A Letter from Dr. Hill
Dear English Majors, Minors, Graduate Students, Alums, and Students Taking English Courses:
When I accepted a job offer from West Georgia College in 1992, many of my friends and colleagues more familiar with the school and its English department than I was at the time told me that I would not be happy here. They talked about the masculine, conservative, behind-the-times faculty, rotary-dial phones, typewriters instead of computers in faculty offices—things like that. I listened then said, in every case, “But they have what I want.” When my befuddled friends would inevitably ask, “What’s that?” I would smile and say, “Some students.”
I had been working in publishing for six years, waiting to find a tenure-eligible teaching job that would let me live in Marietta with my family. The year I applied to West Georgia, I had quit my job in publishing and spent six months (in two separate three-month stretches) at fiction writing fellowships I had received. In between those fellowships, I supervised student teachers in English at Kennesaw State, where my husband taught, and continued to teach my creative writing classes for continuing education at KSU. But I needed students, actual college students in English classes, who were mine for real. I needed students the way Christopher Walken needs more cowbell in the old Saturday Night Live sketch with Will Ferrell. I had to have students as surely as Christopher Walken has to have more cowbell.
For seventeen years West Georgia’s students in English classes have more than fulfilled every expectation I had when I confidently asserted that, no matter what else might be wrong with the school, if I had students, I would be happy. And, oh, the students that I have had. Oh, the students.
When I read the papers of our English majors, minors, grad students, I am so often humbled at the work they do that I feel ashamed of my own inferior work during my undergraduate career. Our students often go so much farther in their thinking and writing than I could have imagined going at the same stage in my development as a practitioner of our discipline that I begin to wonder who is teaching whom in this dynamic. To see the hard work, the intellectual curiosity, the dedication and energy that our students so often bring to the table in our classes is to have one’s dreams as a teacher fulfilled, day in and day out.
If I started to name names, or even classes, I would take up the vast majority of the server space reserved for Footnotes, so I will take a cue from my friend and colleague Andrew Hartley’s farewell letter to the Department. I will say that more students than I can count or name here have touched my life in ways that have shaped me, made me into the teacher and scholar that I have become. You know who you are. I hope you also know that I am eternally grateful and forever in your debt. The joy you have brought to my life is unbounded.
After I complete my Maymester film course and finish working with several graduate students I am currently advising, I will leave UWG to become Professor and Chair of English at Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. My intention was never to leave UWG—my happiness in the Department here and my classes with our students has been too profound to imagine leaving. But, as Robert Frost says in one of his most famous poems, way does lead on to way. Circumstances surprise us, or, as John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans.” As I was planning my happy retirement from your midst in a few years, circumstances shifted, and I found myself in need of moving on.
I write to tell you a few important things:
1. As students, you are blessed to be studying with the finest English faculty I have ever known or heard of, hands down, across the board, from ENGL 1101 to ENGL 6399.
2. You are also blessed by the most professional, kindest, most talented staff working in a major university.
We recently conducted an alumni survey that asked former students what they thought about their experience in the English program. Out of 46 responses, Dr. Hill was mentioned 22 times, all favorably. Here are a few of the comments:
"Working with Dr. Hill profoundly changed my ability to write, think, and relate to literature."
"I always really enjoyed taking Dr. Hill's classes. She always managed to make me look at things differently."
"I would have to say, the best experience was my relationship with Dr. Hill, my advising professor. She encouraged me and mentored me in my studies and gave me opportunities to share my work with others. I will never forget her and what she has done for my educational experience."
"Dr. Hill acted as a mentor teacher to me. She was my thesis advisor and helped me every way possible. I learned more from her in two years than any other time in my life. She was available to help me with class work, career advice, and professional skills. Her help made my experience totally rewarding and useful."
3. You are equally blessed with each other, with the community of scholars that you form within individual classes and in the ways you interact with and support each other beyond the classroom.
4. No professional experience I have had or will have can ever surpass the gifts I have received from the privilege of having been your teacher, mentor, advisor, and, for five-plus years, program Chair. I have never worked and will never work anywhere as long as I have been at West Georgia. You all will be my professional home in the same way that South Carolina has always been and will be my geographic home, even though I haven’t lived there in almost twenty-five years.
When Dean Richard Miller first talked with me about chairing the Department, he gave me the best advice about that work that a novice could receive. He told me that my job as Chair would be to leave the Department and its programs better off than I found them, to hold the place responsibly for the next person to undertake that administrative task, because, in Dean Miller’s view, university administrators are always only place-holders, seeking to make the place they hold as strong as it can be. When I leave UWG this summer, I will leave enormously proud of the place we have made together and of the tangible reality that I leave you in good hands—each others’ hands.
In her final novel, Unless, Carol Shields concludes by describing the perfection of specific still moments in our complicated human lives, those moments when everyone we love is doing well, is safe within our midst, when our beloved pet is sleeping at our feet, when spring is in the air and the late-night silence in which we work is full of peace and joy. She ends that novel with a simple fact—that she writes after midnight in March during one of those perfect still moments.
Writing myself late on a night in March, I feel just that sense of gratitude and wonder at the beauty of my time as your teacher. Thank you for that most generous of all gifts—a still moment in which I could see the beauty of my life as a teacher. I will remain your chief supporter, always at your service, only an email or phone call away.
Professor of English