Beyond the pepper

There’s a lot more to these local educators than meets the eye

John Pozzi

John Pozzi

Photo by Ken Smith

The game master

John Pozzi

As a teenager, John Pozzi’s passions were drawing and gaming, and playing drums and singing with local punk bands. Today—as an instructor in Chico State’s Computer Animation and Game Development Department and percussionist with Chico Celtic music-makers the Pub Scouts—his interests remain largely the same.

“I grew up with Atari, ColecoVision, all those early systems,” the affable professor said of coming of age alongside the video game industry in the 1980s and ’90s. “I still have my original Nintendo, with all the games, everything still works.”

A classically trained studio artist, Pozzi, who originally hails from Rockford, Ill., was also exposed to computers early on, and remembers first settling behind the keyboard of a Commodore 64 in the first grade. He combined those interests into a dual major in studio art and computer graphics production at Chico State, arriving in town in 1995. This led to a post-graduation offer to teach digital arts while pursuing his master’s degree. Pozzi’s remained at the university ever since.

During that time, he’s seen the program change as the role of computers and graphics have become central to daily life. Born in the university’s Computer Science Department, the program eventually broke away to become the Applied Computer Graphics, or APCG, program.

“We thought the acronym was too long, and nobody knew what the hell we were or what we did, so we eventually changed it straight to Computer Animation and Game Development,” Pozzi said.

The program has grown significantly, and now includes about 200 students pursuing the major. Pozzi teaches classes from beginning to graduate level, and his general education class—computer-assisted art—has gone from attracting 20 to 25 students to 250 to 300 per semester.

Pozzi pointed out that the discipline isn’t just applicable to movies, video games and the entertainment industry: “Graphics are in everything we do nowadays,” he said, noting as an example how stop-motion technology taught in the department is an emerging field in sports medicine. “Everything is done by visual art today, so one of the nice things about being in CG is that you are potent in a lot of different fields other than entertainment.”

Still, a lot of students’ attraction to the program is based on video games and film. Pozzi himself does outside animation projects for those media, and he noted another member of the department, Mark Pullyblank, has worked on major films like Avatar, The Adventures of Tintin and The Watchman.

Pozzi, who said The Legend of Zelda remains his favorite video game (“I make it a point to sit down and beat it in one session at least once a year … it’s a nostalgia thing.”), believes video games have long since evolved into their own distinct, artistically valuable medium.

“The way I look at it now is, do you want to go watch a movie or play a movie?” Pozzi said. “Do you want to follow people along as they make decisions, or do you want to make those decisions and participate in the story yourself? I don’t see video games as being anything short of an artistic narrative, just like books and films are narratives. Some are more specifically artistic, aesthetic or narrative-heavy than others, but they all represent a newer way of storytelling.”

Regarding his extra-curricular activities with the Pub Scouts, Pozzi said he grew up a fan of Irish music, but had never seen it performed live until he wandered into Duffy’s Tavern shortly after his 21st birthday. He was enthralled by the bodhran playing of late Chico State physics professor Greg Taylor, who invited Pozzi to come to the Scouts’ next practice session (and whom Pozzi would come to regard as his “godfather”).

Amy Griffin

Photo by Robert Speer

“They took me in and became like a family,” Pozzi said. “The bodhran is a hard drum to learn, so it took a couple of years before I started playing out with them and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

—Ken Smith

Excited by numbers

Amy Griffin

Amy Griffin is used to having a chili pepper on her Rate My Professor page. It’s been there for years, since she was in her mid-30s and one of the youngest instructors at Chico State.

“It’s silly,” said this mother of two teenage daughters during a recent interview, “but if it somehow gets students interested in accounting, it’s worth it.”

Griffin and her husband, Michael, moved to Chico from the Boston area about 20 years ago in search of a more comfortable climate. Boston is a great city, she said, but the weather is terrible.

Her husband, a journalist, came knowing he had a job as editor of the Corning Observer. Griffin found work in an accounting firm within a month, and they started their family. Their elder daughter is now 18 and a college freshman, and the younger is 16. The Griffins are members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, and both girls attend Adventist schools.

Over the next decade Griffin worked for various companies, including as a controller for a construction firm. And, for a while when her daughters were young, she operated her own accounting firm out of her home. Then, nine years ago, she began working at Chico State.

She teaches financial accounting and managerial accounting, both required courses for business majors. The former teaches students how to prepare financial statements according to “generally accepted financial principles,” she explained, and the latter focuses on inside-the-company accounting, where no outside regulations prevail.

Managerial accounting, she said, is “probably the toughest required course for business majors. It has a low pass rate. There’s lots of information to learn. But if a student embraces it and works hard, he or she will come out with a lot of learning that will be useful in the future.”

Griffin gets generally good reviews on, but apparently she’s tough. Students in her classes have to work hard, but if they do so, the rewards are great.

That’s especially true for students who have a natural affinity for numbers and accounting, she said. Not only will they enjoy their work, they will also be pretty much guaranteed to land a high-paying job.

“We have a placement rate [in the Accounting Department] of close to 100 percent, if not actually 100 percent, and that’s hard to beat,” Griffin said.

She enjoys teaching accounting very much, she continued. She likes working with young people and says it’s satisfying to know that what she’s imparting to them will serve them well in their careers in business and accounting.

Mark Mavis

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

She’s also proud of her department, which she says has gone through some big changes in recent years, hiring new staff, adding courses, and generally improving the quality of instruction. The department offers “a really good program,” she said, comparing it to such successful departments as Computer Science and Construction Management.

As for that chili pepper: Now that she’s well into her 40s and it’s still there, she figures she’ll be stuck with it far into the future. “Oh well,” she says, shrugging it off.

—Robert Speer

Making math fun

Mark Mavis

Math instructor Mark Mavis hasn’t looked at his Rate My Professor page in a long time, probably at least five years, he estimated during a recent interview at a local café. But he’s familiar with the website and its purpose, and so too are his colleagues at Butte College and Chico State, where he teaches full time and part time, respectively.

“Every professor knows about it and I can guarantee every one of them has looked themselves up at least once,” he said, smiling.

Mavis was in his 30s when he started teaching at Butte College 13 years ago. At the time, he read what students had to say about him on what was then a relatively new website. He recalled mostly positive feedback and said it served as a sort of “attaboy.” As for the whole chili pepper thing, Mavis joked that he’d trained his children to go onto the site to give him that ranking. “It was one of those funny, ha-ha things I would show my wife,” he said.

All kidding aside, Mavis said does serve a purpose: It gives the students an opportunity to sound off on their instructors’ teaching styles. He noted, however, that the site is more useful to students than faculty. What’s much more valuable to Mavis and his colleagues at Butte College and Chico State are the evaluations each of them receives in writing from students at the end of every semester. That’s part of the reason Mavis hasn’t paid attention to the site for so long. The other reason, he acknowledged, is that he’d seen a critical comment that had gotten him down.

“It just felt like a punch to the stomach,” he said. “Most of us, you could read 99 good things about yourself, and the one negative, you can sit there and stew on that.”

But Mavis doesn’t have the time to dwell on a one-off anonymous comment. He’s too busy preparing for his classes—four at the community college and two at the university this coming semester. That’s a heavy workload, but he appeared unfazed the week before the start of the fall term. He is also busy in his personal life, rearing four children with his wife of 26 years, Addie, a stay-at-home mom.

The couple met in Chico State’s dorms and married in their early 20s. Both were communication majors. Mavis had originally intended on going into a field that required a lot of travel. But after realizing that wasn’t practical for a newlywed looking to start a family, he decided to switch gears by returning to the university for a second bachelor’s degree—this one in mathematics (he already had a minor in the subject). Mavis earned a teaching credential and eventually a master’s in math education, which he worked on during a decade-long teaching stint at Pleasant Valley High School.

Back then, in the early ’90s, Mavis said he nearly blended in with the student body. So he wore a tie each day and went unshaven to set himself apart from the kids.

Today, Mavis said he’s getting used to the fact that his four children—three girls and a boy, ranging in ages from 19 to 11—are getting to the point where they’re making their own decisions. That will be clearer than ever beginning this fall, when his two eldest daughters will begin taking classes out at Butte College’s main campus. Meanwhile, Mavis, who spent six years as the chair of Butte College’s Math Department, is creeping up on having taught locally for nearly a quarter-century. Despite the years, he’s as passionate as ever about his work.

“I feel like I’ve got the best teaching job there is,” he said. “The community college is a great place, if you like teaching and you like the classroom.”

Mavis went on to describe math as “profoundly beautiful—it’s like poetry at times.” He said, however, that excitement for the subject can be difficult to impart when our culture seems to give people a pass when they say that they don’t like math—that it “isn’t their thing.” To engage his students, Mavis looks for examples they can relate to (such as movie-ticket sales during lessons on exponential growth and decay). He’s always looking for a hook to make math interesting and fun.

“I want to make sure people who spend their hour and a half with me—or whatever it was—that it was worth coming to. And so it’s either going to be funny, entertaining and at some point we learn something.”

—Melissa Daugherty

Challenging conventions

Nandi Crosby

With her rare self-confidence, commanding charisma and a knack for candor well-known to her students and colleagues at Chico State and Butte College, it’s hard to believe professor Nandi Crosby has ever thought twice about presenting herself as anything other than exactly who she is. Still, upon coming to Northern California to begin teaching sociology, gender and multicultural studies at Chico State in 1999, Crosby questioned how to best conduct herself.

“I think there’s a delicate balance between showing up as who you really are and putting on airs,” Crosby said during a recent interview. “I was 30 when I moved to Chico, and very intimidated about being in public and seeing my students. I was afraid that being too friendly or too real or too me would take away from the whole professor thing.”

Nandi Crosby

Photo by Ken Smith

Fortunately for the students she’s inspired, Crosby chose the path arguably less taken by her peers, and decided to just be herself. She also noted her personality is amplified in the classroom environment, which helps her form bonds with students beyond the lecture hall.

“I’m at my most comfortable in front of 100 people; put me up there and I can be funny and engaging and just be myself,” she said. “So then, when students come to me in office hours and say, ‘I’m having a hard time with life,’ I can say, ‘Girl, close that door! Lets talk. What’s going on?’ I think they just connect with me.

“Then again, I’m not everyone’s cup of tea,” she continued. “There’s a certain degree of edginess some people don’t like, and some people have told me I’m a bit much. Not everyone thinks I’m the bomb-dot-com, but it’s nice that some people do.”

Crosby has taught upward of two dozen different courses in her 16 years in Butte County (“Most professors might teach three or four classes, but I’m a jack of all trades … I’ll teach anything except statistics,” she said). In gender and multicultural studies, she teaches everything from introductory to senior seminar courses in women’s and African-American studies, and this semester will teach such varied sociology courses as pop culture, criminology and the sociology of gangs.

She also currently teaches sociology to incarcerated students through Feather River College, and in the past taught monthly self-esteem courses at the Leo Chesney Community Correctional Facility—a women’s prison near Live Oak—until it closed in 2011. The next year, she published an anthology of essays written by prisoners titled This Side of My Struggle. For one year before entering graduate school, Crosby worked as a correctional officer at a Maryland maximum-security prison for men.

“It’s a real passion of mine to empower people who the rest of society has given up on,” she said of her work with prisoners.

She believes part of the reason students have strong reactions to her—negative or positive—is the nature of some of the courses she teaches.

“I have the job of helping people examine what they see in the mirror and what comes out of their mouths every day, and there’s no one true answer in my classes that you can get by multiplying, dividing and adding things up,” she said, explaining how controversial topics like race, social justice and white privilege are common in her classrooms. “It’s more about who you want to be in the word, how you want to navigate life around issues like social justice, and what you want to accomplish to be fully human. At the end of the day, I’m helping people become empowered, and to have the resources they need to act on their own behalf and make the world a better place.

“I think that, on some level, people appreciate that.”

—Ken Smith