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.
Id 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 Id be writing right along with you. But looking
back on my portfolio now, I have to say it was worth it.
Sullivans 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 wasnt any such course here, Sullivan
says. I had been reading a lot of memoirscompelling, even
haunting worksand was vexed with questions like the ones I put to
the students. Memoirnonfictionespecially, 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 McCourts
Angelas Ashes, Mary Karrs The Liars Club, and Caroline
Knapps 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 McCourts 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. Wed 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
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
Bronwyn Williams, assistant professor at the University
of Louisville in Kentucky, studied with Sullivan while earning his Ph.D.
at UNH. Sullivans probing questions, he says, were what led him
to his degree.
If it hadnt been for Pat, I would not have
gone back to graduate school in the first place, Williams says.
I think shes 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 Id
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