F or a whole semester, Patricia Sullivan did her own homework. The English professor ventured into the wee hours of the morning, typing papers on topics she had chosen, questions she had posed, and discussions she had spearheaded in her honors course, Introduction to Prose Writing. At the end of the semester, Sullivan wrote a letter to her students.

“I’d drag my weary body to bed and wonder what in the world I was thinking back in August when I typed that line in the syllabus that said I’d be writing right along with you. But looking back on my portfolio now, I have to say it was worth it.”

Sullivan’s investment of time, students say, is matched by her level of engagement.

She is one of three faculty members leading the Ph.D. program in composition and splits her course load of American literature, cultural studies, and composition between graduates and undergraduates. The hours she spends in the classroom rival those spent meeting with students individually for writing and dissertation conferences. She mentors new English 401 teaching assistants and supervises experienced T.A.s and composition instructors. In her department, she holds the record for directing the most Ph.D. dissertations, at least 12, in the last ten years, according to English department chair Rochelle Lieber.

“Students in English 401 and 501 frequently comment that they entered her class dreading to write,” says Lieber, “but they leave with a new confidence and even a new love for writing.

“Pat is at the same time encouraging and kind, but also rigorous and tough. Students say that she is open and funny, that she makes herself available, and that she is excellent at giving constructive criticism on their writing.”

Recently, Sullivan developed a literature course in contemporary nonfiction because she found it dovetailed with her interest in forms of personal writing.

“There wasn’t any such course here,” Sullivan says. “I had been reading a lot of memoirs—compelling, even haunting works—and was vexed with questions like the ones I put to the students. “Memoir—nonfiction—especially, is an up-and-coming genre. I had been teaching it as writing but not teaching it as literature.”

Sullivan and her students read books such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. The characters and their journeys prompted questions and conversations. They raised the issues of choice, race, background, and identity. What kind of choice does a character such as Frank McCourt’s mother have, Sullivan asked her students, as a poor, Irish Catholic woman running a household without enough money or support to raise her growing family?

“We would just get into those books,” Sullivan says. “I never experienced those long periods of awkward silence, unless it was a contemplative silence. You could almost hear people thinking about those hard questions. We’d have these fascinating and fundamental discussions about where a choice takes us. From there, I like to ask students to examine their own lives and the degree to which they have choices.”

She began by assigning response papers. She ended the semester by asking students to write memoirs. Their homework became her muse.

“I treat student writing as I would a work of literature,” Sullivan says, “What can it tell me about our culture? If we take student writing seriously, I think it has at least as much to tell us as literature.”

Bronwyn Williams, assistant professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, studied with Sullivan while earning his Ph.D. at UNH. Sullivan’s probing questions, he says, were what led him to his degree.

“If it hadn’t been for Pat, I would not have gone back to graduate school in the first place,” Williams says. “I think she’s brilliant intellectually, but, what I valued even more, was that as a teacher she would raise new questions for me and point out things I might need to work on but in a way that I’d be eager to get back to. I always left her office feeling there was more work I wanted to do.”

—Jennifer Vento, UNH News Bureau



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College of Liberal Arts, Patricia A. Sullivan

Patricia A. Sullivan with student Megan Fulwiler, Hamilton Smith Hall

Patricia A. Sullivan, associate professor of English, College of Liberal Arts, with student Megan Fulwiler, Hamilton Smith Hall, University of New Hampshire, Durham, N.H.


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