Department of English

  • Writing Isn’t What It Used to Be

    Not until I became a college professor did I contemplate the gap between the writing I had been taught and the writing I had practiced in the working world.

    Alison ChapmanIn my seven years as chair of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of English, I have often reflected, with a certain ironic amusement and—yes—nostalgia, on the kind of writing I did, decades ago, as an English major at a small liberal arts college. We were asked to produce finely crafted, carefully researched essays with a thesis sentence right up front, in which we leaned attentively into the work of interpretation and analysis. I loved writing these polished little essays. I was good at them. And because I was good at them, I later turned out to be good at being a scholar, which is part of what I do as a university professor.

    But that’s not the whole story. After graduation and subsequent employment, I realized that the kind of writing I had been taught wasn’t necessarily the kind of writing my various supervisors wanted from me. I scrambled to figure out how to craft a concise memo, how to understand the audience for a grant proposal, how to construct a survey, how to combine words and images into an effective flyer, how to write a firm newsletter where no one expected—or wanted—to encounter a thesis statement. I figured these things out in part because my undergraduate education had taught me how to stick with a problem and had developed in me the basic building blocks of elegant, effective communication. But still, I had to figure them out.

    It wasn’t until I became a college professor and thereby a writing teacher that I began truly contemplating the gap between the writing I had been taught and the writing that I had practiced in the working world. Digital communications have recently made this gap even wider. In a typical day, I might write text for a new departmental website with an eye to how portions could be repurposed for social media and or an email newsletter—and how those might later form the basis of a new podcast series or be the seedbed for a marketing campaign. The truth is that I love this kind of writing too. It’s shaggier and more sprawling than the serenely contained essays of my college years. It feels more dynamic. My writing has also gotten more creative, in that I’ve realized how much a feel for narrative and imagery can transform any piece of writing: even a memo benefits from a recognizable sense of voice, and the best websites, at heart, tell a story.

    My ideal curriculum would give students a working familiarity with many kinds of writing: literary analysis, fiction, technical writing, and others. Each of these offers different lessons: literary analysis is about preferring open-ended questions to pat answers; fiction is about creativity and nuance; technical writing is about precision and the need for fact. Also in my ideal curriculum, students would become savvy digital users, as comfortable with desktop publishing and video editing software as with the trusty word processor.

    Increasingly, my UAB colleagues and I have been working to transform these ideals into the lived reality of our classrooms. I’m seeing more freshman writing classes that emphasize creativity. More literature classes that require students to draw on an awareness of new media. More linguistics classes that ask students to use sophisticated digital tools. This last example represents one of the most significant changes of the past few years; to adopt a metaphor from the sciences, one might call it a kind of pedagogical red shift. There are simply more digital—and digitally inventive—assignments than ever before.

    Examples of this abound at all levels, but because I’ve been thinking here about my own evolution as a writer, I’ll point to a History of the Book class I’m teaching this semester. This course is a rollicking ride from papyrus scrolls through illuminated manuscripts through Kindle e-books. Recently, I asked students to visit UAB’s medical history library, choose a book from before 1500 (that’s right, before 1500), and then create a digital microsite that chronicles what it’s like to handle pages and bindings that are half a millennium old.

    I smile wryly to myself as I compare this assignment to the ones presented me as an undergraduate. I don’t mean that my History of the Book assignment is better just because it has a sparkling, digital shine. My college essays—which I bet were the traditionally stodgy five paragraphs—taught me a prodigious amount about wrestling complex ideas into disciplined sentences. But there were things those assignments didn’t teach me. I want our students to be presented with writing and critical thinking challenges that I did not face and to emerge with digital and technical proficiencies that took me half a career to develop. If my colleagues and I can do that—and we’re getting better at it every year—I think we’ll have done admirable work.

    Alison Chapman, Ph.D., is the chair of the Department of English.

  • I am Arts and Sciences: Taylor Byas

    Through language, poets help us better understand and navigate life. However, the journey to a career in poetry is not always clear (or easy).

    Taylor ByasThrough language, poets help us better understand and navigate life. However, the journey to a career in poetry is not always clear (or easy).

    For Taylor Byas, a renowned poet who is pursuing her Ph.D. in Creative Writing at the University of Cincinnati, her dream of becoming a writer emerged when she was a child.

    “I’ve been a bookworm since I can remember,” said Byas. “I think I always knew that I wanted to pursue English and to pursue something that has to do with language.”

    Although English was her first passion, she found herself on the pre-medicine track when she arrived at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2013. She chose this path because her mother was a successful doctor, and because several people questioned her future career prospects if she focused on English solely.

    “Along the way, I let people discourage me… I let them ask ‘What are you going to do with an English degree?’” said Byas.

    She stuck with pre-med for a year, but, deep down, she felt out-of-sync with the coursework. Eventually, after receiving support and encouragement from her emerging network of friends and mentors, she pivoted back into the English program.

    “I stepped into the confidence to be fully myself,” said Byas. “UAB created a culture of perseverance. It also instilled a mindset in me—of not being afraid to fail and believing in my ideas.”

    As her confidence grew, so did her talent. While pursuing her B.A. in the Department of English, Byas’ creative voice shined, and, before she knew it, she was considering the department’s graduate program. Immediately after earning her bachelor’s degree in 2017, she matriculated into the M.A. program with a focus on creative writing.

    “My master’s degree, specifically, is where I found my voice in writing,” said Byas. “It was the support of that wonderful department… I was loved and believed in—well before I found it for myself. That support system was so crucial.”

    Along with finding her voice, Byas also benefited from the overall rigor of the program.

    “I think we never really know…how rigorous something is until we step out of it and apply those things,” said Byas. “When I arrived at my Ph.D. program, I found myself not struggling. I really have had a fairly smooth time in my doctorate degree.”

    Her smooth transition into her doctoral program also allowed her the space and time to launch a fruitful career as a poet and writer. Over the past year, she secured a literary agent, released her first chapbook of poetry, sold her first full-length book manuscript to Soft Skull Press, and won the Adrienne Rich Poetry Prize—a series of significant milestones for a young poet.

    “This last year has been incredibly busy and also life-changing in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated,” said Byas.

    Byas maintains a down-to-earth and welcoming demeanor amidst her noteworthy achievements. Although she recognizes her talents and creative voice brought her to this moment, she also credits much of her success to her network—her community.

    “We aren’t designed to do this life alone. Finding your people, finding your community, is one of the most meaningful and important things you can do for yourself,” said Byas. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without the community I found and created.”

  • An interview with Ashley M. Jones, the next Alabama Poet Laureate

    Ashley M. Jones, an alumna of the UAB Department of English, was recently appointed to serve as the next Poet Laureate of Alabama.

    Ashley M. Jones, an alumna of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of English, was recently appointed to serve as the next Poet Laureate of Alabama. She holds an MFA from Florida International University and currently lives in Birmingham, where she teaches creative writing at the Alabama School of Fine Arts. She also co-directs PEN Birmingham , is the founding director of the Magic City Poetry Festival , is part of the Core Faculty of the Converse College Low Residency MFA Program, and recently served as guest editor for Poetry Magazine . Her collections include Magic City Gospel, dark // thing, and Reparations Now! 

    Ashley M. Jones, Poet Laureate of AlabamaSo, how does it feel to be the next Alabama Poet Laureate?

    Jones: It feels really amazing. I'm very grateful that people trust me to do the job, you know. And I'm obviously very proud to be a Black woman doing the job. I'm the first person of color ever to hold the position in the history of our state, which is something that we need to definitely contend with…I'm just very excited to serve and to represent this really amazing community of writers…I want our state to be a premier literary destination. 

    If you want to elaborate on this, what does it mean to be the first Black woman to hold this position?

    Jones: It means a lot. It's not lost on me that is taken 91 years for this to occur… Thinking back to being a young person and looking for those role models who looked like me—that was so important to see, you know. I will always remember my first-grade teacher, Ms. Hafeezah Abdur-Rasheed at EPIC elementary school, because she just was so incredible, and for me to see a Black woman who was so smart, so just on point, always…And of course, having my mom be an example to me—those things matter, you know. To have someone who looks like you, who shares your experience, doing the things that you dream of doing… So, I'm hoping that by me existing, as whatever it is that I am, and holding whatever title that I hold, maybe that can help someone else to feel more possible.

    What are your thoughts on representation in literature in society? 

    Jones: Yeah, I think representation is so very important… For me reading a poem or a novel about Black people by a Black person means more, perhaps…Makes you feel that you can actually tell your own story. If we think back to the slave narratives…sometimes there had to be a preface written by their white benefactor, to say that this is all good; I signed off on it. That does something to a Black reader—and as a White reader actually—you’re being sent the message that this person's voice is only valid because somebody else said it is. But if instead the book is written by the person and we believe it just because they have written it, that says a lot as well…I'd like to walk into the mirror of literature and see myself reflected back.

    Do you have any thoughts on or suggestions for how we answer the deep issues in our state and country’s history? 

    Jones: I've always been so focused on pointing out what actually happened and on operating in truths only, not in your imagined history…[The system] was made to hurt people—So, with something like this, you know, 91 years of poets laureate and now the first non-white person holding it, I think if we all kind of sit with that for a moment…And then, engaging the full community, instead of staying in your little silo…I think work like that is what can help, because obviously we can't fix the century it took to have somebody hold this position, but we can move forward in a meaningful way.

    Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?

    Jones: Yes. I consider myself to be a feminist in the lineage of people like Audre Lorde or bell hooks, which is very important to say…Feminism has also struggled with its ties to the white patriarchy. So, I follow an intersectional of feminist model, which allows me to celebrate the issues of my people within the framework of feminism… We have to celebrate those differences that we have, and not play into those structures that oppress in the first place.

    What advice would you give to young poets?

    Jones: First of all, you're already a poet. Even if you just wrote one poem, you're a poet already. There's not an application process…I also tell students “Your work is already complete.” When you write it, no matter what draft it is, it's complete. So, if we're workshopping it, we're not trying to fix it or make it complete. We're just refining what's already there… So, I would just tell them to learn to value themselves, because that's the thing is going to carry them through. If I had not realized that being Ashley Jones was enough, I would not be sitting here as Poet Laureate of Alabama.

    How do you feel that relates to something like publishing? 

    Jones: I'll start by saying, the reason I'm able to even think of it that way, I think it's because I teach from a feminist perspective. Because this idea that we are having to work enough or work to a certain level: that's a patriarchal idea. It's not serving any of us well, you know… And as far as submitting to journals, I mean, that's such a subjective process. You just don't know…I encourage the students to submit any place they want to do. But I also try to be realistic with them as well. Like if you're looking to build up your publication history, try smaller journals first. They have less submissions to go through, so they might actually see your work and be able to actually spend time with it. And if they’re submitting to a journal and they're like, “oh, but I'm just in high school. Should I let them know that's where I am?” I say, “well first of all, it doesn't matter where you are: if a poem’s good, a poem’s good.” If they're really doing their job like they’re supposed to, they're not going to be looking at what age you are.

    Who have been some of your main influences?

    Jones: I always loved listening to my family speak. Like, I mentioned earlier, if you speak Southern, that's poetry. So like hearing grandmothers, aunts, uncles, mom, dad, whatever, speaking; that's always been amazing to me. As far as poets go, you know, Eloise Greenfield was my entry into poetry, then Rita Dove and Lucile Clifton. Kevin Young was huge for me in college… And now it's a lot of my peers and colleagues, who inspire me a lot. And Jacqueline Trimble, who is in Montgomery, Alabama; she is a huge inspiration to me…And then my students inspire me all the time. They are just so creative. When the student is allowed to truly explore and to feel safe in that exploration, they are going to create some of the most incredible, innovative, thought-provoking, emotional pieces that anyone's ever seen. 

    How are you feeling about the release of your third collection?

    Jones: I feel so excited. I love all my book children equally, but this book, I think, is truly the one where I feel the most myself. And I felt that I didn't have to prove anything anymore. I'm just writing as me…I feel like I'm my most self-actualized in life, so in this book I am also my most self-actualized on the page.

    What are some of the projects you're working on right now? 

    Jones: Well, I am releasing my book [Reparations Now!]…I'm also trying to move into the prose space. I'm trying to write a memoir. I have a few essays out from that already…I'm thinking of doing some [essays] that are partially personal essay and partially critical essay. 

    The Magic City Poetry Festival slogan this year was “poetry is for everybody” and you mentioned bell hooks earlier, so I wanted to know, what do you mean by “poetry is for everybody?”

    Jones: Well, I mean exactly what it says: poetry is for every single person. There is a belief, I think, that poems have to be super hard to understand and they're just for the learned of us. But that's not true. Everybody interacts with poetry on a daily basis, you know…For me and for the MCPF, we are trying to make sure that everybody knows they have access to this art form and that it can be helpful to them… That's what I love about some of my poetry heroes, like sister Sonia [Sanchez], who I met. She made me a cup of tea—like if you understand what this woman has done in life…all the gifts she has bestowed upon the world. She deserves all the respect ever—The fact that she made little old me, little Ashley from Alabama, a cup of tea, with her own hands? Okay. That to me is the spirit of “poetry is for everybody,” you know…And that's the kind of thing that I want to spread everywhere. I want us to feel like we're all fighting the same fight. We're all here together. 

    What are some of your favorite moments from your writing career so far?

    The first one deals with my dad. He passed this year, which still seems very not real…When he was still alive, I was commissioned to write a poem for the Southern Foodways Alliance, because they were having their annual meeting here in Birmingham. So, I decided I was going to write about my dad's gardening. So, I interviewed him, and he told me all these stories about gardening as a child and how they did it out of necessity back then…We’ve always had a garden in our backyard and eaten all these amazing vegetables and fruits that my dad has grown. So, I wrote this poem about him, called “Photosynthesis,” and I invited my parents to come…he had never heard it. And it was like right after his birthday too, so I was sneaky…So, I do my last poem, which is the poem for him—and in this poem, I talked about gardening and how he has taken care of us—and is still taking care of us. I mean, we ate his harvest after he passed away…There are so many ways that he planted things for us to reap forever. At the time I didn't know that. I was just writing a poem…So, I read the poem. And I looked out to the audience—and my dad was not a man who cried very often, at least not in front of us. I maybe saw him cry like one time in life, maybe like one and a half—but I looked up and my dad was wiping his eyes, and my mom was like ‘he was crying. He was crying!” and I felt so proud. I was like wow, first of all, I got him [laughs]. But, also, I'm so glad I was able to. There's this phrase “give people their flowers while they yet live.” I could give him flowers, right in front of him. I could tell this group of people, “My dad's awesome. Here is why.” I could tell my dad, “You're awesome, Here is why,” you know. And all of that just from writing a poem.

    This article is based on an interview conducted by Ash Tippit for 100 Days in Appalachia, a nonprofit, collaborative newsroom telling the complex stories of the region that deserve to be heard. Read the original story here and sign up for their weekly newsletter here.

  • Lila Miranda (“Randa”) Graves – In Remembrance

    The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and the English Department are saddened by the passing of Dr. Lila Miranda (“Randa”) Graves, emerita associate professor of English.

    The University of Alabama at Birmingham’s College of Arts and Sciences and the English Department are saddened by the passing of Dr. Lila Miranda (“Randa”) Graves, emerita associate professor of English. Graves received her B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from Auburn University with a focus on 18th-century literature, and she began teaching at UAB in 1975. A respected reviewer, author, and presenter in her area of scholarly expertise, Graves was especially valued for her complete commitment to the UAB community. She was a deeply dedicated teacher, and even after retirement, she continued to teach because she couldn’t bear to be out of the classroom. Graves was also known and admired for her institutional good citizenship, as exemplified by her service as the UAB Faculty Senate secretary and then president. She was a woman of exceptional integrity and, above all, good humor with a smile always ready for everyone. The UAB community is lessened by her absence, and we extend our sincerest support to the Graves family.

  • Free arts events this fall from UAB’s ArtPlay, AEIVA, Arts in Medicine

    Free, fun activities from UAB’s arts organizations will feature both virtual and in-person events, from lunch and learns to family days, dance performance, spoken word and coloring nights.

  • UAB alumna named Alabama’s 12th poet laureate

    A UAB College of Arts and Sciences alumna has been named the 12th Alabama state poet laureate.

  • See “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration” exhibition

    UAB’s Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts will host “Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” exploring the work of imprisoned artists and the centrality of incarceration to contemporary art and culture, on view from Sept. 17-Dec. 11.

  • CAS faculty, staff collect three state arts council grants

    Kerry Madden-Lunsford, Stacey Holloway and Melissa Yes each were awarded a $5,000 fellowship to further their work and research: finishing a novel, studying animal behavior and ethology, and producing two new art exhibits.

  • Department of English presents online SPARK Writing Festival, from July 18 to 31

    The annual SPARK Writing Festival offers fiction, nonfiction and poetry workshops for writers of all experience levels and free community events including guest speakers.

  • Two UAB students earn spots in State Department’s first virtual language-immersion programs

    With an acceptance rate of less than 10 percent, the Critical Language Scholarship is one of the most competitive scholarships in the United States and the most prestigious language program for U.S. students.

  • What 10 mentors learned from teaching graduate students and postdocs

    Ten graduate faculty were honored with the UAB Graduate Dean’s Excellence in Mentorship Award for exceptional work with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

  • Celebrate 23 books authored by CAS faculty in 2020

    Writing a book isn’t easy, but faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences produced nearly two-dozen — for the second year in a row. Twenty faculty from 13 departments wrote books on police violence, John Milton, democracy in Bangladesh, addiction, postcommunist theatre and more.

  • Department of English announces 2021 Faculty Awards

    Two Department of English faculty members are being recognized for their commitment to excellence in teaching and composition this year.

    By: Dena Pruett

    Two Department of English faculty members are being recognized for their commitment to excellence in teaching and composition this year.

    Core Teaching Award

    Assistant Professor Joseph Wood is this year’s winner of the Core Teaching Award. This award was established by a community advisory committee years ago as a way to honor excellent classroom instruction in 100- and 200-level courses. Wood has taught a wide variety of courses and is especially gifted at creating a dynamic discussion environment.

    Wood is the author of four books and five chapbooks of poetry, which include YOU. (Etruscan, 2015) and Broken Cage (Brooklyn Arts, 2014; finalist for 2013 National Poetry Series). His work has appeared widely, in journals such as Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Indiana Review, North American Review, and Verse Daily, among others. At UAB, he teaches world literature, creative writing, and composition.

    The Walt Mayfield Adjunct Teaching Award

    This year’s winner of the The Walt Mayfield Adjunct Teaching Award is Sally Anne Perz. Much like the namesake of the award, Perz is a positive and encouraging teacher. She currently teaches EH 102 and tutors in the University Writing Center.

    Perz recently graduated from UAB with a M.A. in English with a concentration in Rhetoric and Composition. She hopes to continue her project on the rhetoric of oppression and exclusion. Though she has a lifelong passion for literature, she specifically chose rhetoric to focus her studies on anti-racist pedagogy and designing anti-racist curricula.

  • Art-inspired spoken word and poetry event March 30

    UAB Department of English students will virtually perform poetry and spoken word inspired by artworks on display at the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts.

  • UAB to host award-winning writer Saeed Jones on March 10

    Poet and memoirist Saeed Jones will speak in a virtual event presented by the Department of English through UAB’s Jemison Visiting Professorship in the Humanities Endowment.

  • Minnix named director of Signature Core Curriculum

    Associate Professor of English and Director of Freshman Composition Chris Minnix, Ph.D., is the new director of UAB’s Signature Core Curriculum, a broad array of courses slated to launch in fall 2022.

  • UAB English professor awarded National Endowment for the Arts fellowship

    Poet Lauren Goodwin Slaughter has been awarded a $25,000 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.

  • Creative Cloud programs can enrich coursework, increase student engagement

    Learn to use Adobe Creative Cloud to develop a range of compelling and meaningful multimedia projects in the classroom.

  • Creating community in the classroom — wherever that is

    Five faculty share the tools, tweaks and shifts in mindset that helped them build connections with students during the fall semester.

  • Docu-series tells stories from Alabama’s past to forge a better future

    The first installment, “Bending the Arc: The Vote,” which tells the stories of Black people and white allies who fought for racial justice during the 1960s, is the collaborative effort of retired and current UAB employees and community partners.