Professor Coke teaches courses in adolescents’ literature, intermediate composition, teaching composition, teaching reading, teaching language, and teaching methods. Her research interests include the transition from elementary to secondary school, gender and education, teacher collaboration, and teacher education. She has published articles in English Journal, Statement, SIGNAL Journal, California English, The Ohio Journal of English Language Arts, Academic Exchange Quarterly, and Education.
Faculty Profile: Pam Coke
~by Evelyn Vaughn
What brought you to CSU?
I graduated in a great year before the big crash, so there were still a lot of great jobs at places all over the country. What brought me to CSU were the colleagues. I remember when I went back (I did my graduate work at the University of Iowa), I told my advisor that I was absolutely in love with the people here. CSU was my first interview. To have it be your first was terrifying, and to just feel so at home somewhere when you were just visiting from Iowa — I went back and told my advisor that everyone was fantastic. And she said “Nobody’s really that fantastic, they probably put on a really good show for you.” Well, I’ve been here twelve years and it’s still a pretty good show, so if they’re still putting on a show, they’re sustaining it really well.
What inspired you to pursue a degree in English, the Humanities?
What really inspired me was the opportunity to engage with people, to engage with text, and to engage with ideas. That’s really what inspired me to go into English and the humanities.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Teacher, because we used to play school all the time in the basement. But my sister was always the teacher and I was always the student, because I loved the learning. I went into teaching because I love the learning – I never get to stop. I still learn every day. I don’t go to bed until I’ve learned something new for the day.
What special project are you working on right now?
I have two book projects going on right now that are pretty exciting. I finished field research – I did two years of study in schools in rural Colorado, looking at the transition from elementary school to secondary school from the perspective of the students and teachers. I got to follow the same students. As 6th graders, I interviewed them about what they thought middle school would be like. I got to interview the same group of students the next year as 7th graders, and talk with them about what that transition actually looked like for them. I’m working that into a book right now about educational transitions.
The other one is a chapter abstract that I just had accepted for a book on teaching adolescence literature.
What moment in the classroom stands out as the most memorable?
I had a pretty special group in my Teaching Methods class in the fall. A really hard-working, good-hearted group that I will remember. On the last day of class, I shared with them something that happened to me when I was teaching middle school. They talk, when you’re teaching K-12, about the 7 year cycle – approximately every 7 years, you get the class from hell. It was in my 3rd year that I got the class from hell. I went and talked with my boss about how much I was struggling with this group – it was a range of things, there were behavioral issues, there were motivational issues, and I had gone and interviewed their teachers from kindergarten all the way up through 6th grade. I was trying to figure out what teachers tried with them, what worked, what didn’t work – I really was trying to get into the psyche of this group.
Eventually I went and talked with my boss and he gave me a really unusual piece of advice. He paused, and he said “Pam, I want you to go and get a rock.” and I thought, “How big?” And he goes, “I want you to go and get a rock, and I want you to put it on your desk where you can see it every day.” And I said, “Okay, can I ask why I am getting a rock?” And he said, “Yes. I want you to have something on your desk that reminds you that you do not work with rocks. You work with people. A rock you can pick up and move from one place to another. You can break it; you can use it as a tool. You can manipulate the rock. People are not rocks. They have thoughts, feelings, emotions.” To this day, I have a seashell on my desk that reminds me of that.
On the last day of the methods class, I shared that story with my students and I gave them each a rock. We had a Facebook group, and they all posted how much that meant to them. They said “You turned us into the first class that ever cried over a rock.”
What is your favorite thing to teach? Favorite thing about teaching?
My favorite thing about teaching is challenging my students and myself to look at something in a different way. One of the things I love about the humanities is the thinking about the thinking and looking at things from different perspectives. I really love that moment when you can really challenge what somebody is thinking about something. In my Teaching Reading class, I asked my students “What’s going to count as reading in your class?” We all agreed that if I have a print-based book, that’s going to count as reading.
But then you start to problematize it. Something like Twilight – does that count as much as reading Pride and Prejudice? And then we talked about e-readers – does that count as reading? And I started to lose some students there. Then I said, “How about audiobooks?” And then I lost even more. My husband and I were both reading Divergent by Veronica Roth. I was reading it on my e-reader. He was listening to it on an audiobook. At night, we would come home from work and talk about what we had read. So I said, “So you’re telling me that because I was reading it on an e-reader, I wasn’t really reading it? And because he was listening to it on an audiobook, he wasn’t really reading it?” And yet, we could both sit down and talk about the ideas that Roth was putting forth. I got many angry emails after that class saying, “I thought I knew what reading meant. You’re messing with my head, now I’m thinking about things differently.” And I said, “Good. Now we’re having an education.”
That’s my favorite thing about teaching. When they swear at me under their breath because I’ve made them think about something in a different way, I’ve done my job.
What advice would you give a student taking a class in the English Department?
I would advise a student taking a class in the English department to truly take advantage of the opportunity to engage with that class. By that, I mean do the reading, talk with your professor, go in during office hours, talk with other students in the class, talk with your roommate. Really use this time when you have an audience with which to engage with ideas. I think the most shocking thing to me was meeting people who neither cared to read nor saw the value of reading or writing in their everyday lives. You’re at this great moment where you’re surrounded by people who share those values, take advantage of it. Talk with people, get as many perspectives as you can.
What’s the best advice you ever received?
My best piece of advice is one I still share to students, and I bet I share it at least once a week. One of my mentors who was at the University of Iowa when I was there, when I said that I was trying to think about what I want to be when I grow up, she said “When you’re looking at the big picture like that, look around you, and see how people live their daily lives.” Some jobs sound really exciting, but they have moments of excitement. The rest of it is pretty mundane. She said really look around – how do the people doing the kinds of work you’re interested in, how do they spend their daily lives? She said to find someone you want to pattern yourself after. That’s the way to do your career.
When I interviewed for jobs, that’s exactly what I did. I looked at the people around me. I asked better questions about what their life looked like on a day to day basis. It was the best piece of advice I ever got, and I still give that as career advice. Think about how you want to spend your day to day life, because when you look back at the end, your life is made of individual days. You want to know you spent them well.
What don’t your colleagues know about you?
Every year, I try something that takes me out of my comfort zone, because I like remembering what it’s like to be uncomfortable. On our honeymoon, my husband and I went to Disney World. We went to one of the water parks and we did the plummet, where you drop off into water. That was exhilarating. Two years ago, I took a motorcycle class, I now ride a motorcycle. Last year, it was triathlons. This year, I’ve already done one. That was making my own pasta. Next year we’re going to do foreign travel. Every year, doing something that takes me out of my comfort zone.
What is your favorite word and why?
My husband and I love playing with the word rural. If you just say it, you’re fine. But if you stop and think about it, it’s a simple word that will make you question your very existence.