Colin Payton is one of those who has ‘happened in’ to a career. One might even say his career path chose him.
Payton graduated from Wittenberg in 2013 with a major in English and a double minor in creative writing and history. A former Wittenberg Writing Center advisor, he now calls Woodward, Iowa, population 1,000, his home where he is pursuing his Ph.D. in rhetoric and professional communication at Iowa State. The expected Spring 2023 graduate is also currently working as a writing center director at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, which is not the career path he envisioned. But, then again, his vision of the future was unclear coming out of Wittenberg.
“After Witt, I moved to Cleveland to be a musician, and I worked many odd jobs — music booking agent at a scummy pay-to-play scam company, bouncer at a music venue, a Walgreens cashier — until I eventually stumbled onto a job as a circulation assistant at Great Lakes Publishing,” said Payton, who was a member and vice president of the outdoor rec club and led the Post-it Note open mic series for a bit during his junior and senior years at Wittenberg.
“But, to me, all this job bustle was just funding for guitars, amps, and studio money to play as much music as I could for as many nights of the week I could get booked to play. Sometimes I was solo at open mics or blues jam nights, but my main focus was a little band we called ‘The Great Perhaps.’ The name came from a line I saw written in graffiti on the Bushnell Building in downtown Springfield. A college roommate, Tucker Mindrum, and I had a pretty good time jamming together in that band; he was the drummer, I was the vocalist/guitar player. But all things come to an end, and I moved back to Springfield in 2016. I picked up working as a plumber again with the family business.”
His dad, Dan Payton, is the owner of Payton Plumbing and his mom, Alix Payton, is a fitness expert and small business owner. Both are Springfield natives. However, the small-city music scene left him with unusually vacant evenings, which led him to reach out to his former Writing Center director and mentor, Mike Mattison, Wittenberg professor of English and assistant provost.
“I reached out to Mike and asked if I could work pro-bono as a consultant,” Payton said. “He let me shadow him as an administrator and mentor the consultants at the Writing Center, and it was at this time I began forming my real aspirations to become a writing center director and writing teacher. Daytime, plumbing; evenings, writing center advisor; weekends, GRE prep and brushing back up on academic articles in composition and rhetoric - I kept busy.”
But to be serious about becoming a writing center director, a master’s degree is mandatory, which led him to so apply to several MA programs.
“My oddball choice was Iowa State; I accidentally applied there,” he said. “Everyone in English has seen ‘Iowa Writer’s Workshop’ on the back of a dustjacket, so I delved deep into Iowa State, and I fell in love with its strong STEM focus, practical emphasis on professional and practical communication, its three writing centers on campus and this incredible writing center researcher, Jo Mackiewicz, who seemed to crank out articles left and right, several of which I had read while at Wittenberg. But, about a day before the application was due, I was revising my personal statement to include more about ISU, and I just couldn’t find anything on the university’s website about this award-winning Iowa Writers’ Workshop thing, so I googled it. Sigh… The Iowa Writers’ Workshop is at the University of Iowa. Ok, no problem: ‘I’ll just apply there instead,’ I told myself. When I looked at its application, I saw the deadline was the day before. I had missed it by a day. I stood up from my chair at the café and took a lap around downtown Springfield, then I came back and, exasperated, submitted to Iowa State instead.”
Not long after, while plumbing in a crawl space, a member of Iowa State’s English department called to offer him a spot in the school’s Ph.D. program, even though Payton applied for the master’s program.
“I believe firmly in always choosing the most beautiful option, and the juxtaposition between my circumstances and opportunities and unintentional application were too absurdly beautiful to pass up. I accepted,” he said. “So, I’m entering my sixth year in Iowa State’s Rhetoric and Professional Communication program. I have a 4.0, have worked at the Writing and Media Center for four years, and have taught numerous different writing classes while there. I passed my preliminary exams and prospectus during this past winter, so all that’s left is finishing the dissertation.”
Payton, who originally intended to pursue a degree in law, saw his English degree as a means to the end of being able to read anything, write anything, and speak on anything. However, Mattison gave him an article by the writing center director Kevin Davis titled “The Writing Center as Last Best Place: Six Easy Pieces on Montana, Bears, Love, and Writing Centers,” that had a profound effect on Payton.
“The thesis is basically that writing centers are good spaces that bring out the best versions of who we are, and I think that article stuck with me: I felt like the best Colin when I was consulting with other students. But, I didn’t want to direct a center at that point. The writing center pushed my communication skills, gave me more hours of one-on-one conversations with strangers than most psychologists get before they graduate from grad school, pushed me into research and presenting at academic conferences, and revealed to me intricate ethical questions that expanded my perspectives on philosophy and humanity. And I am grateful for Mike’s grace. While at Witt, Mike patiently pushed me to see more of my potential than I knew I had, and he threw me into many professional situations that were above my capacities, all to show me that I knew very little about my capacities.”
After Payton graduated, he and Mattison remain great friends. In fact, Mattison officiated at Colin’s wedding. He married Katie Boothroyd, a University of Iowa grad, on Aug. 7, 2021. She is a high school English, speech, and drama teacher, and directs plays and musicals at her school. Colin also volunteers at the school as a speech coach and is heavily involved with building sets for the school plays.
“Mike became known throughout my graduation cohort for being an incredible letter-of-recommendation writer, and I know that he secured me several jobs (in fact, Mike’s letter of support was cited by Iowa State as a primary reason they thought I was ready for the Ph.D. instead of the MA program). But, he also morphed into this wonderful music guru, reunion facilitator for Writing Center graduates, and supporter through tough personal and career decisions. Once I got to Iowa State, I began to view Mike more as a mentor, and we exchanged a lot of emails about how to navigate the politics of composition and writing center studies. But, my favorite Mike moment came on my wedding day last summer: I asked Mike to officiate my wedding. The speech he gave was…astounding. Truly. Somehow, he managed to speak eloquently and humorously on marriage, all while organizing the damn speech around the grammatical rules of conjunctions.”
Payton’s goal as writing center director at Simpson is to give other undergraduates the amazing opportunities he had at Wittenberg mainly in receiving top-tier support on writing projects from their undergrad peers, and to help undergraduates writing center consultants realize the best versions of themselves and their potentials.
“The writing center was good to me; I want to give that back to others; having light, I want to pass it on,” he said. “I chose Simpson because it is very similar to Wittenberg: small liberal arts college, Midwest, cute campus, low faculty to student ratio, lots of room to grow and experiment. Plus, it was near where my wife worked, meaning we didn’t have to uproot any of our communities to follow my career. It was a perfect fit for me, and I am ecstatic to be at Simpson.”
Payton is also now busy writing a pragmatic philosophy book called Useful Fictions, that will be a culmination of his experiences as someone constantly pulled between seemingly incommensurate perspectives.
Life is a little different for Payton since first setting foot on the Wittenberg campus. Back then, he wanted to play soccer in Europe or perform music in Nashville, and academics were far from his mind.
“I did not want to go to college — I was sick of people telling me that college was the only way I’d make anything of myself. I saw my dad do just fine without a degree,” he said. “Witt was a compromise I made with my mom: if my plans to become a musician or a soccer player fell through, I’d still be enrolled in a good college. I wish I had a better reason for attending Witt than a naïve guy’s first encounter with failing at his delusional dreams, but I can tell you that once I began attending Witt, I fell in love with my academic experience, and I would not have changed a thing about my path.”