It’s always refreshing to meet someone who genuinely cares about his or her profession. In the field of education, it is especially reassuring to meet a teacher who genuinely cares deeply about the material being taught and the students that the material is being taught to. The teachers that think about affecting people in a positive way outside the walls of the classroom are the teachers who truly shape the future. We are lucky here at the University of Alabama to have one of these people in our Department of English, Lauren Cardon. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Lauren and asking her a few questions about her new position as the very first Clinical Professor in Alabama’s English department, her books that she has written, and her classes and teaching responsibilities here at the University.
You are the first Clinical Professor here at The University of Alabama. What exactly is a clinical professor and how does it differ from other faculty positions?
There’s still some confusion about what it is because it’s new for the humanities. A Clinical Professor in a field like psychology would have clinical duties but maybe not the same kind of publishing or teaching responsibilities. In my department it means that, while tenure track faculty will teach two classes per semester and have a heavy publishing agenda, I’m required to teach more classes, but I don’t have requirements to research and publish. My responsibilities are divided into 80 percent teaching and 20 percent service. I teach four classes per semester but I still do research. In my interview, instead of doing a presentation on my book, I had to do a teaching demonstration. There’s more of an emphasis on teaching.
Being the first Clinical Professor, what do you hope to accomplish in this new position? What kind of groundwork do you plan on laying for the future and how do you plan to benefit the university?
There are a lot of goals I’ve set for myself. One of the main things I’m interested in is experimenting with innovative teaching practices in a way that enhances the professionalism of my students and helps them connect what they do at the University to the real world. I want to help them with what they’ll do on the job and develop skills that they may not get with their majors. I consider myself part of a community here at the university. I take the university’s mission and goals very seriously—the University has a very prominent place in the local community. It’s also placing a huge premium on undergraduate research. One of the things I’ve tried to do in the time that I’ve been here is to try to take on a role as a research mentor. I’m participating in two programs: the Emerging Scholars Program in which I have a research assistant who is a freshman, and the Tide Together program where I’m mentoring a new grad student. I try to participate in other ways too. The Café at UA is a program in which faculty meet with job candidates outside of their discipline for breakfast where the candidate can talk about what it’s like to be here at the university instead of just talking solely about research. There are different ways other than focusing on innovative teaching practices and new ways of teaching writing. I also try my best to contribute to the community at large.
What would you say is the most challenging part of being a Clinical Professor?
I would say the teaching load especially when it comes to teaching 100-level writing courses. Each course requires every student to do 6500 words of writing per semester, which doesn’t include any short writing exercises or midterms or anything like that. The 103 classes are a little smaller and aren’t as intense. This semester, [Spring 2014] I teach three 102 classes and a 309 class, which is an advanced expository writing class. The advanced class has 15 students, at most, and the 102 class has 24 students at most. So every time my students turn in papers, I am basically reading 360 pages and commenting on them and that’s if I don’t have the 15 students from my 309 class turning in papers at the same time. I take grading very seriously. I give my students a ton of feedback because I want them to improve, but I’m having to get a little more holistic when it comes to grading so that I can distribute my efforts in other areas too. That’s been the biggest challenge. It’s stressful to me because I can remember being a student back in college and I can remember thinking “Oh this is something I’ll never do or this is something I will do.” And one of the things I said that about was taking forever to grade a paper. I always set a week long maximum for myself. I always try to return the grade within one week whether it’s a one-page paper or a seven-page paper. This means I grade 10-15 papers a day sometimes, which is hours and hours of work. I think it’s important to get it back to them quickly, especially if they’re working on a new assignment.
You teach English 102 in addition to 103. Is it more challenging to teach freshman students, since they are so new to the college experience, than it is to teach junior or senior students?
I think it’s by far the hardest to teach freshmen—or to teach first year writing, since there are some students who aren’t freshmen: sometimes, it is someone returning to school after being away for a while who may have been working full time with a family. I teach 309 this semester. I love it! It’s wonderful! It presents different kinds of challenges, but if I made a list of all the different challenges of teaching a 100-level course versus a 300, or even 200-level course, it’s much more challenging to teach a 100-level. You have to think freshman year is kind of a hurdle. It’s kind of like a litmus test. You are suddenly at this place where there are tons of people your age everywhere. There are parties. There’s the Greek scene. There’s being a part of the sports here. There’s meeting tons of people. All of these different activities are going on and a lot of students haven’t really thought about what college is yet. Maybe they simply went because their parents told them to and they went. So they don’t really understand the responsibility and the academic responsibilities. One of my students last semester said, “I never had to think about buying my own shampoo before.” He wasn’t whining; it is just one of those things he hadn’t really had to think about before being alone on a college campus. So freshmen have the biggest adjustment and present the biggest challenge in some ways. By the time they’ve made it to sophomore or junior year, a lot of students have decided that they’re committed to being here. They’re a little more engaged. They’re taking more classes because they want to take them, not because it’s a required course. They expect less handholding. I get a lot of students who will miss a class and show up having not done the assignment and they’ll say, “Oh I wasn’t here so I didn’t know.” It’s kind of like, well it’s your responsibility to know. I’m not going to call you and let you know.
What is one piece of advice that you give to all of your students? If you could tell them one thing to help them be successful in English or literature in college what would it be?
I would say it has to do with the attitude toward assignments and the attitude toward the material that you learn in class. With English majors it’s different, especially literature majors who want to teach literature. They know why they need to know this stuff, but there’s a value to understanding how to analyze critically and how to interpret literature. These are historical documents that tell you something about the way people think or tell you something about a society. It’s also about connecting those skills beyond the classroom. Too many students take classes for the exams basically. I’m going to take this class and learn what I have to learn, and I’m going to get an A or a B and then forget about it because it’s not my major. I would say English is one of the most important things that you have to learn in college. I’m biased of course. I switched to an English major from being an art major. I found that the things that I learned how to do, and the way I learned how to engage in class discussion or think on my feet or interpret things beyond the obvious, or even having to think of my own topics and be able to justify why they matter…those are the skills you’ll use no matter what field you’ll enter.
You’ve written a book called, The White Other in American Intermarriage Stories. What was the inspiration for the book and why did you feel the book needed to be written?
That evolved over time. My first year of grad school, I was reading these stories by Nella Larsen. She’s a Harlem Renaissance writer. She wrote about light skinned African-American women, some of whom passed as white. The way she engaged the issue of intermarriage really reminded me, even though it’s obviously a completely different culture and scenario, of growing up as a Jewish person and the pressure of marrying someone Jewish and the pressure not to marry out of one’s own culture. So I became interested in ethnic and racial groups who, on the one hand, try to preserve a culture but on the other hand, try to assimilate and blend into American mainstream identity. If we all stayed in our little groups, the world wouldn’t be what it is today, but at the same time if you keep intermarrying don’t you eventually lose your culture? So that was the inspiration for my dissertation, which really compared black/white intermarriages to white/white ethnic, Jewish/non-Jewish, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant mixing with an Italian American or a Greek American. I talked a good deal about that. That was the inspiration for the book project, which was more on ethnic literature after WWII. These were more focused on the ethnic groups and looking at their perspective for a son or daughter marrying a white person. How the white person basically gets told, “Oh, well we don’t want you in our group. You’re not one of us,” and how you deal with that tension.
You’re also working on a new book called, “Democratic Fashion: Women’s Clothing and the Social Mobility in American Literature.” What kind of process do you go through as a writer to decide what you actually want to write, and what is your writing process? What’s the first few steps you take when you start writing?
It starts with an interesting idea or a question. I’m really into fashion. I read magazines about fashion and watch shows about fashion. I shop. I really am fascinated by it and the extent to which it can make us happy or it can make people feel insecure or go into debt or all of the problems it can cause. Usually writing starts with just having an idea and a curiosity and thinking about how it relates to the work I do. There are all kinds of discussions of fashion in American literature. You’ve probably had to read The Great Gatsby at some point. There’s a lot of discussion of sort of that 1920’s woman: the very skinny, flat chested, flapper like woman in that book. Of course, you just saw the Baz Luhrmann film that came out recently and the clothing in it was designed by Prada. So I was interested in sort of how the common theme in American literature is upward mobility and a search for identity. There’s this myth that we can better ourselves and rise above our station. We can accomplish the American dream. All of these ideas are connected to the manipulation of appearance, especially in clothing style and how these things are connected in literature. So to summarize, it starts with the idea and then thinking about how the subject relates to the work I do. That’s the hard part. You can have an interesting topic and not yet know what argument you want to make.
What’s one piece of literature that you feel is critical for every English student to read before completing their college career and why do you think it’s critical?
That’s so hard to pick! I would say that one, even though this isn’t my field, you have to read some Shakespeare if you’re going to be an English major. And I’m not a Shakespearian at all. I would say my favorite Shakespearian play is actually Julius Caesar, which I read in the seventh or eighth grade. It’s my favorite because depending on the staging of it Caesar can be the good guy or Brutus can be the good guy. And that’s what’s great about Shakespeare is that room for interpretation. My recommendation though for everybody across the board to read would be The Grapes of Wrath and a lot of my colleagues would disagree. I just think it’s one of the most beautiful books. You know we’re in the humanities, and that’s a book that not many people think about, but it makes you look at humanity. It’s got kind of a moral lesson in it without being grounded in religion. I read it after I had evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, so I had an especially emotional connection with that book. To me, that’s one of the most powerful books ever written, and I think it’s important for students to have to think about their views and why they think what they think in an English class. I actually don’t think high school is the best time to read the book because it’s a very dense and challenging book for someone in high school to read. The last book I would choose, and I feel bad because there are so many great books by women that I haven’t mentioned, is The Sound and The Fury, which I read in high school. I think it’s one of the most challenging books, but it’s a very beautiful book that shows this sort of experimentation authors can do with literature. It shows how people experimented and have broken barriers in writing in important ways.
What do you think makes a piece of literature stand the test of time and become permeated in culture?
The first criterion is that it has to be something significant for the time period. I have an American Studies focus in my literature, so I tend to think a hundred years from now if I found this book what would it say about our society if I’m talking about a contemporary work? For example, in the past ten years, a ton of memoirs and novels have been published about transgender identity or with transgender characters. There weren’t a lot before and I think that’s important. I think some of those will be incorporated into a literary cannon. You know, Faulkner was important because he was writing about the south during a very transitional time but also because of his writing style. That’s the other thing. You have to have a beautiful writing style but it can’t just be beautiful. It has to be distinctive in an important way. It’s the same rule with art. You don’t see every single artist that can paint a person or a thing perfectly become famous. That’s a skill. There has to be something unique about their style. So Faulkner wrote and he used the stream of consciousness style that other writers were using experimentally at the time. But he did it in a very different way. It was different from James Joyce’s and Gertrude Stein’s way of doing it. So it has to be beautiful in an artistic way, but it also has to be different.
What would you say is your style of teaching?
I would say that the main thing that I think about is what students will be able to take with them. I try to present material in a way that examines a larger spectrum of argumentative techniques. So, if I have to teach Rogerian Argument, which is a non-confrontational style of arguing where the goal isn’t to win but to find a common ground, I’m not going to just teach that and just teach the history of it. I’m going to talk about the contemporary and political landscape and how hostile it is. I’m going to teach them what would be a useful approach to an argument to these everyday situations. I try to draw a very clear connection between the classroom and the outside world but also with their careers. So a big part of it is applying things in a way that students will understand and so the value of the content is clear. I don’t like for students to forget things that they learn in my class. The other thing is that it’s conversational. I like to have a seminar style classroom where I’m soliciting students’ views. It’s also Socratic. If I ask a question and a student gives me a response like “Well yeah, I think that,” I’ll say, “Well ok, why do you think that?” I’m not going to do it in an attacking way. It’s more to get people thinking about what they’re saying. That style really is traditional (it dates back to Socrates!). I think too often teachers are tempted to say, “Oh, a student spoke. I don’t want to intimidate him or her and make her regret speaking.” I think it is important to get the student thinking and to keep talking. I encourage a lot of collaboration in class. I want the students to get comfortable working with each other by critiquing each other’s work, and looking at others’ work to reflect on their own writing. I do that in upper level classes, too. When I taught literary surveys, sometimes I’d just take three passages from something they had to read and divide the class up and have them talk about the passage and explain what they think to the class. It’s just another way of fostering that dialogue and it’s very clearly connected with a lot of what their work experience will be like. There’s a lot of working in teams, communicating ideas, taking on leadership roles, or delegating roles.