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‘Something I never thought of’: How one architecture professor found himself teaching by ‘accident’

Professor Elliott working one-on-one with a student.
Professor Elliott working one-on-one with a student.

When J E Elliott, better known around Alumni Hall as J, was a junior in high school, he didn’t expect a career in architecture, and 50 years later, he didn’t anticipate retiring from the teaching field.

When Elliott was in high school, he wanted a career that would allow him to build, but didn’t want to become an engineer. After participating in an academic aptitude camp at Allegheny College, his results pointed to architecture.

A year later, he found himself enrolled at Miami University and graduated during the 1973 recession. After graduating, he saved up money tending bars and doing maintenance jobs until he had enough to go back to California, where he was originally from.

He landed a job in San Diego, got his architecture license in California and Ohio, and became the director of an architecture department at a firm. After a few years working in the field, he and his wife decided to settle down and start a family.

“When we decided to have kids, we sort of agreed that my wife would stay home [because] we weren't going to daycare our children,” Elliott said. “So she would be staying home with them, which meant that she'd be sort of sacrificing her career … but with the acknowledgement that at some point, we would switch roles.”

When his wife started looking for jobs, they found themselves back in Oxford. The summer they returned, Elliott was asked to show some of his work for an alumni exhibit at the art museum, and during that time, he met with some of the faculty in the architecture department. A job coincidentally opened up, and 35 years later, he is still teaching in the same lecture halls.

“[Teaching] was never something I ever thought of,” Elliott said.

For a while, he continued to do projects around town, some of which include the exterior of the building before DuBois Book Store was built, the inside ceiling and facade of what is now Brick Street Bar, the cut-out entrance behind Skyline Chili, residential projects and more. When he started doing summer studio programs in London, Barcelona and Prague, he decided to put his independently-run practice on pause. Because he wasn’t a scholar, Elliott said he brought a different perspective to the department.

Photo by Sarah Frosch | The Miami Student
Professor Elliott pictured with one of his architecture classes.

“A student would want to do something crazy, and I wouldn’t say, ‘No, we don’t do that in the real world,’” Elliott said. “It made me think, ‘Well, why don’t we do that?’”

In the same way, he said teaching tested him in ways his previous job couldn’t.

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“It would challenge me in some ways to always have to answer some random, goofy question in a way that didn’t shut the student down and encourage them to explore that stupid idea and potentially make it work,” he said.

Elliott’s honesty and insight is one of the reasons Katie Matricaria came to Miami.

Matricaria attended the Summer Scholars Program in high school and had Elliott as a professor during her time. Since coming to Miami, she has had Elliot for multiple classes, learning from him both inside and outside the classroom.

“He always makes fun of me, but he always gives great critiques,” the sophomore interior design major said. “He’s taught me to have patience, a lot of patience.”

While he may have stumbled into his teaching career on “accident,” Elliott said he wouldn’t have changed any of it. Although he values his time working with “high quality faculty and colleagues,” he said watching the students come into Miami as first-years and graduate as seniors has been the most gratifying part of his career.

“That’s the most rewarding thing,” he said. “Just seeing how these characters develop and get out there.”