A peek into Dr. Jaime Mejía’s office reveals the inner workings of a scholarly mind. Shelves filled with books, stacks of students’ essays, and an extra desk buried underneath professional journals tell the story of a man dedicated to integrating the study of Rhetoric and Composition with the vibrant field of Chicano/a Studies. Straightforward and unafraid of eye contact, Dr. Mejía’s disposition comes from his devotion to his students and his field of study. “In academia and certainly within English,” Dr. Mejía says, “Ethnic Literature and Rhetoric & Composition Studies have been two of the most marginalized areas.” Throughout his career, he has sought to shine a spotlight on these subfields of English.
Dr. Mejía grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, where his father worked in gas stations. At 19 he joined the Navy, but his plans took a turn when his boot camp instructors sent him packing with a $139 scholarship. Twelve credit hours cost $150 at the time, so his mother took out a small loan for books, and he embarked on an unexpected journey into higher education. After two years at Pan American University, he transferred to the University of North Texas, later returning to the Rio Grande Valley to pursue his MA in English at the area’s University of Texas branch campus.
While studying at Pan American, Dr. Mejía also began teaching. Many of his first students came from Mexican-American families, and all too often, they’d scored a 15 or lower on the ACT. “If I learned anything from my job at Pan American University,” Mejía says, “it was that Mexican-Americans who come from poor backgrounds and want to be successful in college must be able to write well.” This realization inspired Dr. Mejía to combine his love of Rhetoric and Composition with Chicano/a studies. Dr. Mejía went on to get his Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition from The Ohio State University. His primary reasons for obtaining a doctorate were to write his dissertation on the works of Rolando Hinojosa, a contemporary Chicano author from the Rio Grande Valley, and to become a better composition teacher.
In 1990, Texas State University hired Dr. Mejía to teach literature and composition, and throughout his 26 years as a Texas State professor, he has forged a singular and impressive path: teaching 30 different graduate and undergraduate courses, advising or directing over three dozen theses, publishing nearly the same number of scholarly essays and chapters, and dedicating countless service hours to the betterment of campus life. Even so, teaching his Chicano/a literature class remains one of his favorite endeavors.
The books he chooses for his Chicano/a literature class vary from semester to semester, but he always strives to represent a variety of Chicano/a perspectives. This includes featuring authors of different genders and sexualities. “My duty is to expose students to as many books as possible,” Dr. Mejía says. “They’re often going to be reading about cultural and historical issues they’ve never read before. It’s an exposure that some students will likely not get anywhere else.” This range of material challenges students’ perceptions and stereotypes so that they come away with a richer and more authentic understanding of Mexican culture.
Dr. Mejía’s scholarly work also explores the link between his two specialties: Chicano studies and teaching Rhetoric and Composition. His work addresses the parts of academia, specifically within English, where Chicano/a culture gets overlooked or even insulted. He strives to bring this struggle for Chicano/a recognition to the surface in order to emphasize the importance of these borderland identities in a multicultural classroom. Additionally, Dr. Mejía’s writings discuss the necessity of training the next generation of Latino/a and Chicano/a teachers and scholars to continue improving teaching methods that recognize the cultural and ethnic backgrounds of students. Academia has “become more open about bringing rhetorical and composition as well as cultural studies into the center,” Dr. Mejía says. However, institutions of higher education have much more to accomplish in diversifying scholarship.
To accomplish his goals of culturally responsive classrooms, specifically for Chicano/a students, Dr. Mejía strives to stay on top of cutting-edge research and literature in his field. He annually attends the national Conference on College Composition and Communication, where he frequently presents his papers. He has made this trip almost every year since 1989, which has led him to become a well-known and highly respected figure within the organization. To stay involved at the local level, Dr. Mejía also annually attends Tejas Foco, a regional conference held by a branch of The National Association for Chicano and Chicana Studies.
He frequently brings his students to both of these conferences, offering them the opportunity to present their work and network with the important scholars in attendance. Dr. Mejía speaks proudly of past students who have gone on to pursue and obtain Master’s degrees in Chicano/a studies or Rhetoric and Composition. Occasionally, he even features a former student’s book in his Chicano/a literature course.
Like a steadfast river, Dr. Mejia courses around the many challenges and responsibilities of being a university professor with determination and an unwavering sense of purpose. This dedication has won him a number of awards, the most recent an Alpha Chi Favorite Professor Award in 2015. When asked what he loves most about his profession, Dr. Mejía said, “I have an opportunity to engage students and the privilege of helping them grow and improve skills that they will need later.”
Looking forward, Dr. Mejia hopes to see more ethnic studies programs and courses in universities across the nation. In today’s charged political atmosphere, Dr. Mejía puts his faith in the increasing number of women and people of color in higher education programs dedicated to ethnic studies. “[Minority] scholarship is central to the mission of all universities,” Dr. Mejía says. “We’ve become integral, and we’re here to stay.”
by Sammi Yarto, English major
Last June, Dr. Eric Leake, assistant professor with a specialty in Rhetoric and Composition, presented his lecture “Empathy and the Essay: A Writing Pedagogy of Ethical Emotions,” at the International Conference on Academic Writing, held in Tel Aviv, Israel. This presentation reviewed his study on perspective-taking writing prompts and how they relate to practices of critical empathy. Perspective-taking writing prompts ask students to write about issues from multiple perspectives and assess how their biases affect their interpretations, and critical empathy pushes people to reflect upon the limits of their capacity to empathize with others. The success of this presentation led to his essay "The Promise and Practice of Cosmopolitan Empathy" appearing in the collection Countertransference in Perspective, published last month.
Much of Dr. Leake’s current work focuses on empathy and how it can be used as a means of persuasion. Empathy relies upon identification, which tends to be emotional and based on a sense of shared experiences. He is interested in how empathy can be performed, as well as held back, for particular purposes. Leake uses politics as an example, exploring how leaders must first identify themselves with the crowd in an emotionally tangible manner. Earlier this year, Leake published an article on the subject, “Empathizer-in-Chief: The Promotion and Performance of Empathy in the Speeches of Barack Obama,” in which he analyzes President Obama’s use of empathy in his speeches. “Empathy has been a hallmark of Obama’s speeches. He promotes empathy and uses it as a way to attempt to build community,” Leake said. “You can see how Trump, although very different from Obama, also tries to get people to identify with him, or to believe that he identifies with them, with his message that ‘I understand you, and I will be your champion.’”
Drawn to newspapers and journalism, Dr. Leake pursued a B.A. in English at UNLV as a pathway to strengthening his writing skills. More importantly, he notes, “I liked reading books, talking with other students about it, and the professors were all really cool…. It was just something that I enjoyed doing.” After graduation, Leake joined the Peace Corps to teach English in the Republic of Georgia before returning stateside to work as a journalist for various newspapers. After deciding he wanted to pursue a career in academia, Dr. Leake returned to UNLV for a master’s degree in English. He happened to take a composition theory course during his first semester and was introduced to rhetoric and composition as a field, one that spoke to his interests in teaching and the broader public work of writing. He continued his graduate studies at the University of Louisville, where he completed a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition.
He decided to focus on empathy because it captures some of the more interesting questions in rhetoric: how cognitive and affective persuasion work together, how people understand one another across differences, and how those processes are open to biases.
Dr. Leake brings this emphasis on empathy and civic literacies to many of the classes he teaches at Texas State University. Conversations about news and how news stories are written and circulated are common themes in his writing classroom. Often, students are asked to consider how empathy and rhetoric can be used for negotiating and discussing timely issues. For example, students may be asked to write about issues from different perspectives and to assess how their biases affect their interpretations of stories. “Rhetoric has a civic purpose,” he said, which “goes back to the idea that a well-informed, literate citizenry is important for the functioning of democracy.”
In the future, Leake plans to continue his research into empathy and how it affects the ways we read, write about, and understand one another. He continues to try new exercises in perspective-taking and the practice of critical empathy in his classes. Largely, he seeks to investigate how empathy might “work as a bridge, although an imperfect one.”
By Leeann Cardwell, International Studies major
Dr. Geneva Gano, who earned her B.A. in English at Stanford, and her Ph.D. in English and certification in Gender Studies from UCLA, joined the Texas State English Department this last fall as an Assistant Professor focusing on Women Writers of the U.S. Having lived on the West coast most of her life, Dr. Gano is excited to teach at Texas State because she finds the English Department “a really big and vibrant department with lots of growth and it seems like the school is moving in some good directions.” This semester, Dr. Gano is teaching Women in Literature (ENG 3338) and American Literature (ENG 3335), two courses that fit perfectly with her scholarly interests and areas of specialization.
Dr. Gano originally intended to go into the field of International Relations, but within the first year of her undergraduate studies she realized it wasn’t the right fit and changed her major to English: “I think I’ve always been a good writer and an avid reader, so it just kind of happened.” Upon completion of her Bachelor’s degree, Dr. Gano went to work for Americorps in Portland, Oregon, where she ran a literacy program for at-risk students from kindergarten through second grade, working to ensure their needs were met and to organize volunteers readers. Later, she moved to Puerto Rico to live and work somewhere she could speak Spanish daily. Her experiences in educational settings confirmed for Dr. Gano that, not only was she was good at teaching, but she enjoyed it. She then went on to pursue her PhD and was awarded her MA in the process.
Dr. Gano’s scholarship explores the idea that literature is a “cultural text, something produced by people in a particular place during a particular time.” This idea is evident in her studies on the West and the borderlands, which can be found in a few of her recent publications. California Modernism in the Early Twentieth Century (2015) discusses literature from California as a regional phenomenon, while Campobello’s Cartuchos and Cisneros’ Molotovs: Transborder Revolutionary Feminist Narratives (2015) looks at the relationship between literature of the Mexican Revolution and the U.S. based Chicano movement. Dr. Gano is also interested in the history of the ways women have written about the worlds they’ve imagined, “what they thought their possibilities were and what their limitations were. . . . I like to look at that over time to see how it has changed from over 500 years ago to the present.” Her next publication, “Willa Cather,” on “one of the most significant American woman writers of the early twentieth century,” will appear in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism, to be published in 2017.
Dr. Gano enjoys teaching on feminist writers such as Margret Atwood, Toni Morrison and Elizabeth Bishop. In light of these interests, next fall she will teach a graduate course examining the history of women’s liberation through personal narratives.
Dr. Gano’s advice to students interested in studying literature is “if you love to read and you love to write. . . and you want to read more and write more. . . it’s a great major.” She believes that a strong background in English is very valuable since we all live in the internet age; the basic practices of reading closely and writing well – central to the major in English – will become increasingly important, especially as English continues to grow in influence as a global language.
Dr. Gano is married with two kids, a dog, and two cats. She enjoys cooking and knitting, and hopes to hike through northern Spain and cultivate a small citrus orchard someday.
By Leeann Cardwell, International Studies major
A professor of the English Department for 26 years and the Director of the Undergraduate Creative Writing Emphasis Program for about 20 of those years, Dr. John Blair specializes in teaching creative writing classes as well as sophomore literature classes. Despite the heavy workload that comes with being a professor and director of a department program, Dr. Blair is still able to pursue his creative writing endeavors: “This university has always been very good about supporting scholarship and creativity,” he notes. Dr. Blair has works published in over seventy journals and magazines; his collection of short stories, American Standard, was the 22nd recipient of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize; and he has published books of poetry as well as two novels, and won a variety of awards including Sewanee Review’s Andrew Lytle Prize for Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters’ Helen C. Smith Award for Poetry. He is currently working on a novel about “a middle-aged half-Kwahada Apache west-Texan whose bizarre orphaned niece comes into his newly peaceful life and proceeds to burn down every secure thing he has managed to build.”
Scheduled for publication in 2016, Dr. Blair’s most recent work, his third poetry collection, is titled Playful Song Called Beautiful, which was inspired by a phrase found on the cover of a CD of Chinese children’s songs. The collection is the 2015 winner of the Iowa Poetry Award, one of the nation’s most prestigious poetry awards. Dr. Blair explains that the title poem “is made up almost entirely of phrases from English language-translated signage from China.” He describes the collection as an “intersection of the sort of lurid historical and scientific trivia that teenage boys who grew up in the ‘70s reading too many Ripley’s Believe It or Not magazines would have been fascinated by; certain aspects of Buddhist and Taoist thought; and, as with every poet, autobiography.”
Students interested in pursuing a degree in the English Department are often challenged by the assertion that arts degrees lead to dead-ends or unrelated jobs upon graduation. Dr. Blair reassures his students that those who can think and write critically will always find ways to be productive and ready to face “real world” situations. As a fan of the “go with your heart” philosophy, Dr. Blair recognizes the reality that the path of studying literature is rarely a quick road to wealth or fame. However, he claims, “if it’s what you love, I suspect you’ll never be completely satisfied with your life unless you go for it.”
Named the 2015 Outstanding Professor of the Year by Texas State’s chapter of the International English Honors Society, Sigma Tau Delta, respected scholar Dr. Robert T. Tally has been recognized on numerous occasions by his peers, the University and the Department for his scholarly work. This includes receiving multiple Presidential Excellence Award nominations and four Golden Apple Awards from the College of Liberal Arts for Excellence in Scholarly/Creative Activities. Dr. Tally’s undergraduate courses and graduate seminars largely focus on literary theory and criticism, as well as on American and world literature.
An emerging field of literature in which Dr. Tally is particularly interested, and for which he has garnered much renown for his contributions, is “spatiality studies.” Scholars in the field of spatial literary studies seek to understand, study, and analyze the geographic and social spaces that exist within works of literature – whether real or fantastic. As explained in the Series Editor’s Introduction to “Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies,” a new book series published by Palgrave Macmillan and edited by Dr. Tally, “geocritical approaches enable readers to reflect upon the representation of space and place, both in imaginary universes and in those zones where fiction meets reality.”
Dr. Tally’s Geocritical Explorations: Space, Place, and Mapping in Literary and Cultural Studies, a critically acclaimed collection of essays, explores the aforementioned theme of spatiality. It is described by author Ricardo Padrón as “a notable contribution in its own right to our understanding of the spatial turn in contemporary literary criticism.” Scholar Peter Hulme says that “Geocritical Explorations offers a splendid snapshot of current work” and also notes that “this book will certainly help put geocriticism firmly on the contemporary map.”
Among the worlds Dr. Tally has explored in his scholarship is J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. In an interview conducted with Newfound, a nonprofit journal based in Austin, Texas, Dr. Tally explains that “whenever we go to a place in the literary world, there are things coming with us such as our perceptions, memories, and whatnot. Even if I look at a completely imaginary place, such as [Middle-earth] … not only is what’s going on in Middle-earth real in the context of that world, but also for the readers who are realizing it as they read. Maps help you find your way in real or imagined space.” Dr. Tally has turned this investigation into an undergraduate course on Tolkien.
Dr. Tally has authored six books and serves on the Executive Committee of the Modern Language Association’s Division of Literary Criticism. He is currently editing two collections of scholarly essays: Ecocriticism and Geocriticism: Overlapping Territories in Environmental and Spatial Literary Studies, which will be published in Fall 2015; and The Routledge Companion to Literature and Space, which should be out toward the end of 2016. Dr. Tally is also working on two monographs: one that focuses on “the ‘literary cartography of Middle-earth’ in what [Dr. Tally] refers to as geopolitical fantasy” and another that focuses on “the spatial imagination” in modern literature.
In addition to fueling his own literary interests and goals, Dr. Tally believes the scholarly work and research conducted by him and his colleagues should inspire students as well. “We have a truly amazing faculty here, and I am sometimes surprised at how little students know about their professors’ work,” Dr. Tally explains. “I’m not saying that undergraduates necessarily need to be reading the scholarly articles or books their teachers are writing, but they would likely be interested in knowing about [them]. We have terrific resources here for students.”
After interviewing with other universities across the United States, Dr. Octavio Pimentel accepted an offer from Texas State University. “The obvious change coming to Texas State [from the University of Utah],” Dr. Pimentel explains, “was the cultural thing; I come here and… you have every color; it was nice to see the diversity, not just in ethnicities, but in physical appearance in general.”
Before joining the English Department at Texas State, Dr. Pimentel attended California State University in Chico, where he received his BA in English and Spanish, and an MA in Composition Studies. He continued his career as a doctoral student at the University of Utah, where he received his PHD, studying the social foundation of education, with an emphasis on rhetoric and composition. Since his arrival at Texas State in 2005, he has received numerous awards, most recently the 2014 Texas State Excellence in Diversity Award. Many of the classes Dr. Pimentel instructs are a direct reflection of the diversity this award supports: Language Problems in a Multicultural Environment and Writing for Social Justice, among many others.
In addition to teaching, Dr. Pimentel is a widely published scholar, and just as his courses are a reflection of the Diversity Award, so is his scholarly work. For example, “Shrek 2: An Appraisal of Mainstream Animation’s Influence on Identity,” published in the Journal of Latinos and Education in 2009 discusses the presence of constructs and discourses present in Shrek 2 that perpetuate existing stereotypes, specifically of Latinos and African Americans, in Shrek 2. Two pieces that are currently in progress also maintain this cross-cultural theme. One is a manuscript exploring the variation in definitions of success across cultures. It explores the idea that success is multidimensional and cannot be restricted and defined based on one perspective simply because it is the dominant one. The other piece, which will appear in English in Texas, discusses the need for cross-cultural awareness and inclusiveness in writing centers. Both articles emphasize the importance of recognizing cultural diversity as well as its impact on society and, more specifically, on students.
It is clear that much of Dr. Pimentel’s writing is inspired by experiences and observations he has had as a professor. Discussing the situation of incoming students, particularly freshmen, Dr. Pimentel parallels their experiences and expectations to those of collegiate athletes. “Imagine a good high school player, getting MVP and everything, but then they go to college; most high school players will do terrible in college [and] it’s kind of interesting what sports teams do: they red-shirt you” — they give new players some time to feel things out before really joining the team. In essence, when good students get to college, they tend to be over-confident, and then, after having a rough time during the first round of exams, they get discouraged. “You come here,” Dr. Pimentel continues, “you’re still a high school student; you’re going to get beat up a little bit, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be successful.”
Associate Professor Aimee Roundtree, who joined the English Department faculty this year, says she has always been fascinated with moments of translation and interpretation using technical information. As someone who specializes in technical communication, she describes what she does as “focusing on discourse in scientific practice and the public understanding of science.” Dr. Roundtree often works with communications regarding natural sciences and the medical field. “My work takes a rhetorical lens and applies it to technologies that scientists use to construct and disseminate scientific knowledge”
Dr. Roundtree first became interested in technical communication when she worked in public relations for the military and various hospital organizations after earning her bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy. Additionally, she reported the health beat for a women’s magazine in New York City. There, she wrote health articles that translated medical information for a general audience.
Coming into technical communication from a philosophy background, she often finds ways that philosophy, rhetoric, and technical communication overlapped in her work: “We think science is about facts, but how we get to the facts has a lot to do with how we argue for them, and what to do about them.”
Working as a medical writer and communication specialist, she began seeing interesting patterns in how science and medical information was used; she made this topic her focus when she pursued post-graduate work at the University of Texas-Austin. She found that “rhetoric informs argumentation, which informs dialectic, which informs how scientists make and report scientific data.”
Her current scholarly work includes looking at the rhetoric of supernovas and climate change. Her hobbies include running and playing electric guitar in her spare time.
San Marcos, TX - Dr. Cecily Parks, a new assistant professor in the English Department at Texas State University, cites environmental literature and women writers as her major influences and research interests. Inspired by her own experience in the outdoors, Dr. Parks believed early in her life that there were interesting things happening in the dialogue between literature and the environment. These themes permeate her works; Dr. Parks’s poetry collections Field Folly Snow and O’Nights are both centered on the natural world. O’Nights Is scheduled to come out in April of 2015.
Dr. Parks earned her PhD in English and American Literature at City University of New York, and her MFA in Poetry at Columbia University. Her passion for poetry began when she took a creative writing class during her senior year of college in order to fulfil a credit, and it quickly became a favorite outlet. “I liked that I could write, but it didn’t feel autobiographical,” she states. “It led me to write about things outside myself. Poetry helps me think about the world.”
Although Dr. Parks is new to Texas State University, she has over ten years of experience teaching and has been widely published in poetry anthologies, prestigious literary journals, and essay collections. Her publications this year include Birdlands, which is a poetry and print collaboration with visual artist Ken Buhler; a poem entitled “Plastic Flower” in the anthology The Petroleum Manga; “Conversation Between Fox and Field” in Another Chicago Magazine; and a scholarly publication entitled “The Secret Swamps of Susan Howe in Secret History of the Dividing Line, Thorow, and Personal Narrative,” which appears in ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment.
In her spare time, Dr. Parks enjoys outdoor activities such as hiking and cross-country skiing. She is especially excited about reading Marilynne Robinson’s latest work, Lila, which was released this month.
San Marcos, TX - This year, the Department of English has celebrated the arrival of many talented new faculty members. Among the new professors and lecturers, Texas State University is excited to welcome Chaucer scholar Dr. Leah Schwebel as an assistant professor.
Dr. Schwebel received her MA from McGill University in Montreal, Canada; and her PhD in Medieval literature from the University of Connecticut, focusing on Chaucer and the Italian Renaissance. However, her interests in medieval literature were not limited to her academic career: “I’ve been a Chaucerian since I was fifteen!” Dr. Schwebel proudly admits with a smile.
Dr. Schwebel’s interest in Chaucer began when she was young and was fed by her fascination with medieval studies and her love of classical myth. She explained that she became intrigued by the ways medieval studies retold classical myths. These interests are especially reflected in her PhD dissertation, “Re-telling Old Stories: Chaucer and an Italian Poetics of Intertextual Commentary.”
She has been published in several medieval literature and Chaucer journals, including Studies in the Age of Chaucer, Chaucer Review, and Dante Studies. Among her current projects, Dr. Schwebel is co-editing a collection of essays on Chaucer's Legend of Good Women that should be in print by April, 2017. She also is planning to present at four conferences this year, and will be chairing a session of the Northeastern MLA conference in Toronto with Dr. Kara Gaston.
Explaining her excitement about in her new position, Dr. Schwebel expressed her interest in participating in the Department’s Medieval and Renaissance Society. She stated that she is looking forward to meeting the people in the organization, and taking a leadership role in the Society.
Outside the classroom, Dr. Schwebel enjoys swimming, biking, and running. Last summer, she completed her first full-distance triathlon, the Ironman Lake Placid. Dr. Schwebel, who was always athletic, took up cycling while in Connecticut. She hopes to continue these pursuits while in Texas and plans on participating in Ironman Texas, held in The Woodlands.