Dr. Tonya Krouse (center) with Ashley Theissen (left) and Lauren Kaplan (right), Graduation 2009
Dr. Tonya Krouse, Associate Professor of English, shares how she became an English major and professor as well as her recent publications and projects and advice for students and alums.
How did you decide on English as a major?
Nobody is more shocked than I am that I ended up having a career as an English professor. When I was a kid, I never dreamed of being a teacher, and when I was older, when I first went to college, I thought that people who majored in things like “English” were weird, stupid people who didn’t have a practical bone in their bodies. I ultimately did earn my B.A. in English in 1996 from Kent State University. But I didn’t start out as an English major, and it was really hard for me to accept that I should become one.
I was one of the first people in my family to go to college. It was even hard for me to convince my mom that I should go to a four-year university, and not just community college, and beyond that to go to a university where I wouldn’t commute and live at home. (I’m from Cleveland: Kent was only an hour and fifteen minutes away, but that was a world away in terms of my family’s expectations.)
But if I was going to go to college, just to make the case to my parents that it made sense, I needed to have a clear career path. So I started off in college as journalism major with a political science minor. Journalism, because I always liked writing and excelled at it, and it was a major that had a clear connection to a job, and political science because I’d seen All the President’s Men and fancied myself as a person who would expose some great government conspiracy and become famous.
It never occurred to me that I could major in English until my professor in my freshmen writing course suggested that I’d be suited to it, and even that I might think about becoming a professor myself. I thought that she was nuts. It’s so long ago now that I don’t quite remember my reaction to her, but it might be true that I laughed. In the end, though, her suggestion stuck with me, and I decided to switch, after much soul-searching and many tears, in my junior year. And then once I did that, I picked up minors in women’s studies and writing.
When did you know you wanted to be a professor?
From the time I changed my major, I was fairly certain that I would like to pursue a career as a professor. It’s worth noting that neither my grades nor my GRE scores were perfect, and my undergraduate adviser discouraged me from applying because “there is no way you’ll get into a top program.” Because I was incredibly naïve, I ignored that advice, but through a combination of hard work and luck I managed to get accepted to excellent graduate programs – I earned my M.A. from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 1997 and my Ph.D. from Brandeis University in 2004 – and to beat the odds to find a tenure-track job right out of graduate school.
I pursued a Ph.D. in English because I enjoyed reading, research, and writing criticism. I did not learn that I enjoyed teaching until I was forced by the terms of my funding to do it. Honestly, if I had been drawn to teaching in the first place I would have become a high school teacher and avoided the stress of getting a Ph.D. and going on the academic job market! But once I taught, I discovered that I love teaching and that it is one of the most enriching parts of my work.
Can you tell us a bit about your recent essay publications?
Recently, I’ve published an article about gender politics and nostalgia in the AMC television series Mad Men and an article in The Virginia Woolf Miscellany about representations of nature in Woolf’s novel The Years. I also was invited to write an article about the place of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook in the canon of twentieth-century literature for a forthcoming essay collection honoring the fiftieth anniversary of The Golden Notebook’s publication.
What is your current project?
Currently, I am finishing my book, Deviant Domesticities and Female Creativity: Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith, which discusses how women writers depict domestic spaces as ones in which gendered ideals about “women’s work” and artistic work intersect and conflict. I’ve presented portions of my research at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture after 1900, the American Comparative Literature Association Conference, and the International Conference on Virginia Woolf. I am also envisioning my next project, tentatively titled Pleasure and Terror: Temporal Aesthetics in the Modern and Contemporary British Novel. In January, I will present the first ideas related to that project on a panel called “Terrorism and Temporality,” which has been identified in the program as one of a select group that best represents the convention theme “Vulnerable States,” at the Modern Language Association Convention in Chicago.
What advice do you have for students and alums?
- Take courses with as many different professors as you can; don’t just find one professor you like and only take courses with him or her. If you need references for jobs or recommendations for graduate or professional school, you want to have at least a handful of people who know you fairly well and whom you could legitimately ask.
- Going along with that, don’t feel like you need to specialize within the major while doing your undergraduate work. Yes, the major has tracks, but it also has electives. I truly believe that students should use those electives to sample courses outside their tracks. The major prepares you for many different kinds of careers, which involve writing, interpretation, presentation, and analysis. If you haven’t been to the Career Services Center to explore the many options that you have, do it!
- Don’t assume that you must earn a graduate degree as a default. Many people have wonderful intellectual lives and rewarding professional lives without going to graduate school.
- Only go to graduate school in Literature to become a professor 1) if the program fully funds your tuition and pays you a stipend, 2) if you are passionate about doing research and writing critical essays, and you have demonstrated talent in those areas, 3) if you understand that getting full-time employment is exceptionally competitive and that you will have no choice about where you live if you are lucky enough to get a tenure-track job. (That’s my doom and gloom advice, but it’s important.)
In spite of recurring attacks on the humanities in general and on English Studies in particular, I truly believe that our discipline continues to evolve and to grow in exciting and challenging ways. Far from being a “boutique” major, the English major is flexible, dynamic, and practical in the ways in which it addresses the needs of the twenty-first-century workplace. Further, our discipline highlights the skills and values essential to engaged citizenship.