As any graduate student knows, the job hunt can be overwhelming and exhausting. Professor Alexis Butzner is one of many Fordham English Ph.D graduates who have emerged victorious from that experience. Butzner wrote her dissertation under the guidance of Eve Keller, defended in 2016, and is now a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon. In this interview, we discuss the road that led her to Fordham, how she developed her dissertation, and her new teaching position. - Erin Coughlin
What is your educational background?
I am a first-generation college student from a fairly rural part of Washington state; I graduated high school early and began college at the local community college, earning an Associate of Arts with a plan to transfer. From there, I went to New York and attended Eugene Lang College, the liberal arts branch of the New School, where I got a degree in Philosophy. After that I cast about a bit, taking classes in medieval studies, linguistics, and literature at the University of Washington before enrolling at Portland State University in the English Master’s program. I taught and studied there, and earned my M.A. with a focus in medieval and early modern literature. I came to Fordham as a medievalist, but found myself drawn to the work being done in early modern classes, and gradually shifted my focus.
Tell us about your dissertation: what was its topic, its argument, and its contribution? How did you become interested in the topic, and how did your thinking evolve over the course of working on it?
My dissertation, “Practice Imperfect: The Struggle for Health in Early Modern English Literature” looks at how early modern British writers use the wealth of available practical texts of spiritual and physical health in their own work. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the print marketplace saw a huge boom in texts offering “ready and easy” ways to health in body and soul. These texts offered methods and cures that tended to be over-generalized and static, a one-size-fits-all method of overcoming sickness. Early modern scholars have tended to focus on how the discourses of sickness and health resonate in or are reflected by literature, signaling a one-way relationship between practical and literary texts. My dissertation asks us to think about the relationship in a more dynamic way, by showing how literary texts (broadly conceived) complicate the idea of perfect, stable practice and fixed knowledge.
The project grew out of an interest in early printing and from a class I took with Frank Boyle and Eve Keller on the developing landscape of science in the early modern period. Because of the work we did in that class, I began exploring the range of texts on health from the period, and eventually worked my way to seeing how those practical texts interact with literary texts.
I originally proposed a project that would trace a single genre of health text (the Ars moriendi, which guided the sick to a spiritually healthy death) through literary examples – an idea that was simultaneously too broad and too narrow to actually complete. Through trial and error, and under the guidance of Eve Keller, I found my way to a project that attempts both literary criticism and intellectual history, and manages to show some of the ways that literature can matter to the world beyond the humanities.
Which professors advised you, and what kind of mentorship did they provide?
My primary mentor was Eve, and she helped me turn nebulous ideas into viable chapters, encouraged me to test out ideas to see how they would work (or fail) but also always kept me on track. No part of the process was wasted, thanks to her, and I was always moving forward, which helped my morale, kept me motivated, and meant that I finished in good time.
How do you view the relationship between your research and your teaching?
My research afforded me new archives and methods of looking at works, and as someone dedicated to teaching I have always delighted in those moments of discovery that somehow transfer to the classroom: bits of cultural or literary history to illuminate discussions, texts students may never have seen before, ways of searching, reading and researching that gave me (and can give students) new avenues and directions for their own thinking. More directly, my research interests have also inspired successful themes for classes or reading units, including a class on magic and science in sixteenth and seventeenth century literature.
How did your training at Fordham prepare you for the job market in general, and for a job at a community college specifically?
Community colleges are naturally diverse: they bring in a huge array of students of different backgrounds, ages, and goals, and the wealth of training and experience I received at Fordham helped prepare me both to craft useful courses, assignments, and lessons, and to target them to the needs and interests of students of all types. Thanks to the pedagogy seminars, I had faculty and peer support both in and out of the classroom, and was given the opportunity to teach a range of classes. Also, Fordham’s student body has a remarkable diversity across the two campuses, and having the opportunity to work with those students in the classroom helped me learn more ways to be flexible with and inclusive of individual students, while also pushing them to be better.
What was the job market process like for you?
My job market experience was overwhelming and stressful, at times, but overall it was a positive experience—a statement I can only make because of the absolutely wonderful people involved in professional development in the English department. The faculty who guided me over the course of my journey (John Bugg, Vlasta Vranjes, and Corey McEleney) were unerringly dedicated to helping students reach their career goals. They responded to every frantic question and every miniscule change in my drafts with care and attention, and ran mock interviews both before and after I had interviews of my own lined up. I had always known that I wanted to apply to community colleges as well as 4-year colleges and universities, because of my own background at one; because of this, I required an entire extra batch of materials to read and revise. Even with all the extra work, though, the DPPD (Director of Placement and Professional Development) always treated each document like it was new and important.
What advice would you give to any graduate students currently going on the market?
My advice to those going on the market is precisely the advice given to me: start as early as you can preparing drafts of materials, and run those materials by as many people as you can, as many times as you can. The DPPD can offer you the practical advice you need to tailor your work to the market, but your advisor and your colleagues can give you insight as well, especially into how well your materials reflect who you are as a teacher and scholar. And finally, don’t lose sight of that teacher and scholar: be who you are in your materials and keep that in mind as you prepare. The schools are interested in hiring a person, after all, and they will notice those people who put themselves out there in their applications.
How has your first semester at Chemeketa been going? What is your favorite thing about teaching? What were some unexpected challenges?
Chemeketa has been wonderful so far. My colleagues are warm, welcoming and supportive, and the school is full of people who love their jobs. My students are smart and dedicated, and many of them are just learning what it means to be in college, which is great to witness and be a part of.
So far, my favorite thing about teaching is watching students grow and develop—the lightbulb moments that bring quiet students out of their shells, or take them in directions they didn’t expect. As the term goes on and students settle in, we’re getting more of those, and it livens up the room every time.
As for challenges, teaching full-time is more challenging than I expected, because I teach for longer back-to-back than I ever have before, and it’s physically and mentally more taxing than one might think to be “on” for so many hours in a row. But in general, because the students want to be here, and put their all into it, and because I have a network of colleagues to fall back on if I’m struggling, even the full course load isn’t so tough.