Embracing the atypical: How one graduate student found his craft

Laina Yost

How many tattoos does James Dustin Norris have? He smiles a little and lifts a hand to stroke his beard.

“I like to say I have one.”

Dusty is covered in ink from head to toe. Since he turned 18, he’s gotten a new tattoo every year since.

That’s 15 years worth of tattoos, or one, as he likes to see it.

Poking out of his long sleeves are two fully-black inked forearms. His bald head, which is covered with a beanie, has multiple tattoos, including a skull and crossbones and some spider webbing. A large flower comes up the side of his neck. His fingers and hands have an array of colorful tattoos on them, the reds and greens standing out. His glasses cover his eyes and he has a simple nose ring in his right nostril.

It’s somewhat of a contradiction to the traditional image of an academic; studying cultural evolution and archaeology, his shared office is full of small piles of books relating to prehistory and human evolution.

Norris said he sees culture as an influence in everything people do and that a better understanding of culture, including material culture, helps to better understand the society’s presence today and in the past.

“People disgust and fascinate me at the same time, unfortunately. I primarily deal with prehistoric people. They’re dead and gone. But I’m still very fascinated in counter culture, obviously, and modern day culture as well.”

Part of that belief may be due to his upbringing. Norris was raised in southern Alabama in a small town made up of about 2,000 people. When he was 18, he moved to Mobile, the second largest city in the state.

His southerness is evident in his voice; a subtle accent weaving words together that sounds as smooth as honey. After his high school graduation with 20 other students, Norris went to college, as he felt was expected of him. But soon, he felt that the experience wasn’t for him and dropped out when he was 19.

“It takes a little while to see that education is important in many different ways,” he said. “I don’t think getting a college degree necessarily will get you a job, but I also think it’s something that you can personally accomplish. That no one can take away from you. And it took awhile to realize how fun learning really is, especially science and archeology.”

Norris did a little bit of everything for the next seven years after dropping out; he was a professional tattooer, a cook, traveled, performed professional body piercings and worked in a pizza shop.

It was in that pizza shop where he fell into private archaeology, also known as cultural resource management. Any time something gets built or constructed, there has to be a cultural assessment of the area to see if there are historic or prehistoric artifacts.

“Basically, they needed manual labor,” Norris said. “I was the least expected to make it in the company and I was the last one to leave.”

There, Norris interacted with retired academics that were atypical. They didn’t look down on a man with no college degree and some tattoos. Norris described it as one of the most important things that happened to him in life.

“They spoke to you as if you were on their same level.”

His time spent in private archaeology guided him back on the path to college. But it wasn’t the deciding factor; instead, it was a broken washing machine.

Norris and his wife didn’t have the money to fix their washing machine. So, he did what only an industrious person could do: He took it apart, found the problem, bought the part and fixed it himself — all for $12.

The machine broke in November. By January 2012, Norris was enrolled in classes at the University of South Alabama. He figured if he could fix his own washing machine, he could finish college.

Walking onto campus, Norris was considered a “non-traditional student” in that he wasn’t the typical 18- to 22-year-old college student. He was 26. He was also heavily tattooed.

“For the most part, when I first got there, all the military people would talk to me, which was strange because a lot of them thought I was in the military, but I was not,” Norris said.

He called some of his experiences “weird,” but not negative. Most kids didn’t expect him to be smart, but he was. Once they gave him a chance, they found that he was not at all like the “criminal,” “degenerate” or “junkie,” as others saw him to be.

“I’ve been called a lot of things in life because of tattoos,” he said. “However, if people would give me a chance to let me speak to them, they would usually come around.”

At the University of South Alabama, Norris met Dr. Phillip Carr, his undergraduate adviser. Carr described Norris as “inherently curious.” Norris is always interested in everything, perhaps because he’d done almost everything already.

As Norris continued his studies, he whittled his interest down to the study of stone tools in prehistoric times. Carr said Norris had a fascination of the distant past. But Norris also saw himself in a certain way. He was more cognizant of his nontraditional status than his professors were. Carr said Norris “set the bar” for other students. Norris was personable and interested in what other people had to say.

“He is always prepared and just what you really want in a student,” Carr said. “That enthusiasm, and wants to learn and ask questions. That’s the first impression he made on me.”

Dr. Metin Eren, Norris’s thesis adviser at Kent State, echoed what Carr said. Eren said Norris was everything he wanted in a student — passionate, intelligent and most of all, kind.

“He’s enthusiastic, which I knew that before he got here, but his mind is constantly blown and that’s a good thing,” Eren said. “That’s what he says. He’s like ‘You blew my mind. That idea blew my mind.’ And that’s awesome. You want those sort of positive, curious people around.”

There’s no love lost between Norris and Alabama; he described his hometown as a bubble.

Tiny little pockets of small worldviews and little progress.

“I talk about Alabama a lot, and I don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it,” he said. “I made it. I adapted. I blended in where I needed to and avoided things that I should avoid. But I mean, there’s still a lot of things that is really real. Racism, hatred, bigotry, all that stuff is, it’s real. It’s still alive and well there, unfortunately.”

Norris said he wants to get his Ph.D and teach at a college one day. But with his tattoos, he sometimes worries that he won’t get a job in his field. He laughs and says maybe he should stay out of the Bible belt, but in the job market of academics, he also can’t afford to be picky.

“That could be another reason why I could never go back to the South because I still have a very strong feeling that no matter how many articles I publish, how many degrees I get, at the end of the day it’s still going to be the guy with tattoos and it’s just not as socially accepted there,” he said. “Tattoos are okay, but when you’re covered in them, once you start tattooing your neck and hands and things like that…” He trails off and strokes his beard a little.

Now that he’s in his second semester at Kent State, and experiencing his first winter in Northeast Ohio, Norris feels a lot better about his job search. It’s a different atmosphere up here, compared to the Deep South.

Here, Norris’s life is mostly filled with classes, lectures, labs, conferences and working on papers to publish. He and his wife only have one car here. She drops him off at 6:30 a.m. and he goes home around 8 p.m. He makes dinner and walks their two dogs. By the time it’s over, it’s time for bed.

“I have to laugh about it to keep from crying.”

Norris plans to graduate in May 2020 before going on to get his Ph.D. He likes to leave with the reminder that education is a privilege, but people will only get out what they put into it. He appreciates the opportunities that education opened up for him, beyond just being a guy with tattoos.