Simone Billings: Writing Around the World
English professor Simone Billings has taught writing courses at Santa Clara since 1980. Dr. Billings has a fascinating family background and multiple teaching experiences abroad. She has also served on numerous committees at Santa Clara, published dozens of papers and co-authored a writing textbook.
In this conversation, we cover Dr. Billings’ Fulbright scholarship running writing workshops in the West Indies, her career path, and how Santa Clara University has evolved throughout the years.
Selected Interview Highlights
Gavin Cosgrave: What was your childhood like?
Simone Billings: I’m a born-and-raised San Franciscan. I was the first-born to parents from two different countries. It was fortuitous that they chose to live in San Francisco, because it did not have miscegenation laws, and their marriage was seen as legal. Had they settled in certain other states after the war, their marriage wouldn’t have been legalized. My father is originally from Port au Prince, Haiti, and my mother is from Japan. I went to a Japanese Mission school in San Francisco where you had to be Asian and/or Catholic to attend.
I remember my childhood being very interesting because of going from having primarily Asian fellow students then going to another private school that had more of a mix. Some of us weren’t aware that not everyone was Asian. I never played with dolls so much as I played with train sets or pick-up basketball.
GC: Why did you pursue English in college?
SB: I was focused on English in part because English was the language my parents had in common and that’s all I ever heard. I was used to helping them with their English. In grammar school, some of my classmates spoke another language at home. I had been helped since the sixth grade to help students out with their English. I like English, I like literature, I like writing, I like teaching these things.
GC: English sometimes gets a bad reputation for being a less valuable major. What would you tell a student who loved English but was hesitant to declare it as their major?
SB: One reason we think of accounting as a good major is that we have a term “accountant” that goes along with it. No one has ever said, “please don’t come here with good writing skills.” I’ve talked to VP’s of engineering firms while on the train to Santa Clara, and they all say, “teach students to write clear, concise, direct prose. Tell them to stop trying to make it flowery.” The advantage to any degree in the humanities, whether it’s art history, anthropology or English, is that it trains you to do just about anything.
An ex-student of mine who was a double major with English and accounting worked for an accounting firm in downtown San Jose, and brought me in to do workshops there, because he said his staff couldn’t write well.
GC: In 2009, you spent time abroad in the West Indies on a Fulbright scholarship to do English-training workshops. What did you learn from that experience?
SB: The seed for that trip was planted when, in 2005, one of the woman with whom I had been in a doctoral program at Stanford remembered that I had a reputation as a good instructor. She asked me to run a teacher-training workshop at the University of the West Indies to help them revamp their writing program, because fifty percent of the students were failing, and the instructors were blaming the students. I did a teacher training workshop for a week in 2005.
When I decided to apply for a Fulbright in 2009, she had become the first woman president for one of the sites of the University of the West Indies Open Campus, which is all online education. What I did was facilitate teacher-training workshops on several different islands.
One of the things that struck me and humbled me was that in some cases I was the first U.S. citizen the people were talking to. Not in a service-personnel way like a somebody in a hotel might, but that I was sitting and having conversations with these people in my workshops.
The whole island of Barbados is 14 miles by 11 miles but there is just one circular road. In some of the islands, I was on the “Good Morning” program on television. For a teacher training workshop?! As one of the locals in Barbados said, “this is a big deal that you’re doing this for our people, assisting students to get better at writing.”
GC: What has been the most influential thing you’ve published?
SB: The argumentation textbook [that I co-authored] surprises me, because it’s now in the sixth edition. My co-author and I do not ask for another edition, but our publishers tell us that it’s doing well, and they ask for another edition. One of the book’s hallmarks in the industry is that it has student essays. Some of my students who I taught in my first-year writing class who are now seniors can say that they are published authors. I love showcasing Santa Clara students, because in my view that’s what education is all about.
GC: What do you view as your biggest accomplishment?
SB: Frankly, I think it’s dumb that the thing that occurs to me doesn’t often get seen as a major accomplishment. Professionally, I think one of the accomplishments that pleases me the most is the lasting relationships with my students. I’m going to a conference in Minneapolis, and I emailed one of my students who graduated in the 1980’s. Just last month, I went to an ex-student’s wedding. In part, isn’t that why people pay the big bucks to come to Santa Clara? It has to do with the smaller class size and that you can build relationships.
GC: If you could send a message to every person in the United States, what would you say?
Show empathy, because even when it comes to something like road rage or someone who you made an appointment with isn’t there, you never know what is happening with someone else. Assume, “I don’t know why you just treated me meanly, but I’m going to be kind in return.”
GC: If you had to start a totally different career, what would want to try?
SB: I would bake. I bake for my classes occasionally, biscotti and brownies and other things.