Donald Quist: On teaching, writing, and creating communities of belonging

Donald Quist isn’t your average English professor. 

For one, he earned his PhD in three and a half years, and was hired in 2023 as an Assistant Professor after already having published three books. 

Despite excelling in academia, he’s also remarkably, though quietly, insistent about diversifying his interests. He’s a creative writer, but he’s also a longboarder. He likes to play bass, but he also hosts a podcast that analyzes the show Seinfeld and the books mentioned throughout the show. 

He’s also keenly self-aware — acknowledging that he might be the first (or only) Black teacher that many of his students will have. One of his upcoming courses examines the different iterations of the “Magical Negro” as a supporting character in literature that ultimately helps a white protagonist get out of trouble. 

His courses tend to examine the intersections of gender, race, and class across fiction and non-fiction works. His current creative writing course explores the idea of hope and writing a new realism. His students will learn and talk about how to maintain hope as a means to keep going as artists, but also as a means to inspire readers to keep going. 

Quist is particularly interested in examining communities of belonging; how we create them and who is included (or excluded). This question of belonging is a personal one — especially since Quist’s father was from Ghana. He credits his father’s immigrant status as one of the drivers behind his interest in the idea of citizenship. 

But he’s not a stranger to changing, and creating, his own community of belonging either. He grew up in Montgomery County in Maryland, but moved to South Carolina for his undergraduate degree. 

He lived In South Carolina until his late 20s where he opened a Thai food restaurant. He would later move to Thailand for several years, only to return to the U.S. to care for his ailing mother. And at one point, he called his mother’s car home.

But wherever he is, Quist is determined to leave each place a little bit better than it was when he got there. It’s part of what drew him to teaching — and what keeps him in the classroom. 

Get to know Donald Quist

What are you currently reading/watching/listening to?

I’m working on a book-length creative nonfiction project about an underappreciated DC Comics character. So, reading a lot of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World series and biographies about his life. I’m listening to a lot of Tyler the Creator lately, with particular attention to his albums, Flower Boy, Igor and Call Me If You Get Lost. I’ve got a feeling the way he recommitted himself to his artistry following Cherry Bomb has something to teach me about my own craft and practice. 

What can’t you get enough of?

Currently: I’m obsessed with watching my partner play Dead by Daylight. I don’t even like horror and I’m not a gamer. There’s just something about it. Always: teaching and discussions around art.  

What are you looking forward to in the new year?

Looking forward to my spring classes and working with Capstone students. It’s going to be fun. Also, having the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ annual conference in Kansas City is going to be dope. 

What is your current/next research focus/teaching focus?

Current/future/always: Community-oriented pedagogy as an act of rebellion. Creative Writing and Literary Criticism as a means of undermining systems of oppression.

What’s your favorite(s) Columbia, MO spot?

North Village Arts District: King Theodore Records, Fretboard Coffee, ALL of South Ninth Street. 

When you’re not on campus, what can you be found doing?

Visiting art museums, longboarding, wandering about downtown, birding, scanning shelves at Yellow Dog Books or Skylark Bookshop with my head on a tilt, muttering to myself.

What’s one fun fact about yourself?

I absolutely hate Opera. No joke. It makes my brain itch. It’s something to do with the frequency of some notes and the vibrato of the singer’s voice. Additionally, I can’t watch anything in which Julie Andrews sings because her voice is operatic. I freak out. I discovered this on an elementary school field trip to the Kennedy Center. I fainted from the sounds. 

Where did you grow up?

Between Montgomery County, Maryland, and Hartsville, South Carolina.

Why English? Why do you want to teach/research in your field? 

It’s interdisciplinary. I love that my field is constructed from many intersecting disciplines. I enjoy that through teaching Creative Writing and Literature, I can engage thoughtful discourses about texts/art.

Donald Quist is author of two essay collections, Harbors, a Foreword INDIES Bronze Winner and International Book Awards Finalist, and To Those Bounded. He has a linked story collection, For Other Ghosts. His writing has appeared in AGNI, North American Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and was Notable in Best American Essays 2018. He is creator of the online nonfiction series PAST TEN. Donald has received fellowships from Sundress Academy for the Arts and Kimbilio Fiction.