The comeback kid: McAdams finds fresh start at Lehigh

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James McAdams is a current Ph.D student in Lehigh's English program. He previously dropped out of high school, then got his GED and degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Villanoova Univeristy. (Courtesy of the Lehigh University website)

James McAdams is a current Ph.D student in Lehigh’s English program. He previously dropped out of high school, then got his GED and degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Villanova University. (Courtesy of the Lehigh University website)

James McAdams stands in front of the classroom wearing a gray zip-up sweatshirt with the sleeves pushed up around his elbows.

As he speaks to the class, constantly waving and motioning with his arms, the right sleeve of his sweatshirt falls to his wrist. He shoves the sleeve back to his elbow and continues to wildly gesticulate. When McAdams calls on a student, he looks directly at her. He nods and smiles encouragingly, giving the impression that it’s just the two of them having a conversation.

If appearance was the hallmark of normalcy, McAdams would be unremarkable, just another doctoral candidate at Lehigh University. But McAdams is different from the others.

He never finished high school.

In January of his senior year at Unionville High School, just a few months before he was scheduled to graduate, McAdams dropped out.

“I was sort of one of those kids that liked learning, but hated school because it was so slow and stuff, so I would just be in detention all the time,” McAdams said. “So I just stopped going because it was annoying.”

After dropping out, McAdams moved out of his parents’ house almost immediately. Dropping out of high school was uncharacteristic of the McAdams family. All three of McAdams’ siblings hold advanced degrees from Penn State. Their father even taught at Lehigh in the 1990s. Although McAdams’ family was OK with his dropping out, it created an odd situation. So McAdams went to live on a farm his friend had purchased from his grandmother.

“It was a cool area for people that were doing different things,” McAdams said.

After working a number of odd jobs, McAdams became a social worker. He started as a behavioral case manager for $12 an hour and slowly worked his way up the ladder. He helped clients transition from mental hospitals to community-based living, helping them adjust to the activities of normal life, ensuring they took their medicine and taking them to appointments and events. He also brought clients to GED classes.

“I would sort of take them to class and help them study and maybe that, looking back, put it into my mind, who knows,” McAdams said.

At the age of 25, after five years of social work, McAdams decided to go back to school. He got his GED and attended the University of Pittsburgh.

At a time when some said the value of a college education was no longer worth it, McAdams, who had held a stable job without a degree, was going back to school.

“You get to 25, and that might be one of the first times in your life where you sort of take stock of your life,” McAdams said. “I think I felt like I needed a fresh start for whatever reason.”

McAdams found out about the College-Level Examination Program, which allows adult learners to receive credit for work history. He paid $1,000, took 10 CLEP tests and received enough credit to graduate in 2 1/2 years with a BFA in creative writing and a minor in psychology.

After attending Villanova for graduate school, McAdams arrived at Lehigh in 2011 to earn his doctorate. He has remained here since, working on a dissertation on contemporary fiction’s depiction and critique of the bias psychiatric paradigm. He teaches classes in English and health, medicine and society, and worked as the managing editor for the Lehigh literary magazine, Amaranth.

Stephanie Powell Watts, an English professor, hired McAdams for the Amaranth position.

“It’s not a high-paying job by any means, but you have to have a lot of passion for thinking about literature and how it’s formed and how it’s started,” Powell Watts said. “(McAdams) seemed to be the absolute right person for the job.”

Powell Watts said McAdams is both precise and procedural, an interesting quality for a creative writer. It’s a strange and productive combination, she said.

McAdams believes dropping out of high school has made him a better teacher.

“I think it’s made me a tremendously effective teacher, especially as a teacher of first-year writing and stuff like that,” McAdams said. “And I think more than any other teacher here I can be like, ‘I feel you.’ I hope to make things more interesting and respect the fact that they really don’t care.”

Nicole Lando, ’18, took McAdams class as a first-year student. Lando enjoyed her first class with him so much, she enrolled in his health, medicine and society class this year.

The class worked with Lando’s major, but even if it didn’t, that wouldn’t have mattered.

“I probably would have taken it anyway,” Lando said.

Katie Phillips, ’18, said McAdams is one of the coolest instructors she’s ever had. She said McAdams is inclusive and creates a comfortable learning experience so no one is afraid to speak what they think.

Lando likes that McAdams has a casual approach to teaching, different from her structured high school English classes. Lando said McAdams always wants his students to pursue new knowledge and pushes students to think.

Although McAdams hopes to be hired for an assistant professor position at a nearby school, he may pursue alternative options.

“I was never much of a planner, I’m really still not, which is pretty pathetic at my age,” McAdams said. “I probably would have been happy just being a social worker. I mean, I could go back to that in a second and not be upset.”

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