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Professor moonlights as crossword master

Michael Sharp leads a double life, much like some of the masked vigilantes he discusses in his “Comics” class.

Photo provided Michael Sharp, an assistant professor of English at BU, is a master of New York Times crossword puzzles. He solves crosswords under 15 minutes every day and blogs about his experience and the content of the puzzles.

By day, he teaches two sections of British Literature I and a class on comic books for Binghamton University’s English department. By night, he is Rex Parker, renowned blogger and New York Times crossword puzzle solver.

Sharp, an assistant professor of English at BU, solves the Times crossword every day, taking anywhere from three minutes or fewer to complete the easiest puzzle of the week on Monday to 15 minutes on the more-difficult Friday and Saturday puzzles. He generally begins the puzzles as soon as they are published on the Times website, normally at 10 p.m., and publishes a blog post by midnight.

His blog provides an in-depth discussion of the daily puzzle, including what he liked or disliked about its clues, answers or structure. He also blogs about what he was thinking while filling in the grid and provides trivia about the various words that appear in the puzzle.

Every blog has an image of the completed crossword from the day it was published and an assortment of media, including YouTube videos and pictures to create an interactive and entertaining presentation.

“I try to keep the writing on my blog kind of informal,” Sharp said. “It’s written in a way that is different from my academic writing. It’s personal and entertaining, like I’m talking to other people.”

Sharp began blogging in 2006 under the pseudonym Rex Parker, an arbitrary alias invented by his family while they were on vacation in Hawaii.

“Well, before I had a blog, I was sitting on the beach with my sister and my wife and my brother-in-law, and we all made up ’60s beach names for each other,” Sharp said. “My name was Rex Parker.”

The name has since become a critical part of his online identity.

“I didn’t know what I was doing, or anything about [blogging], so I didn’t want to use my own name,” Sharp said. “I would have changed to my real name eventually, but by the time I would have done that, people were Googling Rex Parker. It had become a sort of brand name.”

His first blog, “Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle,” was initially meant to be a temporary experiment in blogging, through which he could learn the skills necessary to develop a second blog that would act as a supplement to his comics class.

“Back then, I didn’t know what blogs were. They were a fairly new phenomenon and I wanted to learn what they were for and what they did,” Sharp said. “I thought they could be helpful for teaching. I started blogging about the crossword like it was a movie. I thought that would be how I could get practice, and then I would start to blog about comics for my class. But then, people started reading my blog, mostly people looking for crossword hints on the Internet, and I haven’t stopped.”

The comics blog never came to fruition, but Sharp’s crossword blog has amassed significant recognition over the past five and a half years. His blog has been featured on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” The Wall Street Journal and fittingly, in The New York Times itself. Daily posts often receive up to 150 comments from his enthusiastic readers.

Sharp began doing the Times’ crosswords as a distraction during his senior year of college, and then more regularly during his graduate studies at the University of Michigan.

“I did [the crossword] every day to help me stop smoking,” Sharp said. “I would sit in the café, where they had free papers, and I would be trying to think about what people do if they weren’t smoking. Until then, it never occurred to me that they might read the paper.”

In the 15 years since Sharp began doing the crossword, he has carved a place for himself among the crossword elites. He placed 31st out of more than 600 competitors in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and second in the New York division of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. He has even constructed his own puzzles, three of which were published in The New York Times, two in The Los Angeles Times and one in The Wall Street Journal.

But Sharp said that his is not a skill that comes easily.

“It took years to get really good at it,” Sharp said. “It’s a common misconception that people are naturally good at crosswords. If you have a liberal arts education and are paying attention to the world, you probably have an advantage.”

He said that in puzzle solving, like most things, practice leads to success.

“Nothing matters so much as practice,” Sharp said. “You have to get used to how clues are written, get used to that language that is common to crosswords. There are about a dozen words in every puzzle that I wouldn’t know if I didn’t do the puzzle.”

Over the years, Sharp has developed a sense of what makes a strong crossword and what makes a puzzle flounder. For him, a good puzzle is one that is surprising and contemporary.

“A good puzzle feels like it was made in the 21st century, not the 1950s,” Sharp said. “When you use fresh new language, colloquial language, slang — it shows that you’re paying attention and you’re alive today. Why would you even make a puzzle if it wasn’t contemporary, if it doesn’t show an awareness of the way people speak today?”

He said puzzle crafters can get lazy.

“I don’t like stale grids, grids that are filled with words that are not words,” Sharp said. “I hate it when people just add ‘er’ to a verb. One time, an answer to a clue was ‘eyer.’ Really? I mean, technically it’s a word, but it’s really ugly just to add an ‘er’ to a verb.”

Despite the amount of time and effort that he has invested in crosswords over the years, Sharp said his life as a blogger and his life as a professor are separate.

“They’re parallel universes,” Sharp said. “I do what I do on campus, and I do what I do at home. There’s not a lot of overlap. A lot of people have no clue that there is this other facet to my personality.”

Kellan Potts, a senior majoring in English and a student in Sharp’s British Literature I class, said that he can see traces of Sharp’s wit and humor in his teaching style.

“He is an excellent professor who keeps the subject matter light while imparting the importance of whatever subject or chapter we are focusing on,” Potts said. “He is wildly funny and looks at classic texts like ‘The Aeneid’ with a modern sensibility.”

Josh Lefebvre, a sophomore majoring in English, said he values Sharp’s work.

“The crossword is enjoyable because I like words,” Lefebvre said. “As a member of the blogophile community, I appreciate the crossword because it allows me to explore my lexicon and experiment with words in new and interesting ways.”