“The wheels of academic publishing often turn very slowly,” says Dr. Ryan Stark, Associate Professor of Humanities at Corban University, “and so it is unusual that they have all appeared at about the same time.” His attempt at modesty does not detract from the fact that he’s been quite prolific in the last year, having published three academic articles and multiple book reviews, in the areas of rhetoric and science, Enlightenment philosophy, and satire.

While the amount of work he’s produced attests to his dedication as a scholar, the titles of his works hint at the sense of amusement and fun he brings to the intellectual table: “Cuttlefish Rhetoric” (Rhetorica, University of California Press), “Are Laurence Sterne’s Sermons Funny?” (Literature and Theology, Oxford University Press), and “Sterne’s Maria in the Biblical Sense” (The Cambridge Quarterly, Oxford University Press).

Pairing humor with serious inquiry, in “Cuttlefish Rhetoric” Dr. Stark takes a close look at a passage in Thomas Wilson’s The Arte of Rhetorique (1553), in which he critiques the use of “inkhorn terms,” or language that tries so hard to be wordy and complicated that it ends up being nonsensical or, worse, deceptive. At one point, Wilson compares using inkhorn terms to holding onto a creature by the tail, and Dr. Stark makes it his task to identify which creature Wilson refers to—is it the eel? serpent? devil? ox? Or, perhaps, is the best candidate the cuttlefish? And while he explains, with a great deal of amusement and fun, why the cuttlefish is the best bet, he simultaneously paints a picture of the way all of the above animals have been used to not only mock overly complicated language, but also to warn against false or confusing theology. What begins as a simple question (“What animal is it?”) evolves into a discussion of the way language can reveal or obscure, enlighten or deceive, especially in the realm of theology.

Publishing three academic articles in the span of a year is not easy, especially while simultaneously teaching logic, philosophy, writing, and American Thought and Culture. And indeed, the relationship between researching and teaching, for some, is difficult to manage: to what extent does a researcher have time and energy to invest in their teaching, and to what extent does a good educator have time to research? But for Dr. Stark, the two pursuits, far from competing, mutually reinforce one another. “My research energizes my teaching, and my teaching energizes my research,” he says, and hopes that his curiosity and enthusiasm for new ideas will encourage students to “develop their own habits of inquiry.” To that end, he explains, “We approach the material together, and together we make connections and find deeper meanings, which is to say that I see my students as co-adventurers, co-researchers.” But, he quickly cautions, this doesn’t mean his classroom is a utopia: “Rest assured that we also discover that not all theories work, that false starts and dead ends abound in serious intellectual pursuits.”

One of the courses that has fostered some of the most interesting connections and conversations for Dr. Stark and his students is Philosophy and the Fantastic, “wherein we ask questions about werewolves, ghosts, ancient alien astronauts, Puddleglum, Agent Scully, Moby Dick, killer robots, and various other figures who encourage us to think deeply about reality and personhood.” If you have talked with Dr. Stark in person, you’ll know the eager delight with which he offers such a litany, and that, for him, the connection between Moby Dick and an ancient alien astronaut is not far-fetched.

Not only is he able to help students see connections between seemingly disparate beings like Moby Dick and alien astronauts, but he helps them see the connection between literature of the fantastic and the reality of their lives. “A certain kind of skeptic will characterize the literature of the fantastic as escapist in nature, that is, the sort of material that enables one to escape from the real, but I wonder if the opposite is not the case,” he muses. “Great literature, including great literature of the fantastic, brings us into communion with the really real, or—if you prefer—the super story.”

When asked about the role Corban has played in his researching, publishing, and teaching, Dr. Stark responds, “The main thing to stress about Corban is the people.  I am surrounded by wonderful colleagues, even though some of them are crazy, and Corban continues to attract the kind of intellectually serious students who are an absolute pleasure to teach.”

The fact that “crazy” and “intellectually serious” occur, for Dr. Stark, in the same sentence, is hardly surprising for those who know him well—for those who’ve heard him transition from superheroes to Taylor Swift with ease, for those who have sat in his classes and puzzled over handouts on which philosophical theories are juxtaposed with comic strips, for those who have been both overwhelmed and inspired by his ability to connect seemingly opposite ideas: the funny and the serious, werewolves and killer robots, rhetoric and cuttlefish.