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Guts is the Word

Pushing the envelope in pop culture. Butting heads with higher-ups. Championing novel academic fields. Professor Felicia Campbell celebrates 50 years of being a rebel.

People  |  Nov 5, 2012  |  By Matt Jacob

Longtime UNLV professor Felicia Campbell in her office. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

This article from UNLV Magazine was originally published in 2008. Currently, Felicia Campbell is preparing to host the annual meeting of the Far West Popular and American Culture Associations, which she founded 25 years ago. It draws attendees from around the world to Las Vegas. She continues to edit The Popular Culture Review, a refereed journal, and teaches courses in popular fiction, contemporary Asian literature, science fiction, and women travelers and adventurers.


Being a writer herself, Felicia Campbell can appreciate the irony of this. I've been assigned to profile UNLV's longest-serving, full-time faculty member, but I'm struggling to settle on an adjective that captures this accomplished woman.

Oh, sure, there are the obvious terms that befit just about any dedicated academic: intellectual, thought-provoking, challenging, energetic, curious, helpful. Certainly all apply. But there's so much more to this decorated veteran of higher learning.

Innovative and pioneering? Without question. Adventurous, prolific, ahead of her time? Check, check, and check.

A reception to honor English professor Felicia Campbell's 50 years of teaching at UNLV will be held from 2-4 p.m. Nov. 9 at the Tam Alumni Center.

At a loss, I turn to Michael Green, a noted Nevada historian, longtime history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, former UNLV student, and friend of Campbell for the past quarter century. "I think 'guts' is an operative word here," Green tells me. "The guts to pursue a lawsuit that did not endear her to her university. The guts to offer courses that traditional academics eschewed. The guts in taking a position on a subject that a lot of people found distasteful.

"Heck, the guts to come out here in the first place." Gutsy. Perfect.

It's a rainy, muggy morning as we sit in Campbell's cluttered office on the sixth floor of UNLV's architecturally outdated Dungan Humanities Building — "I remember we had to fight to get windows in this place; now I suppose it may meet the wrecking ball," she quips. We'd be standing in a pile of mud if this conversation were taking place back in 1962.

That was the year the doctoral student from the University of Wisconsin-Madison packed her bags and headed west for an unknown school, then called the Southern Regional Division of the University of Nevada. "I wanted to do something different for a year," Campbell says, explaining how she got here.

"I applied for two jobs: One was here, the other was the University of Ibadan in Nigeria. But they turned that (Ibadan) job over to the Peace Corps, and I didn't really want to live in a hut in Nigeria. So I came out here." Sight unseen. The woman who would go on to teach about faraway societies experienced a jolt of culture shock at the Long Acres Park Apartments, a complex behind the university where Campbell and fellow newcomer Ann Fowler first resided. With just five buildings on the campus and wide-open space between Harmon and East Sahara avenues, the two were underwhelmed, Campbell recalls. "Ann looked at the campus and said, 'My god, it's a gas station.'"

As for the admission standards, well, let's just say students were far less prepared than those Campbell encountered at the University of Wisconsin. "In those early days," she says, "we flunked two-thirds of every class."

The odds on Campbell sticking around past her one-year commitment would've been about a million-to-one. But, for one of the few times in her life, she elected to travel the conservative road. She married and began having children, which made a full-time job and a steady salary suddenly enticing.

So, too, was the opportunity to put her stamp on a growing university. Campbell has taught conventional classes such as freshman composition and creative writing, and introduced students to an array of innovative, nontraditional courses, including Asian literature, chaos theory, science-fiction writing, and popular culture. "There are people who specialize in one particular area and they never get tired of it — and god love 'em," she says. "But I would lose my mind."

"She is remarkably offbeat," says emeritus English professor Charles Adams, who arrived on campus two years before Campbell. "She's not a typical academic. She has her own ideas about things, and she acts on them. She is so unconservative she functions very much like an open window. In many ways, she permitted fresh air to flow through the university."

Over the past four-plus decades, countless students have gratefully chosen to inhale that air, as the majority of Campbell's classes are elective. And difficult. "She demands a lot of thinking on the part of her students, and as a result, she elicits all kinds of responses," says Pat Gueder, a full-time English professor from 1966-1989 who still teaches part-time.

"She is the kind of professor whom students [remember]," Gueder says. "They have not seen her or have not been in her presence for maybe 30 years, but she is the one they will ask me about — 'Is she still there? How is she?' And then they'll tell me a favorite story. She just makes her mark with people in one way or another."

Campbell has never had trouble filling her classroom, often with a high number of repeat students. "That's one of the nicest compliments you can get [as a professor]," Adams says. "It's a marvelous feeling, and that's happened to her over and over and over."

Mary Aiken took Campbell's creative writing class back in 1976, and by the time she completed her degree — in political science — she had taken seven classes under the professor.

"She was not an easy professor; her standards were very high," Aiken recalls. "You read much more in terms of pages with Felicia Campbell than you would with other professors. She was not going to make it easy for you. But I always felt I got my money's worth out of her classes. I grew academically, and I learned a respect of knowledge for knowledge's sake, which is what we're supposed to be doing in academia."

Today, at age 51 and involved in local real estate, Aiken is still learning from Campbell. The two are co-writing a play for a local theater company. "She's had a dramatic impact on my life," Aiken says. "And I still find her company as stimulating, as challenging, as interesting as I did 31 years ago."

You don't survive and thrive for 46 years on one campus without getting caught up in a brouhaha or two. Campbell helped spearhead a discrimination lawsuit in the 1970s against the university that centered on equal pay for tenured female professors. The original suit involved dozens of professors, but shortly after it was filed, her fellow employees settled with the university. "And so, being young and naïve and it being the '70s, I said, 'Go ahead, I've got my own lawsuit.' So I went off on my merry, deranged way and went head-to-head [with the state]."

Her legal case lasted seven years and its settlement still elicits her rancor. She believes to this day that she had a rock-solid case: "It would've been one of the major discrimination lawsuits across the country," she claims.

Still, says Green, "She was a pioneer in women standing up for their rights. She wasn't the only one — she'll tell you that. But she went out front. She took the hit. And those who lead such things often pick up a lot of shrapnel along the way. But she did it. She had the guts to do it."

Which leads us to Campbell's sense of adventure. After receiving her settlement in the early 1980s, she took a chunk of the money and embarked on a two-month, soul-searching hike 300 miles roundtrip to the base of K2 on the northwest frontier of Pakistan. "Now, understand, I had never been off the sidewalk before. So it never crossed my mind to do something like this. But by the time I trekked across three glaciers to get to the base camp of K2 in Pakistan, I was a different person." Her office remains a testament to the lasting impact that excursion had on her, as poster-size photographs cover her walls, including one taken from inside her tent that looks out onto the Baltoro Glacier. "That [trip] made all of the horrendous stuff that went before that worthwhile."

The discrimination lawsuit was just one instance where Campbell has butted heads with administrators. Through the years, some questioned the validity of her nontraditional courses and her insistence that popular culture is very much a viable field of study. (She's a leader in the field, be it as the longtime editor of the annual Pop Culture Review or as executive director for the American Culture and the Far West Popular Culture associations).

And then there's the whole "gambling thing." Back in the 1980s, while commuting from Las Vegas to San Diego to finally finish her Ph.D., Campbell chose to study the impact of gambling on society, at the time an understudied field. She wrote her dissertation on the positive influences of gambling, theorizing in essence that gambling is simply another form of risk-taking, no different than skydiving or sending astronauts to the moon or trekking to K2.

Her conclusions weren't exactly popular. Even among campus colleagues, few recognized that one of its own was blazing a trail on a topic that shaped the core of the city. Over time, Campbell received national recognition as a pioneer, and today says that work "has been one of the more rewarding things I've ever done."

Says Green, "She studied gambling long before it was chic. And now it's everywhere."

Then again, that pretty much sums up Felicia Campbell: always one step ahead of the curve.

"Felicia has always been way ahead of her time," says Aiken, her former student. "The importance of women in literature, the importance of the environment, the importance of Asian art — these are the kinds of things that were always important to Felicia decades before they became fashionable. She's always had almost a sixth sense about what would be important to us, what issues would drive us, 10 or 15 years down the road."

So now here she is, some 46 years into her one-year stay in the desert. This gambling town has blossomed into a full-blown metropolis. And, of course, the institution of higher learning where she teaches has grown up as well, from a nondegree-granting extension of a college 500 miles to the north to the state's largest university with an enrollment of 28,000.

This semester, she's teaching Film and Literature: East/West as well as Sleuths, Spies and Spacemen. That, of course, is only a sliver of her agenda. She's editing a two-volume encyclopedia on Asian American popular culture (due next summer). She's collaborating with Aiken on a play. She's organizing the Far West Popular Culture Association's annual Las Vegas meeting. And so on.

All of which begs the question: Does Campbell ever see herself slowing down, or at least exiting UNLV and allowing the next in line to assume the title of longest-serving full-time professor? "Nah, I'll probably just drop dead here in the office at some point," Campbell deadpans. "They can just roll me in the rug and take me out. Seriously, when will I quit? If my mind goes or if my teaching evaluations fall. But I think I'm still able to challenge people."

Campbell's last day at UNLV doesn't figure to come anytime soon. Nor should it, if you believe those close to her.

"Felicia Campbell is a very rare breed in academia today where people are playing it safe," Aiken says. "She comes from that old tradition that was big in the '60s and '70s where you questioned everything, you were open to everything. She was not bound by rigidity or even the methodology that everything has its purpose. She represents academia in its purest form."

Green takes it a step further. "This is a profession with a lot of people who talk, and we talk very well. Some of us talk a lot about doing things and don't do them. Felicia's done them. She didn't just talk about filing a lawsuit because she felt she'd been wronged. She did it. She didn't just talk about climbing mountains. She did it." In other words, she's gutsy.