Tag Archives: Alexander Pearson

In Spring 2016, English major Alexander (Alec) Pearson did an internship where he researched department history. He graduated at the end of that same semester, earning his Bachelor of Arts in English with a writing concentration. Alec collected and wrote a lot of material that semester. One thing he did was interview some of our previous department chairs. One of his interviews just so happened to be with Bruce Ronda, whose retirement we are celebrating in a special gathering this week.

~from Alexander Pearson

Bruce Ronda, Professor of English and Associate Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Colorado State University, March 30, 2015

Bruce Ronda was the English department chair from 2001 to 2011. He joined the English Department in 1991 as visiting faculty, and became a full-time member in 1995. Before becoming chair he started and ran a full American Studies program in the department, but it had to shut down when he became the chair since there was no one else to run it. As department chair, he moved to make the English department more interdisciplinary. He also oversaw the creation of many new initiatives and programs, such as joining the National Writing Project, establishing the Community Literacy Center, expanding the Center for Literary Publishing, and creating the Changing Climates program. Opportunities for non-tenured faculty to participate in the running of the department were also increased.

After leaving his position as department chair, he became the Assistant Dean of the Liberal Arts college, the position he’ll be retiring from this year. Aside from his academic credentials, his most distinguishing feature is his tie, which he habitually tucks into his shirt. In fact, at a speech made by one of his co-workers at the farewell party when he left the English department for his current position said that, of all the things his fellow professors said about him, the single most common was “What’s with the tie?”

Interview Transcript

Alec: So, out of curiosity, how did you join the CSU English department?

Bruce: I came in 1991, as what was then called a visiting faculty member, and I taught courses in English and I also started an American Studies program in the English Department. And then I became a full-time member of the department in 1995.

Alec: Could you tell me more about the American Studies program?

Bruce: So my doctoral degree is in American Studies, which is a combination of literature and history, usually, and I taught that in my first teaching job on the East Coast, and many universities have American Studies programs, sometimes they’re free-standing, and more often they’re housed in departments, and I was asked to start one here at CSU, so I did and we borrowed faculty from English and History and some other departments. And it flourished for quite a while, but then when I moved to English full-time, and especially when I became the Department Chair in 2001, there wasn’t anyone to take over the American Studies program. So it was suspended. But I thought it was an interesting and exciting program, and there is still an American Studies course, that’s in the University curriculum, and it’s taught by a faculty member in the English department.

Alec: Interesting. So, do you mind me asking what inspired you to pursue a career in English in the first place?

Bruce: That’s a good question. So I’ve always been interested in language, in literature, in reading, and then as I went through college and graduate school I was also very interested in history, in social history, and so I found that the way that literature studies were going in those days was towards a more interdisciplinary way of thinking. So that really confirmed me in my interest in literature. So that’s what I’ve been doing, all these years.

Alec: So, more in that vein, how has the English Department changed over the years you’ve been working here, both at the college and generally across the nation?

Bruce: So do you mean since the time I came or since the time I became chair?

Alec: Well, both, preferably first since you came and then as the department chair. Like, you said that English studies in general had been becoming more interdisciplinary, could you elaborate on that?

Bruce: Sure, sure. So when I came in 1991 the English Department here, like I think at many universities, was primarily literature based. So studies of American literature, English literature, literature in translation. So in those first years when I was here in the mid to late 90s most of the faculty members were literature faculty members. There were other programs represented, but the core of the department was literature. And that was, as I said, true of many other departments as well. What has happened I think, gradually in the late 90s and especially the time that I was chair, from 2001 to 2011, was that other parts of an English Department so Creative Writing, Composition and Rhetoric, English Education, Linguistics and then in the graduate program teaching English as a second language and all those programs grew up, in a sense. They became more mature, they had their own conferences, their own journals, so many English departments changed, ours included, to be not so much literature-centered but to incorporate those aspects of English studies into the department. So that was a huge change, in those years.

Alec: Very interesting. And while you were a department chair, were you involved in a proactive way with these changes? Were you pushing for that sort of change?

Bruce: Yes, I thought it was both necessary and important so we made sure that the committees of the department had representatives from these different areas, that the assignments of graduate teaching assistants were proportional to the faculty and student population of those different areas, so yes, I was very much encouraging that.

Alec: So other than the change in inter-disciplinary programs, were there any other significant changes happening in the English department at this time?

Bruce: Yes. Yes, there were a number of changes of new initiatives that I led, or encouraged, we became part of the National Writing Project, which is a nation-wide project that encourages writing at the secondary and university level. So we’ve founded the CSU Writing Project, which is still going. I was helpful in establishing the Community Literacy Center through funding from the department and elsewhere. So that’s still going. We’ve expanded the center for literary publishing. What else, we established the Changing Climates at CSU which is still ongoing during the time that I was chair. And we expanded the representation of non-tenure track faculty members by establishing a committee for non-tenure track faculty members and including them in some of the other committees of the department.

Alec: Could you expand a bit on the ‘Changing Climates’ thing?

Bruce: Sure, sure. So that’s been an initiative of two faculty members, Sue Ellen Campbell and John Calderazzo from the English Department, and they came to me sometime in their tenures, early on I think, having department support and college support for a program that would help educate our faculty, faculty across the university really, about how to communicate about climate issues to a sometimes skeptical audience.

Alec: That’s certainly interesting. So I think that takes care of the next question I was going to ask, so could you tell me a story about what working in the English department is like, an interesting anecdote of some sort?

Bruce: What it was like during those years?

Alec: Yeah.

Bruce: Well, perhaps first not so much an anecdote but the reality is that I came in in 2001 which was the year of the WTC (World Trade Center) attacks, I left in 2011 when we were just recovering from the Great Recession of those years, 2008 through 2011, so my time as chair was kind of bookmarked by these national events. And between that time there were two significant economic downturns, so a lot of what I dealt with during my time as department chair were these challenges that came from outside. Loss of faculty positions, changing administration, changing climate in the nation, so sometimes it felt turbulent to me and challenging. On the other hand, I would say that we made some wonderful faculty hires, some of my greatest successes as chair was to hire some of the wonderful faculty members who are still here, who have contributed a lot to the department.

An anecdote, well, I always liked to dress like this, you know, to wear a jacket and tie, and I’d tuck my tie in like this, (through the second button of his shirt) because, I don’t know, it drags in my lunch or something. But when I first started at the department several people asked me if I had been to a military school, like a prep school where young men, young women too, are encouraged to tuck their ties in, and I said that I hadn’t it was just something that I learned to do. So, in the last spring that I was department chair, the department organized a kind of farewell for me, a kind of reception, and John Calderazzo spoke at that and said that he had gone up and down the halls, asking people if they could say something about me during the time that I was department chair and several people said very nice things about my scholarship and my leadership, but several people said, “What’s with the tie?” So he had to explain that it was just sort of Bruce’s quirk, so when John was done he asked me to come up to the podium and say a few words, so I went up to the podium and tucked my tie in, and people laughed. So that was an amusing little moment.

 

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In Spring 2016, English major Alexander (Alec) Pearson did an internship where he researched department history. He graduated at the end of that same semester, earning his Bachelor of Arts in English with a writing concentration. Alec collected and wrote a lot of material that semester. One thing he did was interview some of our previous department chairs. One of his interviews just so happened to be with John Pratt. At the time, we imagined this biography and interview would be part of a larger series, simply one of a set. We had no idea we’d be using it to honor his memory instead, and yet we are so glad we have it for that very reason.

 


~from Alexander Pearson

John Pratt (source: Ken Babbs)

John Pratt (source: Ken Babbs)

 

John Pratt came to the CSU English Department from the Air Force Academy in 1975, and served as the department head until 1980. He was the college’s first Fulbright professor, having spent a year in Portugal in 1974. During his time as chair, he displayed a deep integrity, a great commitment to education, and an ongoing focus on advancing the cause of women within the Department and the university as a whole.

He had a great love of teaching and found time to teach classes even as he fulfilled his duties as department chair, regarding that as his true calling. John Pratt wrote, published, or edited more than eighteen books, and numerous scholarly articles, poems, and book reviews. After stepping down as department chair in 1980 and another Fulbright fellowship to the (then) University of Leningrad, USSR, he returned to teach as a professor at CSU until his retirement in 2002. (Read his obituary for more about his life.)

Interview with John Pratt by Alexander Pearson, Spring 2016

Alec: Would you mind telling me about how you came to join the English Department?

John: All right, I had been serving the Air Force for twenty years, most of which had been with the Air Force Academy in the English department.

Alec: The Air Force Academy has its own English department?

John: Oh yes, it’s a full university. I had been a pilot but they were taking all of us old farts off flying status because, bottom line, they were running out of money and the only assignment I could have gotten was to the Pentagon. And I didn’t want to do that. I found out that CSU was looking for an English Department chair, from outside, so I signed up for it, I went through the selection process and I got the job in 1974. At the same time, I got a Fulbright fellowship to Portugal and I worked out a deal with the department where I could take the Fulbright and then come up as chair. They had never had a Fulbright professor before, so they said fine, so I came up in 75 as chair of the department.

After about six months here, I had formed some friendships. I had been visiting all of the department members in class, so I could find out who they were and what they did, because I didn’t know anybody. And one of my colleagues took me aside and said “John, there’s something I need to tell you. You know that our department is pretty well divided up.” And I said, “I know. There are a lot of differences.” “Well, because of your military background, half of the English department thinks that you’re no good, and the other half wants you to shoot the first half.” And that was one of my introductions to the department.

Alec: You said you had a Fulbright professorship in Portugal. Could you elaborate on that, I hadn’t heard of that before.

John: The Fulbright fellowship is a national fellowship, any teacher, any professor can apply for it, and they have Fulbrights in many, many countries, and it’s a year-long fellowship. You may know about the former student, Yusef Komunyakaa, who is going to be reading, and I had a lot to do with getting him accepted here, he was the first black student to be in the Creative Writing program. And he has gotten a Fulbright since, and many other remarkable awards.

John Pratt (on the left) at a reception for Yusef Komunyakaa

John Pratt (on the left) at the recent reception for Yusef Komunyakaa

Another thing, when I was in the military, one of the things you’re supposed to do when you take over a command is start training a successor. I told the department that I’d stay five years as chair, but I didn’t tell them that I’d stay longer. I looked around at that point and found that the only woman who was head of a department was head of Home Economics. All of us were men. In part because I had four daughters, whom I had been training to be as good as men, I looked around and found a member of the department whose classes I’d been to were doing very well, I was very impressed with her, her name was Rosemary Whitaker. So I appointed her as graduate chair, as undergraduate chair, all these various positions, so when I decided to step down after five years, she was a shoo-in. She became the first woman head of a major department, her successor was a woman, the current department head is a woman, and I feel very pleased about that.

Alec: What would you count as your achievements while you were chair of the department?

John: I was just lucky in many cases, I hired some very good professors. There wasn’t a great deal more that was really important. My primary interest had always been teaching, and so I think probably the most important thing was I hired women, I appointed women, and I gave them a much better opportunity.

Alec: Do you have any sort of other amusing anecdotes, or non-amusing anecdotes, about your time as chair?

John: Well, I’d been chair about three years and I received a phone call and a follow-up letter from the UCSB for the job of dean of the faculty there. And I really wasn’t very interested in it, and I’d never been approached in that way before, so I thought I’d head down and see what was going on. So I went out for an interview,  and there was a whole group, maybe about ten people, and a woman was head of it. And she introduced me, and she said, John, we think you should know this, this is not an interview. We have looked at your record, we’ve looked at your publications, we want you to come out here as dean of the faculty. That’s definite. And she asked, John, do you have any questions. And I said, there’s the English department and the American Studies department, both of which I would be the dean of — which one would you prefer I taught a course in? And she looked at me with a strange look on her face, and she said, John, I’m sorry, our deans don’t teach. They just administer. And I said, I’m sorry, this dean would teach. And administer at the same time. And she turned around and looked at the people there, then she turned back to me and said, John, I’m afraid we don’t have anything more to say. Have a good trip. They turned me down because I would take one class as a dean, and they said our deans are too busy to teach. And after that I didn’t look into or get asked for anything else. I held a few positions within the department but I just thoroughly enjoyed teaching.

Alec: So what was your specialization as professor and teacher?

John: Well, I started out in American Literature, then I published a couple of novels and quite a few articles.

vietnamvoiceslaotianfragments

Alec: Which novels would these be?

John: Two on Vietnam. I started in Vietnam 1969-1970. In the Air Force Academy I called that my ‘Vietnam Sabbatical.’ I served for an outfit called Project CHECO, Contemporary Historical Evaluation of Combat Operations. And we wrote top-secret papers on what the air force was doing in Vietnam and so on. So when I retired I did a novel on the air war in Laos, called The Laotian Fragments. And I did another one, not really a novel, really a collage, called Vietnam Voices. Actual writings from all aspects of the war.

Alec: I’m pretty sure I’ve seen that in the library.

John: Yeah, the library had a major collection. I gave my last collection of books to the department just recently. And these are all books written by English Department people and they’re in the department library now, along with all the other books that I’ve written.

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The service for John Clark Pratt will be held on January 30, 2017 at the Spirit of Joy Lutheran Church, 4501 S. Lemay at 1:00pm.

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