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Retiring English Professor Imparts Wisdom

“I think this is a good idea,” she referred to my being there to interview her.  “When Chris (Dr Morrow) first brought it up, I had no idea what ‘great wisdom I had to impart;’ but if you get one started, an English professor doesn’t shut up.” 

I gently rapped on Dr. Alice Robertson’s office door Friday, October 17th and was warmly welcomed to “come on in.”  I was nervous to begin my interview, so didn’t even make note of the contents in the “outer office,” just that she had two numbers on the door but only one desk.  Dr. Robertson walked around the desk and greeted me with a handshake, gesturing to a pair of mismatched upholstered armchairs.  We sat side-by-side, facing a loveseat; on the wall behind hung a framed poster of a sepia-colored, handsome man.  After hearing Dr. Robertson speak only two seconds I can only assume I was looking at a young William Faulkner.

“I think this is a good idea,” she referred to my being there to interview her.  “When Chris (Dr. Morrow) first brought it up, I had no idea what ‘great wisdom I had to impart;’ but if you get one started, an English professor doesn’t shut up.”  I took out my notebook, and reminded her I am interested in her scholarly interests and aspects of her academic position. I first asked about her scholarly interests, and was told she’d earned a PhD in American Literature at Arizona State University, having written her dissertation on William Faulkner.  Post-doc, she studied Rhetoric and Composition.  She has written two text books, and “seven or eight” articles on contemporary lit, American lit, and rhetoric theory.  The majority of her writing carries a “Faulkner Theme.”

Next, I asked Dr. Robertson, “What do you see as major issues facing your scholarly area?”  She told me she first started her PhD twenty-six years ago, “when theory was rampant.  Everyone was looking for a “new theory”, a new way to approach literary material.”  “Now,” she continued, while leaning back, “The biggest problem is finding journals to publish, presses for books…The economy is so bad they are out of business.  It’s becoming harder and harder to publish.  The sources online are usually not peer reviewed, so it is a problem finding a reputable publisher.”

I asked her to describe her writing process, if she can.  “I own everything about Faulkner,” she told me, “from research around to short stories.”  She told me she uses the computer to research a lot, “but not wide spread, just new material within the last ten years.”  She is approached for publications, with a reputation for her interest in Faulkner research.  Regarding writing, she said she, “Doesn’t care if anyone agrees with me anymore.”  In the beginning of her career she wrote about composition and rhetoric for journals, more than literature.  She wrote a textbook “six or seven years ago” on rhetoric.

She paused, and inhaled deeply before saying, “I can’t tell you how I write—Osmosis, perhaps.  When I’m writing about comp and rhetoric I use very practical language, word choices for talking to teachers.  When I write on Faulkner my sentences are longer, I’m talking to scholars and grad students.  You just use different writing styles, if you reach your audience you are successful!”

I then asked Dr. Robertson to describe a challenge she has faced in academia, and how she faced it.  She chuckled, and then told me:  while writing the second chapter of her dissertation she completely changed direction, scrapped chapter one and started over.  She finds writing to be easy, “like diarrhea of the pen.”  She writes in long, involved sentences (like Faulkner, especially when she is reading and writing on Faulkner.)  “I try to say everything in one sentence.”  Everything she writes is immediately sent for editing to two people, one being Pat Belanoff, in New York, her mentor.  She always has three different feedback for her writing, including several select Western Illinois professors, and even a grad student on occasion.

She also shared she has had no problems getting a teaching position (although she has had no training in teaching education) ever since her Grad Director sprung a Teaching Assistant position on her, and she found herself in front of a classroom.  “I walked in and started talking.  Immediately everyone started writing.  I thought, ‘what are they writing?’ then realized they were writing down what I said.  Oh no, what did I say?—But after that I just loved every bit.”

“Do you have any advice, or tips, about time management considering all we face?”  Dr. Robertson says it is all just a balancing act.  As for teaching, “if you like it, you’ll be good at it.  And, just KNOW STUFF.”  She further suggests compartmentalizing, “You just make it all feed into each other.”  She said, “Research should be about what you are teaching—research grows out of different things while you’re teaching.  That leads into your service.  Service includes being on committees, General Education committees, recruitment and retention…I like to advise students.  That’s why I have this comfortable area set up.”  She gestured around the conversation/sitting portion of her office space; “Students come in and we can just talk.  I like that.”

I was disheartened I spent my time looking at my notebook, frantically scribbling her rapid replies, because the reason I requested a face-to-face interview, and drove the distance to Macomb is because I like to watch facial expressions and gestures while people talk.  Dr. Robertson is quite animated and enthusiastic when she speaks, and I hope her exuberance comes through in the retelling of my meeting with her.  I asked about books or articles, the work of a scholar she finds essential and would recommend.  Immediately she answered, “Joseph Blotner.  He was working on papers while Estelle (Faulkner’s wife) was still alive.  He was the only person to have direct access to papers, although Estelle would only let some of the stuff be seen.  The personal stuff she kept secret.”  Me:  “Was that out of respect for him?  Or an embarrassment for her, or something?”  Dr. Robertson, “Everyone knew about his affairs already, and they were both drunks!”  I could get information from Drew Faulkner, his niece, but I will never pay the money Jill (his daughter) wants.  They hated each other, anyway.

As for the comp and rhetoric theorists, I’d recommend (Peter) Elbow and (Donald) Murray, Mina Shaughnessy.  Do not limit yourself to one theoretical approach, know about the whole field; older and more modern theories.  Teaching composition has always been my bread and butter—it’s how I made a living, but I always taught lit, too.”  She then brought up teaching Horror Fiction Novels, and pointed to a clay sculpted shark-mouth resting on a shelf amid stacks of books.  “A student made that for me.  It keeps losing teeth, though.”  She laughed and explained they don’t read Jaws in class, but do watch the movies.

That was a perfect and natural cut-away into my own interest in literature, and the academic world.  I ask how to stay true to your own interests, such as horror fiction, while still having the respectability in the field.  Dr. Robertson shook her head while I asked her this, I watched on purpose to detect whether she found my question legitimate or asinine.  “Horror fiction is huge in lit classes!  Horror novels are a great way to get undergrads interested in the major.  The classes are always very popular, and you still use them (horror novels) to look at theories, themes, and certain adaptations of different works.”  Me:  “So, do you have to have the novels approved before you can teach them?”  Dr. Robertson: “No, no.  You have professional freedom to teach what you want.”  She went on to say how surprised she was when students realized how sexual Dracula was.  This lead into a discussion of the sexuality of Anne Rice’s vampires, and of vampires in general.  Dr. Robertson then suggested two novels for me to read, Interred with Their Bones, and Haunt Me Still, both written by Jennifer Lee Carrell.  (I ordered both from Amazon the second I got in my car after the interview.)

I offered Dr. Robertson, then, my final question:  What is the best advice you, yourself, have been given?  After a brief moment of thought, Dr. Alice Robertson looked at me and said, “Never research and write about anything you aren’t personally interested in.  Don’t go for it just because it’s publishable.  Pass that on!

“If you love what you’re studying keep doing what you’re doing.

“I never quite believed people would pay me to read and write.  They told me then there were no jobs; they say now there are no jobs.  But I’ve had a job since I’ve had my degree!  If you want something, you never give up.

“How many people get up every day and like to go to work in the morning?  I love teaching!”

Dr. Robertson will be retiring January, 2015.  She’ll still be writing and researching on Faulkner, but she will not be teaching in a classroom any longer.  Sadly, I will not have the opportunity to be one of her students.

Di Ann F. Vulich

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