Staying in the State: Alum Amy Schmidt (Ph.D. ’11) Talks about
Navigating a Career as an Arkansas Academic
Since graduating with her Ph.D. from the U of A in 2011, Amy Schmidt has taught at two other institutions of higher education in Arkansas. Earlier this spring, she was hired as a tenure-track professor at Williams Baptist College (above), yet another in-state school (in northeast Arkansas). Pursuing jobs only in Arkansas has been challenging, but, as Amy points out in this month’s blog profile (below), teaching at smaller schools within the borders of the state has likewise benefited her both personally and professionally.
First, I was wondering if you would mind tracing your career path since graduating with your Ph.D. in English from the U of A in 2011. While you’ve decided to remain in Arkansas, a choice that often limits graduates’ professional prospects (at least within institutions of higher education), you’ve nonetheless managed to secure positions at a number of colleges and universities. If you don’t mind, could you talk about how staying in the state has presented certain challenges to your tenure-track job search and/or allowed you to pursue some valuable opportunities?
After graduating from the U of A, I was hired by Lyon College in Batesville, AR, to teach English courses and to create and develop its Supplemental Instruction (SI) program. I remained in that position for five years. After marrying and moving to Jonesboro, AR, I began teaching part-time for Arkansas State University’s English Department. I’ve been there ever since but am moving to Williams Baptist College (Walnut Ridge, AR) this fall for an assistant professorship. My stubbornly staying in-state is largely due to my desire to live close to family; while work’s always a high priority, it’s not my top one (at least, not anymore). Being close to family has provided balance in my life that has only enhanced my career in terms of the energy I devote to it. (The happier I am, the better I work.) Of course, the decision to stay close to home has presented challenges, too; there aren’t a lot of tenure-track positions for English PhDs in general, and there are even less in east Arkansas. If you’re even loosely tied to location, then you have to be open to positions that aren’t exactly what you thought you would be doing. I’ve been out of the program for seven years this May, and this coming fall will be the first American literature position I’ve held. However, I’ve enjoyed all of the positions leading up to it and learned a lot about what it means to be a career academic; I’m much better prepared for a tenure-track position now than I was in 2011. Whatever sort of position one’s in, I think it’s imperative to keep up an active research agenda; certainly, as an adjunct instructor, I’m not expected to publish and present, but if I hadn’t, I likely wouldn’t have been hired by Williams.
Your undergraduate and graduate school experiences span three institutions (Lyon College, University of Mississippi, and the U of A), all within the Southern part of the U.S. In addition, your graduate work (an M.A. thesis on Frances Newman and a doctoral dissertation focusing on authors like Lillian Smith and Zora Neale Hurston) was rooted in literature of the American South. You’ve continued a professional career in Arkansas for the last seven years. Does living within the region that you are also researching as a scholar inform your work in interesting (maybe surprising) ways? In other words, you’re not just reading about the landscape that produced the texts you study; you’re living within it. What has that been like, and would you recommend that other graduate students and alumni seek similar experiences, if possible, to interact more directly–physically as well as intellectually–with the cities, states, regions from which the objects of their own literary or cultural research originated?
I’m a horrible creative writer, but I hear that those who aren’t write about what they know. I’ve pretty much taken the same strategy with academic research and literary analyses—I already “know” about the South, so I choose to focus on authors and texts that examine the region in some way. (I’ve met most of the characters in Flannery O’Connor’s short stories in the flesh and might even be related to some of them.) While I’ve always stayed close to home and chosen to focus even my intellectual pursuits on home, the specificity of the Arkansas Delta has actually expanded my academic interests. For instance, while still in the PhD program in Fayetteville, I began using global South theory to analyze “southern” texts, and this theoretical engagement has enabled me since then to become much more familiar with the literatures of the Caribbean and Africa in particular. Currently, I’m using global South theory to examine rice in texts, both those that would be considered traditionally “southern” and those that would not be. Living in east Arkansas, in the middle of rice fields, certainly helps to keep me focused on my research. Indeed, living where I work has also opened up resources for my research that I might otherwise not be aware of or have access to. In the humanities, there’s not a lot that’s been written about rice in Arkansas, so I’ve had to get creative about gathering sources. My next conference talk is over interviews conducted by Riceland [rice company located in Arkansas and Missouri] with Delta farmers. If I weren’t living in a town that boasts having one of Riceland’s larger mills, I likely would not even be aware that such interviews existed. While it’s certainly benefited me, living where you work isn’t necessary to produce good scholarship, but it can give you insights and opportunities that you might otherwise miss.
We try to visit with our current graduate students in English, on a pretty regular basis, about professionalization events and activities (e.g., conference presentations, submissions of article abstracts, election to officer positions with national organizations, etc.) that will benefit them, putting them in better positions to go on the job market (whether tenure-track or alt-ac). Could you describe a professionalization experience you had while you were a doctoral student that was particularly beneficial and explain why it was so helpful? Could you also provide an example of a similarly valuable experience you’ve had but more recently, while you’ve been working as a faculty member?
I’m not sure that I can describe specific examples of experiences with professionalization that were impactful; however, I can say that presenting, publishing, joining, and serving are some of the most important activities you can participate in, as a graduate student, as an adjunct, as a full-time non-tenure track instructor, and of course as an assistant professor. Conferences are where you network and test out ideas, and even if an article you’re working on never gets published, you’re likely to get good feedback as to why it hasn’t from someone along the way. Joining organizations that are regional or national ensures that you will get cfps [calls for papers] for conferences and publications that you’re interested in and enables you to further network with other scholars in your field. Don’t forget that when search committees look at cvs, they’re also looking at service and membership, so anything you can do to contribute to organizations (other than paying your yearly membership fee) is beneficial.
Since you began your teaching career as a graduate student back in 2007 to now, after having taught at three institutions of higher education, you’ve worked with a lot of students and instructed them on an impressive range of topics related to Composition, World Literature, Southern Women’s Literature, Western Literature, African-American Literature, and more. What has been one of your favorite courses to teach so far, and why? What is a “dream course” that you haven’t yet taught but hope you will have a chance to teach in the future?
So far, one of my favorite courses to teach has been “Novels of the Multicultural South” because it was the first literature course I’ve taught that was solely based upon my research interests. Teaching at smaller institutions and in non-tenure-track positions has meant a lot of freshman composition and world literature, so getting to teach any southern literature course thrills me. (The higher level of a course I teach, the lower the amount of class prep I need to do simply because my research interests are so specific.) However, teaching courses like world literature has pushed me to explore authors and texts that I likely wouldn’t have otherwise. Over the years, I’ve taught a lot of Francophone authors, and I’m very interested in someday teaching a course on French Caribbean literature. My ultimate “dream course,” though, is one focusing solely on Toni Morrison’s texts. I know that it’s out of fashion to study only one author, but reading Morrison in high school is what made me want to be an English Ph.D.