Dr. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is the most recent addition to the creative writing faculty. Her writing has recently appeared in Hippocampus and Brevity. She has worked as a freelance researcher for various media organizations including MTV, where she was the first person to compile research on the show that would later become the nationwide hit Teen Mom. Her teaching and writing interests include memoir, the personal essay, cultural criticism, and Narrative Medicine.
JT: When did you start teaching at NKU? How has your experience been so far at NKU?
JCH: I started at NKU in August 2014, and it’s been amazing. I have never had more enthusiastic students, and my colleagues go out of their way to be supportive of me. Everyone has been very welcoming as I find my place here.
JT: I remember the first time I really fell in love with creative writing and why. What sparked your passion for creative writing?
JCH: Like most writers, I fell in love with reading first. I grew up in two very small, mountainous towns–one in WV that was under 2,000 people, and one in VA that was under 3,000. Reading was my primary way of learning about different people and places. And it was by reading that I knew I wanted to write. I remember being a freshman in college and reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Nickel and Dimed. What I loved about that book is that it translated the realities of the working poor to a wealthy, elite readership. The translation wasn’t perfect, but it was the first time I’d ever read anything that even attempted to do that. As someone who had grown up in Appalachia and moved to uber-wealthy Manhattan, I knew I wanted to write literary nonfiction that bridged the divide between those two cultures, which is something that I struggled to do in my daily life. And I knew I wanted to write in a way that promoted social justice.
JT: How did that passion for creative writing transfer to a passion for teaching?
JCH: I never set out to teach, and yet, learning how to teach (it’s a constant learning process) has been the most meaningful intellectual and artistic experience of my life. Writing, particularly memoir writing, requires me to search inward. Like most memoirists, I don’t always like what I find there! Teaching is the opposite; all of my attention is focused on other people. It’s a much more comfortable stance. All that said, teaching is by no means some selfless act. I learned more about writing during my first semester of teaching writing (during the second year of my MFA program) than I had in K-12, college, and the first year of my MFA combined. I am constantly learning how to write by teaching others how to write.
JT: I know a number of students plan on being writers and professors after they graduate, myself included. What advice would you give to those students?
JCH: I think flexibility is key. I majored in Middle Eastern Studies in college. When September 11th happened I was actually in Cairo, Egypt on my junior year abroad. I interned at several newspapers and thought that with my knowledge of the Middle East and newspaper reporting experience, I’d have no problem getting a journalism job, especially with all the chaos in the region. But then, within a span of a few years that happened to coincide with my college years, the internet decimated the entire field of journalism. Newspapers folded, thousands of people were laid off, and the remaining news organizations closed most of their foreign bureaus. I had planned very carefully how to get a job after college, and it didn’t matter at all because the entire world had turned upside down. You just can’t plan for that; what you can do is be flexible. Think about what skills you have. Think about what the world needs. If there is anything that you know would make you absolutely miserable, cross that off your list, but be open to everything else. Be especially open to career paths you’ve never even considered. I never in a million years thought I’d be a college professor because, well, I really didn’t like college that much, and I was very happy to graduate and get the heck out of there. I never thought I’d go to graduate school. It was only years later that I opened my mind to it, and now I consider academia a place where I can contribute and a place where I feel at home. My point is that the world is going to change in extreme ways that we have no ability to predict. The “practical” major of today can easily become the major of the unemployed tomorrow, and vice-versa. The great thing about becoming an expert in the English language, and learning how to think critically and creatively, is that these are extremely flexible, transferable, and durable skills.
JT: I know you have work that is in the process of being published. Tell us about that.
JCH: Yes, I have a memoir that is currently with an agent in NYC. We are in the final stages before shopping it to publishers. Because it’s still in that stage I can’t say much more than that, but what I can say is that I wholeheartedly agree with George Orwell, who said that writing a book is like having some horrible, exhausting illness. It has been worth it, because one’s first book is, of course, where one learns how to write a book, but I will be very glad when the process is over and I can move on.
JT: Any other advice, thoughts, etc.?
JCH: One thing that sustains me through long workdays is knowing I will get to encounter my students’ lives on the page, in all of their glorious complexity, diversity, hilarity, and tragedy. I feel so privileged to help people write about their lives, and I learn so much about the world through what my students write. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’ve ever thought you have a true story to tell, I hope you’ll consider taking a Creative Nonfiction workshop!
Dr. Andrea Gazzaniga, Assistant Professor of English, discusses her latest projects and how she became an English professor—as well as why she feels close reading skills are so utterly important.
How did you know you wanted to focus on English studies?
I’ve always loved the way literature allows me to engage with people who inhabit distant times and lands. Reading all types of literature makes me feel connected to the world. Reading poetry especially intensifies my experience of life because it articulates feelings and thoughts that we all share and yet believe to be ineffable. The way poetry captures in words an idea, an impulse, whatever, is pure joy.
Why did you want to become a professor?
I did not realize English studies could be a profession until my last year in college when a few of my English professors encouraged me to pursue my passion for literature further. I distinctly remember turning in my last college essay for a Jane Austen class and wandering around campus in a daze. I ended up on a bench by the lake crying my heart out. I thought, “I’ll never be able to discuss and write about literature like this again!” Very melodramatic. That same afternoon I was walking through the library and my Shakespeare professor said, “You need to seriously consider academia as a profession. You could do it.” A profession? I had no idea that was possible! I always thought my professors were fairies who magically appeared for class to feed my mind with ideas and then retreated back to the forest for supper and a nap. I had no understanding that they actually worked for a living! I decided I needed to figure out whether or not I liked teaching, so I taught English as a second language in Morocco (long story) and realized I absolutely loved it. So, being a professor weds my love for research and writing about literature and my love for teaching. The combination of intellectual pursuit through scholarship and inspiring students to intellectually engage with texts in the classroom is my idea of a perfect life.
I recently listened to a paper you gave at the MMLA conference, and it was fascinating. Can you summarize it for us?
First of all, I was so honored to be on a panel with you and Mary Ann Samyn. What a treat! I created a special session called “The Pedagogy of Poetry” to address, among other things, my question: How can teachers of poetry cultivate close reading skills while still preserving a sense of wonder and ambiguity? My specific paper, “The Ethics of Close Reading a Poem,” argued for the importance of teaching close reading skills not only as a means of textual analysis but also as an embodiment of ethical behavior. Close reading asks students to listen to what a text is saying rather than make assumptions or guesses about what it is saying based on preconceived notions and expectations. In this way, teaching students to close read is a way to resist prejudicial thinking.
Tell us about your recent publication.
I published an article on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and its revisionist take on the Western genre. Specifically, l examine the way the film challenges and revises the female archetypes in the Western tradition. I have another article under review on the Victorian poets Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper who wrote under the male pseudonym Michael Field.
What are you working on now?
I have a couple of projects going right now. I am currently writing a pedagogcial piece on integrating creative assignments into literature courses. I’m also finishing an article on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. Next up is a journal article on George Meredith’s sonnet sequence Modern Love.
Any advice for current students and recent grads?
Stay engaged. For current students, talk to your professors about the material you are studying in class. Ask a lot of questions. Being able to ask the crucial questions about something is a skill that will serve you well in whatever you choose to do.