As an English professor, I am often given to hyperbole. But, it is not an overstatement to say that Ball State’s English department changed my life. Before enrolling in 1999, I was a good student, not a great one. I’d always had a passion for books, but I did not use or cultivate it. I lived with an apathy typical (although not unique) to an eighteen year old.
That changed once I began taking English classes. The faculty engaged with the life of the mind in ways I did not even know existed. The department inspired me to think my life could be whatever I wanted it to be, and that soon involved study abroad, graduate school, and, eventually, a career in teaching.
My earliest moments of inspiration came in Professor Barbara Bogue’s “Introduction to Creative Writing—Prose.” She instilled in me a passion for writing without fear but with judgment. Dr. Cheryl Bove’s London experience remains some of the happiest months of my life, and they inspired me to pursue study abroad the next year in Germany with the support of the German department, especially Dr. Ronald Warner. The excellent training I received in both English and German led me to Indiana University where I earned my Ph.D. No program could have better prepared me for a Ph.D. than BSU’s.
To wit: three years after graduating from BSU, I am sitting in an advisor’s office at IU. She is so smart, she terrifies me. She is responding to my paper, and we begin riffing on literature more generally. She looks up, seeing me with new eyes, and asks how it is I came to know so much about so many books. I explain that I went to Ball State. She nods in understanding. Ball State educates the undergrad in all fields, periods, and methodologies, and there is no better training for graduate school than that.
Having defended my dissertation at Indiana University (another fantastic school) in 2011, I began as Assistant Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Concordia University Chicago. It is a liberal arts college with 1,200 undergraduates. At Concordia, I get to teach smart students in small classes. I get to teach classes like “Plague, Pox, Zombies: Disease in Literature, Law, and Film” and “Gender Moves: WGS and the Transnational Turn.” I regularly teach a four-course sequence in American literature that spans from the moment of European contact to the present. My notes and materials from Dr. Robert Habich’s American literature classes sit permanently on my desk, and I consult them almost daily as I prepare for class. Dr. Rai Peterson and Dr. Frank Felsenstein equipped me with a theoretical rigor that translates into my teaching as well as my research. This week I am going back to my notes from Dr. Robert Nowatski’s class on representations of blackness in American culture as I teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Dr. Lauren Onkey’s senior seminar in Caribbean literature introduced me to Michelle Cliff’s novel No Telephone to Heaven, a book that would stay with me throughout graduate school and that culminated in my first scholarly publication in Meridians: race, feminism, transnationalism in 2009—six years after I first read the book. As a teacher now, I like to remember how a book I read as a senior in college became the impetus for the start of my academic career. We never know where learning will lead.
Certain days at BSU stand out to me even now: when Dr. Habich revealed that Thoreau was a short walk from town at Walden; when Dr. Peterson explained why April is, indeed, the cruelest month; when Dr. Felsenstein gently corrected me when I misspoke. I learned just as much about how to teach as I did what to teach in my time at Ball State. Although I graduated in 2003, Ball State shapes my everyday life in profound and mundane ways.
And, that tradition continues. I am currently finishing a book, Provisional Identities: The American Short Story Cycle, which places the short story cycle at the center of American literary history. Central to that history are contemporary cycles, including Professor Cathy Day’s inventive, insightful The Circus in Winter. Prof. Day was gracious enough to let me interview her (before she came to Ball State and the book received its amazing musical adaptation). My essay on The Circus in Winter will appear in both my book as well as a new collection of essays on Winesburg, Ohio forthcoming from Rodopi.
This blog post is, ultimately, a fan letter—to a place and a people that introduced me to new books, ideas, and life. I hope it compels others to study English at Ball State.
You can find me here: http://www.cuchicago.edu/faculty/english/jennifer-smith/