To start off, could you tell me a little about your childhood?
I grew up overseas. I was born in Bangkok, Thailand. I lived in north Thailand for a while, and then I went to boarding school when I was five, in Malaysia. It was a British boarding school. When I was 12 [we] moved back to the States. We lived in Bucks County, PA, which is northeast of Philadelphia. I attended middle school and high school there.
What do you miss the most about growing up in Thailand?
It was such a long time ago! But, what I think I miss the most was the beautiful blend of my family experience, as mediated to me by my parents, and the really extraordinary culture around me, full of peaceful and really positive and charming people.
When did you last visit?
I went back in 2002 and hope to go back again. It’s really changed a lot. When I lived there, Bangkok was definitely kind of a post-colonial city, even though Thailand was never colonized. You know, you could see a western-style office building and right next door there would be a bamboo house with water buffalo lying around in the front yard. Now there’s just miles and miles of concrete, skyscrapers – very, very urban. It has the least green space of any major city in the world. So, I kind of regret that, but some of the old touchstones like the royal palaces are still there.
Could you tell me a little about your college experiences?
I went to Wheaton College. Very quickly, I knew that I wanted to major in English and also take philosophy courses. So, as soon as I could get past my general education requirements, I saturated myself with as many English and philosophy courses as I could fit in.
What sparked your interest in English?
I had grown up reading. I loved to read, and because I love to read, I guess I had a little more insight into literature than I had into much else that was academic. That’s why I ended up being a pretty decent writer, I think, because there’s a connection between avid reading and being a good writer. So, it was really just a natural fit for me.
Did you always want to teach?
I didn’t see myself as a teacher at all! I went to graduate school and got a teaching assistantship, and that was sort of just the way that I paid my bills. It became a natural consequence of the choice to be an English major and pursue academia, but I ended up really enjoying teaching.
So, what brought you to WVU?
Well, by the time I came here, I had gone through graduate school and had a couple kids. We were kind of a two-career family. My husband is a physician, and I had developed a career as a teacher. We moved to Morgantown, and WVU was just the obvious place to want to teach because it was such a cool school.
What year was that?
We moved here in 1987. I think I didn’t start [working at WVU] until 1989, because I was teaching at Fairmont State at least a year before that.
How would you characterize your first few years here?
I was teaching part time. We had very little kids, and I enjoyed mixing it up – playing with Legos at home and coming to work and teaching and keeping my mind alive while getting to interact with intelligent students. It was a good balance for me.
What changes have you seen in the University and the students since you first joined the faculty?
I would say the University has become a more sophisticated place, if I can put it that way. It’s become, perhaps, a bit more nationalized and internationalized than it was in the late 80s. Maybe it was because we had just moved here, but it felt much more localized to West Virginia back then. Now there’s a lot of branding and competitiveness, just that sense – through the Big XII and whatnot – that WVU has a place on the whole continent, not just in West Virginia. I’d also say, and actually I’m not sure I should say this, but overall the quality of students’ work has just really improved since I’ve been here. This semester, man, I’ve got such an extraordinary set of students in my professional writing classes. They’ve blown me away. And, you know, it’s in some ways an accident of scheduling whether you get this student or that student in your class, but still. I would definitely say that the quality of students – it’s always been great to teach here – but the overall quality of the students has improved.
What do you think has gone into that?
I do not know. I’m coming from the perspective of teaching literature and writing, and I think, back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, there was all of this tearing of the hair, you know, “Why can’t Johnny read? Why can’t Johnny write?” So there may have been more of an emphasis on language arts in grade schools since then. I also think that WVU has taken its place on the national stage, and has become a little more competitive.
You’ve been writing about Tractarian novelist Charlotte Yonge. Can you share your research on her?
She is a unique 19th Century female writer because she became even more of a best seller than Charles Dickens. There were all of these really famous contemporaries like [Alfred] Tennyson who loved to read her novels and were great admirers. She, therefore, had a very powerful voice through her writing and the culture.
But, what she promoted in all of her writing was a self-sacrificial role for everyone. And she wrote, very explicitly, this self-sacrificing role for women. So because her novels are so locked into the ideology of that time period, almost as soon as the 20th Century rolled around, she was seen as almost intolerable to read since she was so old-fashioned and overtly religious.
Then, with second wave-feminism in the late-20th Century, people who were interested in Victorian literature and 19th Century British literature began to recuperate lost female voices. Charlotte Yonge’s voice had been lost by then. So, there were some re-publications of her novels, which had not been published for almost a century. Now she’s kind of disappeared again because she makes readers so uncomfortable, but I find her fascinating.
I love to read and she writes good stories, but also there’s so much complexity to her voice when she’s saying one thing dogmatically and undermining herself at the same time.
Are there any other specific novelists that you find interesting?
I love pretty much all of the 19th Century novelists. I’m a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson. I also love Toni Morrison. And I love to read young adult literature! I teach young adult literature every once in a while and I love it.
What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Oh, I’ve just taught and taught and taught. I’m what they call a teaching professor, which means that I’ve developed expertise in teaching and focus almost all of my attention on teaching. I’ve taught – I counted this out one time – more than 6,000 students. You know, there are other professors who have probably taught more students because they teach classes of 250 [students] at a time, but mine tend to be around the 20-student-to-40-student range. So, I would say my biggest accomplishment has just been developing as a teacher and connecting with lots of students over the years – maybe teaching them something. I’m really enjoying getting to know them and working with them to improve as writers and as thinkers.
If you could attribute your success to one thing, what would that be?
Well, it sounds really sappy. I just really love my students and I really like my colleagues. I feel like I’ve got a supportive department, and I’ve just had immense joy in teaching my students.
What would you consider to have been your greatest obstacle?
Just tons and tons and tons of work, both because I am an English teacher and because, as a teaching professor, I teach four courses a semester.
So, where do you think you’d be now if you hadn’t gotten into teaching English at a university?
That’s really hard to imagine, because I was so narrow in my approach to life when I was in my teens and twenties. But I think I might have become a social worker. I do a lot of volunteer work now, with the Appalachian Prison Book project – I don’t know if you’ve heard of us—we’re an outreach of the English department. We reach out to prisoners who are interested in reading and send them books to read. And I volunteered for years with CASA for Kids, which is an organization that advocates for abused and neglected kids. So, I think that’s a side of me that might have come out eventually – the side that really cares about folks who might not be getting as good a break as other people and tries to help them.
Do you have any advice that you would like to give to students?
It’s not anything new: Come to class! If they come to class and pay attention, then they can pretty much operate efficiently in the class. But also, in terms of a long-term focus, don’t think that you have to define everything and pin everything down right now. Be aware that you’re probably going to change jobs three times before you’re done – before you retire. Just enjoy the journey and stay alert, because who knows where the next turn in your road is going to be. You don’t have to have that whole road mapped out right now, as a college student. You just have to be preparing yourself well for whatever might come down that road.