The World’s Most Relatable Professor

April 16, 2018

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

From first-year students to fraternity brothers, English professor Jana Mathews shares something in common with just about everyone on campus.

You know those incredibly motivating, impossibly inspirational professors portrayed in movies? The ones everyone hopes they’ll have when they get to college? Jana Mathews, Rollins associate professor of English, is the real-life version.

So says Faithe Galloway ’15, an English major who counts herself among the diverse cadre of students who have benefitted, personally and professionally, from Mathews’ highly engaging blend of academic brilliance and down-to-earth relatability.

“More than any other teacher, professor, mentor, or otherwise, Dr. Mathews has been instrumental to my success,” says Galloway, who works in respiratory sales at a British multinational consumer goods company. “She went above and beyond to help me prepare for my first job—and she is still one of my biggest cheerleaders, encouraging me to dream big dreams and helping me do the work it takes to make them a reality.”

A professor and a group of students conduct research in the Olin Library archives.
Photo by Scott Cook.

An expert in medieval England—with concentrations in 13th- and 14th-century alliterative poetry, legal studies, textual culture, and kingship—Mathews brings the liberal arts to life through classes like Game of Thrones, which allows students to study Westeros while unearthing the historical events that inspired the HBO series.

Sandwiched between teaching other attention-grabbing courses, Mathews leads an annual study-abroad experience designed for students who face obstacles related to finances, disabilities, and athletics. She also happens to be the only woman in Florida who serves as executive board chairman of a fraternity chapter.

Roots of Her Empathy

At 15, Mathews lost her mother to cancer. In high school, while raising six younger brothers and sisters with her widowed father, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and spent the better part of two years in the hospital.

“College was kind of a traumatic time for me, physically and emotionally,” says Mathews. “I was just trying to keep it together. I see that same kind of struggle in my students. Everyone has a battle they’re fighting. I just try to get them through and provide a level of support.”

A professor advises a student one on one.

Friend to First-Years

Mathews takes a particular interest in first-year students, helping them find their place on campus and in life.

“They’re grappling with so many emotional and transitional issues and figuring out who they are,” she says. “I love that messy process.”

This spirit carries over to the classroom, where Mathews provides an atmosphere that encourages intellectual risk-taking and honest, open exchanges.

“Don’t just give the teacher what she wants,” explains Mathews. “Students should feel really comfortable about failing and making mistakes.”

Mathews also frequently takes this work home with her, inviting first-year students over for dinner parties with zany themes like “Thanksmas,” where the only requirement is an ugly sweater and one reason to give thanks.

A professor and a group of students explore Medieval Times during a class trip.

The Jar of Sorrows

Every Friday in Bad Breakups, students write something bad that happened to them that week and deposit it into the medieval-sounding Jar of Sorrows. While sad music plays, they take turns reading each other’s troubles in dramatic fashion.

“Part of it is just sort of releasing the problems and tensions—things like ‘I’m really worried I’m not going to make friends here,’” says Mathews. “To be able to say these things in a public setting, and have the support of your peers, that’s big.”

One of the Guys

For the past three years, Mathews has advised Rollins’ chapter of Phi Delta Theta—a project she undertook after listening to members of the fraternity talk about their challenges.

“I got married at 20, so I completely missed out on all that culture and social experience,” she says. “But I love working with the men and find it fascinating to observe them from a distance.”

New Student’s Perspective

Sammy Kasowitz ’21 appreciates how Mathews makes meaningful relationships that promote self-confidence in the classroom and beyond.

“From the minute we met, I knew she was special,” says Kasowitz. “Professor Mathews helps students explore and pursue abstract ideas while pushing them to reach their fullest potential. Although I have only known her for a few months, she has quickly become one of my biggest mentors and supporters.”

Fun Facts about Dr. Mathews

  • Graduated BYU at 19
  • PhD in English from Duke
  • Perfect 5.0 on
  • Left an Ivy League university to teach at Rollins in 2010

Her 5 Coolest Classes

  • Bad Breakups
  • Dungeons and Dragons
  • Game of Thrones
  • Hoarders
  • Sex, War, and Plague
A Rollins professor leads a discussion in an outdoor classroom.

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