lake City],” Christensen said. “When [I was told] that I had roughly a 75% chance of surviving another five years with my incurable condition, I was very sobered. Suddenly, I was in deeper and more turbulent waters than I had ever anticipated.”
Christensen and his wife, Mary, moved to Salt Lake City during the treatment. He said he doesn’t know what he would have done without online learning.
“The technology has made it possible to deal with [teaching and treatment], although I don’t recommend doing both,” Christensen said with a chuckle.
Christensen’s battle with cancer is not over, and he still receives interferon injections three times a week at the Intermountain Cedar City Hospital, where the HCI has teamed up with the Infusion Center at the hospital to do so.
Christensen pointed to Mary as his emotional lifeline throughout treatment.
“I frankly don’t know how I could have gotten through the radiation and ongoing interferon treatment without her support,” Christensen said. “Though no one is more important than Mary, I am grateful for my colleagues and students.”
Although Christensen was given the option to retire after the Fall 2020 Semester, he decided to continue as a professor at SUU while also continuing his cancer treatment. He noted that teaching became a kind of therapy for him.
“When I have a good day in class — particularly a day when the discussion of some poem is lively and impassioned — then for a while I can just forget about cancer and cancer treatments,” Christensen said.
Christensen mentioned that although he does have anxiety surrounding the possibility of contracting COVID-19 himself, especially during his battle with cancer, he has tried to do everything in his power to avoid contracting the virus and recently received the vaccine.
As for retirement, Christensen admitted that he’s sure he will experience some separation anxiety from his colleagues and students.
“But there are a lot of books I haven’t read yet, and maybe I’ll do some more writing,” Christensen said. “I enjoy spending time with my wife. I have retired friends, and seeing what they’re doing with their lives gives me hope that life doesn’t end. There are still things to do.”
Christensen said what he will miss most about being a professor is the connection he has with his students.
“Interestingly, just out of the blue, I had an email from one of my students in Taiwan. That was heartening,” Christensen said. “That was deeply gratifying, that the student was half a world away months after I’d taught her, was just reaching out. I’m hoping that occasionally that may happen with my SUU students.”
Not only will Christensen miss his students, but “he will be missed at SUU,” said Carla Pearson, an English student graduating this semester.
“In all my years at SUU, Dr. Christensen has been the most brilliant professor I have ever had. He is extremely knowledgeable. Dr. Christensen has made me a better writer, and he is truly one of a kind,” said Pearson.
After over twenty years of serving SUU and the community, Dr. Christensen has ended his last year as a professor with an extreme amount of resilience, handling a challenging year with grace and positivity.
“Because my cancer is incurable, I will be in treatment for it as long as I live,” Christensen said. “So after my retirement, I will rely on my own reading of great poetry, on my conversations with Mary about such poetry, and on memories of having shared such poetry with SUU students.
So even after I retire, what students have given me at SUU will be part of the emotional resources that will keep me going. I very much appreciate their unforgettable responses to poetry, the art I care most about.”
Story by: Liz Armstrong
Photos by: Mitch Quartz