Eileen Elrod: How Faculty are Adapting to the Pandemic & Writing to Discover Identity
Eileen Elrod is a Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies, currently serving as Associate Vice Provost for Faculty Development. Her scholarly interests focus on religion, race and gender in early American literature, especially on contested notions of American identity and autobiographical writing. Dr. Elrod has been a member of the SCU faculty since 1992 and won the Brutocao Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2007.
This conversation begins with a highly timely and relevant segment on how faculty are adapting to online learning. We then dive into Eileen’s passion for teaching writing, how writing can be used to discover identity, how literature can improve empathy and what makes a great classroom environment.
GC: How did you become passionate about teaching?
EE: Teaching is like the best job. If you get to teach and do research in the stuff that you love… I feel really fortunate.
[Teachers deal with] issues of identity and students sense of direction in self, and being able to accompany them as they figure stuff out. So much happens for students between 18-22, being able to teach the humanities and be alongside students as they think through who they are and what they want. Literature provides a space where a lot of that happens.
GC: How can literature or writing help a student find their passion or identity?
EE: I’ve taught a lot on autobiography. Sometimes I don’t even have to ask the question. If you’re reading autobiographical material and it deals with difficult subjects, it’s so natural for students to want to find themselves in those life stories they’re reading. Even more immediately than in fiction or poetry because they’re seeing the life trajectory and seeing the speaker make sense of his or her experiences over time. That’s what students in university are doing.
I appreciate the Jesuit concept of accompanying. I think the best teaching is accompanying where you’re not imparting knowledge, you’re next to students as they’re figuring stuff out. In some ways it’s a lot of work and in other ways it’s hard to mess up. It’s natural work.
GC: Any writing advice you often give?
EE: One of the keys is to find your voice. Find your real voice, your authentic self, which is connected to being comfortable with your real self. Especially in first-year writing, students can feel like they have to write in a certain way grammatically. But they have to write with a voice. The best writing comes from real voices, writing for real reasons. As much as possible effective writing teachers work on that: creating real situations for writers to write from their voices about things that matter.
GC: What makes a great professor?
EE: What makes a great professor is the same thing that makes a great student, and that’s a love of learning. And passion about the material, which means an intellectual honesty and commitment to discovery about your disciplinary area and your students.
GC: How do you create a safe classroom environment where the “truth” can still be valued?
EE: You create an environment that may not be safe in the sense that everyone feels just fine, but an environment that is about respect—then to use a really scary word: love. If everyone understands that they are respected, taken seriously and cared about, you can pursue really hard topics that make people uncomfortable. That couldn’t be a more important skill, to learn how to disagree with one another and do one’s best work no matter what.