Category Archives: Faculty Profiles


A powerful tale. ~Kirkus

Told in vivid, heartbreaking detail and filled with strong, developed characters, this novel tackles an important theme in a compelling way. In Kiri, young readers will find a protagonist who, although at times afraid, finds the courage to do what she believes to be right. ~Booklist

Earnest, heartfelt, and passionate, this book will likely inspire new environmentalists.  ~Bulletin

The Last Panther, Assistant Professor Todd Mitchell’s latest book, was officially released this week. A book launch party is being held tomorrow, Friday the 25th, at Everyday Joe’s Coffee House, 5-6:30 pm, (find out all the details here). Even though it’s a busy week for him, Todd was kind enough to take the time to answer a few of our questions about the book, his process, and his advice for aspiring writers.

Where did the idea for this book come from?
For years, I was looking for a book that could be used to discuss, with young people, our connection to the greater ecology, and the ways we can act to address some of the biggest environmental problems we currently face. I wasn’t able to find the sort of book I was looking for, though. Most novels that addressed issues like climate change, resource depletion, and species extinction were for older audiences. And the books I did find that addressed such issues were often apocalyptic and depressing. Then, one day, it hit me: Why not write the book I’m looking for? Why not create a story where I could explore, from all angles, the issues I care most deeply about?

It’s funny how long it took me to come to that conclusion. I think I spent a long time avoiding writing about the issues closest to my heart because I feared it would be too difficult to explore such issues in an entertaining way. I wanted others to shoulder the burden of figuring out how to tell such a story. However, writing this book wasn’t a burden at all. Once I gave myself permission to tell the story I wanted to tell, it became the best writing experience of my life.

You mentioned that you wrote this book with your daughter. How was that process different from writing your other books?
This is what made writing this book so much fun: I knew exactly who I was writing for. My daughter, Addison, was ten at the time I developed the first draft. Every night, I’d read a chapter to her and get her feedback on what she liked, what confused her, and what other ideas she had for the story. Then I’d revise that chapter, keeping her feedback in mind, and how she reacted to the story as I read it.

The book’s “co-author” Addison on the left.

I think having a clear audience in mind is vital for any writing project. This was the first time, though, that I was able to read to that audience on a nightly basis and get her feedback. I’m grateful for all that Addison added to the book (the pet rat was her idea, BTW. And she’s the one who named him Snowflake).

Is there an ongoing theme (or themes) in your books? Is there a common thread or message in the stories you tell?
I usually write books to explore questions that interest and trouble me. So if there’s a common theme among my books, it’s that every book began with a question I couldn’t stop asking myself. With The Last Panther, that question was “What is a species worth?” How far would you go to keep a species, like the Florida panther, from extinction? How far should we go as a society to do this? And how do we value other parts of creation? Each of the main characters is brought to a point in the story where he or she must decide what they value most. And each comes up with a different answer (sometimes this answer surprises them). Writing this book helped me to understand the deep, often unstated values that underly many of our current conflicts.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
Write the story you’re most afraid to tell. The difficulty here is that sometimes, you don’t even know what you’re afraid to talk about until you discover that something’s holding you back. I think it’s important to give yourself permission to speak and write about the things you care most deeply about, even if you sound ridiculous doing it. This is a hard thing to do, because we’re afraid to be criticized for what we care about, or because we’re afraid to explore what’s difficult, or because we’re afraid to put ourselves at risk this way. But as the poet, Lee Upton, put it, “Our risk is our cure.” This is how you find the stories that mean the most to you. And if you can do that, you’ll probably find stories that mean something to others, too.


Join us in congratulating Todd on his new book, and for the release party!

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What brought you to CSU?

When my kids were little, I worked online through Johns Hopkins University, but then at a certain point, I wanted to get back into the face-to-face classroom, so I worked at Front Range Community College a couple of years until a spot opened up at CSU – and I was hired!

What made you want to stay?

I love the CSU community, I love the variety of courses I teach, and I appreciate the camaraderie and support of my department.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I love working one-on-one with students, so I conference with them a lot about their papers.  I get to know them as individuals that way.

Why are the Humanities important?

So many reasons!! Honing critical thinking skills, putting current life/events in the context of history and other cultures, learning to communicate well in both speech and writing…I could go on and on.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in English, the Humanities?

I’ve loved reading and creative writing since I was little – two things we do a lot of in this area of study!

What special project are you working on right now?

I am going to writing conference in Montana this summer, and I am working on putting some pieces together for that.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Pretty sure I thought I would be the female John Denver.  I had glasses like his and liked to sing.

What moment in the classroom stands out to you as most memorable?

My favorite moments are those when I reach students who never thought they could write or make it through the course – and they do, and they do well.  It’s very rewarding.

What is your favorite thing to teach? Or your favorite thing about teaching?

Same as above – working one-on-one and the underdogs.

What advice would you give to a student taking a class in the English department?

Don’t let yourself get too far behind, and go in to see your professors earlier rather than later.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It’s okay to let go.

What’s your favorite word?

“Blossom” and “blessing”– as in the James Wright poem “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize/that if I stepped out of my body I would break/into blossom.”

What are you currently reading?

The Book of Joy (conversations with Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama); The Excellent Lombards (Jane Hamilton).

What don’t your colleagues know about you?

How much I enjoy watching competitive cycling.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

Receiving my MFA in poetry and reading from my thesis in front of a much larger than expected crowd at the Spokane City Council Chambers – and my knees didn’t buckle!

When you’re not working, what do you do?

Write, run, read, walk my dog, hike, xc ski, laugh with my kids, visit with friends, bake.

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~from intern Joyce Bohling

What brought you to CSU? The short answer is that I got the job! The position I applied for (American literature with a specialization in multi-ethnic writing and a side interest in modernist studies) seemed to me like a perfect fit and I was happy that the screening committee was interested in my work.

What made you want to stay? Immediately before coming to CSU I taught at a highly selective private liberal arts college and I was actually relieved to return to a public institution since my pre-doctoral education took place in public universities and I am committed to the idea that education should be accessible to a broad range of students.

What do you enjoy most about your work? I love hearing how my students work with texts that I am passionate about and learning different ways to approach texts from them. I also really enjoy my research, sharing it with friends and colleagues at conferences and informal conversations, and thinking about ways to incorporate it into my classes.

Why are the Humanities important? Because they provide ways of thinking that are open to possibilities beyond the purely instrumental purposes (how will this make money, how can this be used) and that therefore often drive truly transformational changes in society.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in English, the Humanities? I began my educational career thinking that I would become an astrophysicist. During my freshman year in college I realized both that I was not as drawn to the topic as I had thought and that my rural high school had not prepared me for the advanced physics and math courses I was struggling with. During the following summer I worked on my parents’ farm and spent a large amount of my time reading (I particularly remember working through several Toni Morrison and Dostoyevsky novels). Sometime during this process I realized that there was a major where reading and thinking about what I was reading would be my primary job so I decided to try that.

What special project are you working on right now? Right now I’m in the middle of writing a book about race, ethnicity, and world building in 20th and 21st century science fiction.

What did you want to be when you were a kid? An astronomer.

What is your favorite thing to teach? Favorite thing about teaching? One of my favorite works of literature to teach is Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. My favorite thing about teaching is seeing how texts change depending on who is reading them and what’s going on in the world around us.

What advice would you give to a student taking a class in the English department? Talk to your professors outside of the classroom. It’s the best way to drive your learning forward.

What’s the best advice you ever received? My dad, who dropped out of college, always encouraged me to be willing to be flexible instead of thinking that if my plan A didn’t work (studying astrophysics) then I should just quit.

What’s your favorite word? I don’t play favorites…

What are you currently reading? I always have multiple books going so the current list includes: Viet Than Nguyen’s recent novel The Sympathizer, an ethnography of the Runa people in Ecuador called How Forest’s Think by Eduardo Kohn, and, two novels for the classes I’m teaching: John Edgar Wideman’s Philadelphia Fire and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being.

What don’t your colleagues know about you? How much time I spend talking to my cats.

What accomplishments are you most proud of? Publishing my first academic book last year was a milestone.

When you’re not working, what do you do? Visit with family and friends. I read for fun still and I also love cooking, listening to a wide range of music, and watching frequently awful TV and movies. I also play poker with a group of friends at a weekly game that I’ve been part of since I came to Fort Collins in 2009.

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~from intern Haley Huffman


Special Instructor Sharon Grindle

Cloudy and cold days make Sharon Grindle just the tiniest bit homesick for the coast. Originally from California, Grindle moved to Colorado to pursue her dreams of teaching. “I’ve known for a long time, I think, that I wanted to be a teacher.” Grindle recalls childhood memories in which she begged her sisters to play school so she could pull out her easel and impart her wisdom on her pretend students.

Grindle’s parents recognized her passion for academics and pushed her to excel in many different areas. While this opened up a lot of opportunities for her, it also made it very difficult for her to choose a major when she got to college. Grindle describes herself as being very “humanities oriented,” which gave her some direction, although she remained undeclared for two years.

Grindle took three English classes with the same professor, which led to that professor pulling her aside for a wake-up call. Her professor had noticed that she exhibited a lot of the behaviors he liked to see in English majors and she definitely thought like an English major, leading her professor to the conclusion that she should probably give up the game and declare herself an English major. She also added two minors to her degree, Communications and Leadership Studies. “This is me acknowledging that I’m going to be an English professor, right?”

After graduating with her custom-created English professor starter pack, she took a gap year before applying to grad schools. That one year away from the classroom solidified her desire to teach. So the hunt for grad schools began. “I looked for graduate programs that … would pay me to teach so that I could just teach and go to school.” There weren’t any schools that met the requirements in Grindle’s home state of California, but in an effort to still be close, she chose schools in the western states.

Grindle decided on Colorado State University because of the comprehensive training that is provided for teachers. CSU offers a weeklong training course to prepare teachers for the classroom, while most other schools offer a half-day.

Ten years later and Grindle still resides in Fort Collins, occasionally missing the coast, but life as an English teacher keeps her busy.

One part of teaching is scholarship work. “A lot of the ongoing scholarship that I do is keeping up with shifts in thinking in the field. I do a lot of reading.” But Grindle has been making time to produce scholarship as well. She presented a conference paper last year on the Marvel series Daredevil. “I was looking at the way different characters in Daredevil talk about the vigilante.”

Marvel seems to be the inspiration for most of the scholarship that Grindle has planned for the future. “I’m kind of a big nerd.”

Grindle is not only looking at Marvel productions through the lens of an English teacher, but she is also examining the psychology and ethnic studies components. Grindle has plenty of fodder for her future scholarship endeavors, as Netflix continues to produce Marvel series like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. The Marvel characters have been around for decades and tend to reflect our cultural pressures, which is what makes them so interesting to study. The end goal for Grindle and her Marvel studies is to work with fellow professor Ashley Davies to produce a book containing their research and scholarship on Marvel productions.

Grindle’s passion for the humanities not only shines through her scholarship work, but through her teaching philosophies as well. “The humanities is all about self improvement, having a well-rounded education, learning how to think and how to be a resistant, critical thinker.” Grindle’s advice for studying the humanities, and English in particular, is to come with an open mind. “Most English Department classes are about asking you to consider different opinions.”

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~from intern Joyce Bohling


Nancy Henke with the Puget Sound in the background, along with a sculpture that’s part of the Seattle Art Museum.

Nancy Henke
Senior Teaching Faculty
MA English: Literature, 2010 (she’s also an English department alumna!)

What brought you to CSU?

I came to CSU in 2008 as a graduate student.  I had gotten offers from several different schools and I had narrowed my choices to either Georgetown and CSU.  I chose CSU for several reasons, one of them was because I really wanted to stay in the West and had heard Fort Collins was an amazing town (which of course it is!)

What made you want to stay?

During grad school I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) teaching CO150 and I absolutely loved it.  About halfway through my grad program I decided that after graduation I’d try to get a full-time teaching position with the English department and I was lucky enough to achieve that goal.  I started as a full-time instructor in Fall of 2010, teaching CO150, literature courses, and doing professional development with GTAs who were teaching composition.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I like the variety quite a lot.  I teach a variety of different classes (composition and several different literature courses), I work with graduate students – observing their CO150 classes and reviewing their grading and feedback on student papers, help develop CO150 curriculum, and help run the Composition Placement program.  Plus, teaching naturally lends itself to diversity in since I can always try out new assignments and readings.

Why are the Humanities important?

Wow! There are so many answers to that question.  I’d say that the two big things that come to mind are that the humanities help teach someone how to think.  They require productive thought: making connections, drawing conclusions, and thinking big.  And knowing how to think – how to puzzle through difficult questions – is a valuable skill for a lifetime.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in English, the Humanities?

When I was an undergraduate I changed my major four times. I started out thinking I’d major in Political Science, then switched to German, then Communication Studies, then History, then finally landed on English.  I ended up with English because I liked the intellectual challenge of literary studies. I still do, in fact.  I was constantly confronted with texts, old and new, that I found helped me think about the modern world in new ways.  I found that fascinating: that a text from the Early Modern period could help me see and understand the world I was living in.  I still love that about literature and try to get my students to think in those ways, too.


Nancy Henke with her favorite non-fiction author, Bill Bryson, who visited campus last March.

What special project are you working on right now?

I imagine you mean work-related project, but all I can think about is the patio my husband and I are building in our backyard! We’re not really fans of grass (I hate watering it, my husband hates mowing it, and I’m allergic to it) so we’re ripping out grass in our backyard and putting in pavers/cobblestones.  It’s a ton of work.  My weekends have been occupied with that. A few weekends ago we moved seven tons of road base into our backyard, and pretty soon we’ll start laying out about 1500 pavers (!) to make the patio.  But it will look great when we’re done.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

It changed, as I imagine is true for most people.  I always liked school, so being a teacher was always on the list.  For quite a while I wanted to be an archaeologist, actually.  I love rocks and thought the idea of uncovering fossils was impossibly cool.  Even though I didn’t pursue that, I still love rocks and fossils.  I have rocks displayed all over my house.  And I have a pretty impressive rock collection (all of which I’ve found myself).

What moment in the classroom stands out to you as most memorable?

I think it was probably when I was an undergraduate, rather than since I’ve been an instructor.  My Shakespeare prof was talking about some play (I truly don’t remember which one) but somehow he started telling a story about how his best friend died in Vietnam.  It was a really gruesome death that I won’t recount here, but needless to say his friend was tortured and killed in the war.  He used that story as a way of demonstrating a larger point about humans’ inhumanity toward each other, and I never forgot it.  Funny that I’ve completely forgotten the text he was talking about, but the actual “big picture” point will probably stick with me forever.

What is your favorite thing to teach? Favorite thing about teaching?

I love different classes for different reasons.  I’m teaching E270 (Intro to American Lit) this semester and it’s one of my favorites.  I love seeing the changes in American literature over the past 400-ish years and making connections between American literature and American history.  I also really love E140 (The Study of Literature) since we explore so many genres in that class and it lends itself nicely to looking at pop culture and popular texts.  And CO150 was my first teaching love!  It was what got me hooked on teaching.

I think my favorite thing about teaching more generally is how much I learn as a teacher.  My guess is plenty of instructors say that, but it’s true.  I learn so many new things every semester and I can’t imagine a more satisfying career for me than one where I can learn something every single day.


Nancy Henke at the top of Pike’s Peak.

What advice would you give to a student taking a class in the English department?

Visit your professors’ office hours!  I can’t even count the number of times where I wished and hoped a student would come by my office for help.  And it’s a great way to get to know your professors’ interests – academic and otherwise.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

When I was a GTA, the Director of Composition at the time, Sarah Sloane, told all the GTAs advice she had received or read somewhere along the way.  It was something to the effect of, “The good news is that you can teach a terrible lesson and students may not really notice.  The bad news is you can teach a great lesson and students may not really notice.”  I think about that on tough teaching days (and try not to think about it on great teaching days).

What’s your favorite word?

Schnarchen.  It’s the German word for “to snore.”  When I teach E140, the Study of Literature class, it’s my go-to example of onomatopoeia.

What are you currently reading?

I’m about halfway through The Known World by Edward P. Jones.  I’ve been stuck at that point for a few weeks.  At certain points in the semester it seems that my reading consists mainly of readings for class and student papers, so my personal reading slows down a bit.


Nancy Henke in Arches National Park.

What don’t your colleagues know about you?

Most people probably don’t know I’m a painter.  I started taking an acrylic painting class earlier this year and have just loved it.  I love arts and crafts in general, and for years my main crafty hobby was scrapbooking.  I still have a ton of scrapbook stuff and still do it once in a while, but now my focus is painting.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

In my whole life so far, one of my proudest accomplishments was when I was an undergraduate.  I was the commencement speaker at my college graduation.  That was pretty amazing. I got to give a speech to thousands of people, which was actually really fun.  It was one of my best days.

More recently, I’d say I was pretty proud last semester being a finalist for the Ann Gill Excellence in Teaching Award.  And this summer I was chosen to attend a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar at the University of Oklahoma where I studied westward expansion in the early American republic.  It was fascinating.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

In addition to painting and building patios, which I mentioned earlier, I’m also a runner.  I do races here and there, most recently the CSU Homecoming 5k, and I plan to do a half-marathon in the spring.  My husband and I like doing house projects, I love working in my vegetable garden in the spring and summer, reading (of course), and traveling when I can.  I’m visiting family in Las Vegas for Thanksgiving and spending some time in Washington, DC and northern Virginia after Christmas. I have a lot of international destinations on my wish list, but those are more expensive and take a lot more planning: Japan, India, England, Australia, New Zealand.


Nancy Henke at Colfax Marathon Relay in 2015.

Anything else you want to add?

My husband and I were having a discussion the other day about if we got the chance to travel in time, but could only go forward in time OR back in time, which we would choose.  I would choose to go back in time to see what it was like to really live in some of the time periods I study (like going back to colonial America – any time in the 17th or 18th century – would be completely fascinating to me.  Though I’ll admit I would want to kind of be a spirit that could float around invisibly and just observe stuff but not have to interact with anyone or drink the water.)  He’d choose to go forward in time to see what happens to humanity.  I think it’s an intriguing question…you should add it to the list of questions you ask people when you interview them!


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~from intern Haley Huffman

Ellen Brinks is the graduate program coordinator for the English Department, but her passions extend far beyond the scheduling, staffing and training that make up a large portion of her responsibilities. She thinks of herself “first and foremost as a teacher, advisor and mentor for undergrads and graduate students.”

Brinks grew up in Michigan in the suburbs of the Detroit Metro area. While she was in high school she studied abroad in Germany and that opened everything up for her. Brinks loved the vibrant, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Germany so much she ended up completing her Masters at a German university. At that point, she had been in a classroom for her entire life and decided that she needed to do something a little different.

She really wanted to do something for others because she has always been very service oriented, so she spent six years doing social work. Brinks returned to her academic roots after realizing that “deep down, [her] nature is that [she’s] an intellectual.” She likes to study, learn, and loves the classroom, and that’s where she wanted to be, so she went back to graduate school for a PhD.

For six years Brinks lived in Manhattan and worked on her PhD at Princeton. She became accustomed to her metropolitan lifestyle and fell in love with the diverse people that also inhabited the city. Ironically, when Brinks completed her PhD she applied for a position with a university located in a small town in Colorado.

Ellen and her wife, Julie

Ellen and her wife, Julie

The adjustment to life in Fort Collins was an interesting one. The hustle and bustle of Manhattan was a long ways away. “I thought I was in some post nuclear zone. I would look out of the house I was renting on Remington and I wouldn’t see a single person walk by,” said Brinks. The charms of CSU and the English Department in particular convinced Brinks to stay. “This department is wonderful. They let you explore and develop in the ways that you feel compelled to do.”

Professor Brinks is using that creative freedom to study international fairy tales at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, and how that shaped understandings of a globalized childhood. In particular, Brinks studies the way these fairy tales were reviewed and the conversations that surround these tales. “Those stories invite children to journey to other cultures and other places that they can never physically go, but they can imaginatively go — so what view of the world are they presenting and what understanding of the child as an international or global citizen are they projecting in those works?”

To research this, Brinks spends a lot of time sifting through archives, which happens to be one of her passions. She will be traveling to London in a couple months to the British Library to scavenge for fairy tales from the 19th century. “I love exploring all of those things and not knowing what I’m going to find,” said Brinks.

Children’s literacy is not just a topic that Brinks is exploring in her academic world, but also in her personal life. She spent some time traveling solo and ended up in Livingstone, Zambia on the Book Bus, a mobile library dedicated to increasing children’s literacy across the globe. “That’s when I absolutely fell in love with the place. There were other volunteers who were with me on the Book Bus, who were like in their 20’s or even younger. There was one guy who was 18 from England and he had never been to Africa before. He just on a whim decided to do it and he was great. I thought ‘wow!’ I can so imagine CSU students doing this and getting so much out of it and finding it very rewarding.”

When Brinks returned to CSU, she met with the Education Abroad office and began to develop the Zambia Study Abroad Program. She found an organization that could accommodate a larger group of volunteers, working in community health and education. Students from all over the university, representing all different majors, participate in the Zambia program and have said it’s been one of the most transformative experiences they’ve ever had.

Professor Ellen Brinks with Linda Farm Community children making ecobricks for the CSU compost project. Zambia, Summer 2015

Professor Ellen Brinks with Linda Farm Community children making ecobricks for the CSU compost project. Zambia, Summer 2015


Professor Brinks working in a clinic in Zambia

Ellen Brinks working in a clinic in Zambia

Students spend three weeks working in Livingstone, Zambia and can choose from several different tracks. For example there is the community health track, where students have the opportunity to provide health care through home visits, or there is the education track, which gives students the opportunity to teach a classroom of elementary-aged students.

Students will be challenged during their visit to Zambia and there will be tough moments, but Brinks said, “it’s also rewarding because you see how you can make a small difference in a child’s life.”

The trip to Zambia isn’t all work and no play; there are weekend excursions and plenty of free time for fun. Chobe National Park, in Botswana, is on the weekend excursion itinerary and there is a very large animal population. Rafting on the Zambize river and swimming on the edge of Victoria Falls are other pastimes.



Livingstone, Zambia has a very warm and welcoming feel, full of cafes and restaurants, as well as shopping and nightlife. This trip is a chance to be immersed in Zambian culture, without the prepackaged “African” experience.

Brinks has been leading this program for three years now and it has been one of the best experiences of her teaching career. “I am with them in the neighborhoods when we go to visit people, when we go to visit a young person who has cerebral palsy or an old woman who is really in pain because of a stroke. We’re problem solving on the ground together. We are giving each other emotional support. We’re just hanging together having a good time, sharing a beer at the end of the day.”

To find out more about this program, contact Ellen Brinks, or visit the program page. Or come to the information session, November 2.


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~from intern Joyce Bohling

Dana Masden
English Teaching Faculty, (CO150, CO300, Intro to Lit, Beginning Creative Writing and 20th Century Fiction, as well as CO150 online)
MFA: Creative Writing (she’s also an alumna!)
What brought you to CSU?

I came to CSU for my MFA in 2005. Every other school I applied to was in the Midwest and I was fairly certain I would attend school in Chicago. However, I got good vibes from the CSU Creative Writing department, my sister had recently moved to Colorado, and my top Chicago schools rejected me. Since then, my parents and other family members also relocated to Colorado. At the time, I thought of CSU as a big state school in a college town. Over time, I grew to love the community of Fort Collins and now only think of CSU as a small piece of the home I love so much.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Time is really my most precious resource, so I love the flexibility and independence that this career provides. But more than this, I truly enjoy working with undergraduate students. There is something about this stage in life that is perpetually exciting and hopeful.

Why are the Humanities important?

The Humanities are where people learn to think.

What inspired you to pursue a degree in English, the Humanities?

For two years as an undergraduate, I equally pursued both pre-med and creative writing, unsure if I wanted to be a doctor or a writer. I ultimately picked the writing path because I liked my classmates and professors in those courses much better, which told me something about what the rest of my life would be like if I pursued English and higher education. And it turns out that when I did well in the Sciences, it was often a writing-related task anyway, like writing a lab report or essay.

What special project are you working on right now?

After writing two (or four?) literary novels, my latest attempt is to write a thriller. I have always struggled with plot, so writing something plot-dependent is kind of a fun challenge for me.

What did you want to be when you were a kid?

A doctor or a writer—whichever had the better people.

What moment in the classroom stands out to you as most memorable?

I often return to a specific moment from early teaching when a student pointed out something incorrect and careless I said; an instance when I tried to answer a question I was unsure about. After this experience, I started paying attention to my own mentors in life and realized how willing they were to admit when they didn’t know something, how honesty was a big part of why they were good mentors to begin with, even if honesty was admitting ignorance or fault. I quickly learned that my attempt to always have an answer even when I didn’t know was obvious to my students and how important it is to pause after a question—to really think before speaking. That one student helped me to understand that teaching and mentorship is really not about being a constant authority but about modeling the thinking process, which requires both honesty and a bit of time to get right.

What is your favorite thing to teach? Favorite thing about teaching?

I teach both Composition and Creative Writing and I enjoy both of them equally—truly—for very different reasons. Composition is so useful and unlike anything I ever had as a student. I see my Composition students come out of the class better thinkers and that is inspiring. However, I am also very happy when I see someone in Creative Writing take a risk that pays off. Often the risk is to avoid some of the thrills and chills and plot stuff their peers are throwing into their work and to explore a very real but uncomfortable emotion. I feel privileged to be part of this when it happens.

What advice would you give to a student taking a class in the English department?

Go to office hours. Writers have such individual needs and I truly don’t know anyone in this department who I wouldn’t be delighted to spend twenty minutes with.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I remember asking Steven Schwartz about publishing and he told me very bluntly that my work wasn’t ready and I shouldn’t think about that at all. He told me to work on the writing first. I know we hear it all the time, but in such a blunt package it was memorable and important.

What’s your favorite word?

Noodle. It is what my daughter calls her future sibling (we have a second baby due in March). I should add that Vera’s full name for this upcoming baby is “White Noodle,” which I thought was a pretty good image for a twenty-month old.

What are you currently reading?

I read a great deal of argument papers, annotated bibliographies, student stories. I always have a book opened and half-way read somewhere but reading for me is mostly a summer thing.

What don’t your colleagues know about you?

During the semester, I prioritize watching really crappy reality TV instead of reading. Please don’t tell them. [Sorry, Dana — your secret is NOT safe with us].

What accomplishments are you most proud of?

When I graduated from my MFA, I made a goal to publish something every year, which I believed was setting myself nicely up for failure since publishing is not really in the writer’s control. However, since then, I have accomplished my goal in one form or another, publishing sometimes even two or three stories and essays a year, if you don’t count 2012, which nobody thought was a great year anyway.

When you’re not working, what do you do?

I spend a lot of time with my family—with Joe, Vera, and Noodle, but also my extended family—my parents and siblings and niece and nephews. I can’t imagine not being close to them.


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~from English Department Communications Intern Joyce Bohling

In June 2016, Colorado State University officially became the campus partner of Semester at Sea, an international academic program through which students from over 100 campuses spend a semester taking courses onboard a ship, each course’s curriculum directly tied to the places and ports visited. Professor Sarah Sloane, who first taught on a Semester at Sea voyage in Fall 2013 and will return to the program in Fall 2017, is one of serveral CSU faculty members who have experienced the joys and rigors of the program.

I asked Sarah about her experience sailing from Southampton, England to Capetown South Africa, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to Buenos Aires, and then traveling north to Havana, Cuba before finally disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During this 12,000-mile voyage she traveled through 17 port cities and 15 countries going in a giant circle around most of  the Atlantic Rim. She taught Introduction to Creative Writing, Introduction to Travel Writing, and Women’s World Literature. She has given several presentations to faculty and students about her experience and currently serves as a member on the six-person Semester at Sea Advisory Board for CSU.

What follows are excerpts from our interview.


Sarah on the back of an elephant at an elephant sanctuary in eastern South Africa, on the Garden Route. “I was surprised at how stiff their skin was. Petting the elephant was like petting gray bark. The man ahead of me on this elephant had worked at the elephant sanctuary his whole life. He was devoted to the elephants. On those rare times that an elephant would calve and a baby elephant would be born in the sanctuary, this man (in his 40s) would sleep with that baby elephant every night for two months, right on their bed of saw dust with them, the mother as close or as far away as she wanted to be.”


Q: Was the process of Colorado State becoming a partner with Semester at Sea already in progress when you first applied?

Nope. Pure coincidence. I applied to teach on Semester at Sea’s 50th anniversary voyage in Fall 2013, and was lucky enough to be accepted as a member of an international faculty hailing from six different countries. At that time the Institute for Shipboard Education (SAS) partnered with University of Virginia to award academic credit and maintain the intellectual rigor of the voyage.  It was an amazing discovery for me to learn two years later that Colorado State University, out of the 3000-plus four-year colleges and universities in the United States, was negotiating to be the new home for the program.

An important element in the negotiations with the Institute of Shipboard Education was to ensure that Colorado State University undergraduate students would be amply represented on these academic voyages. In addition to paying their regular tuition fees, students on Semester at Sea have to pay for travel around the world, three meals a day, and living for sixteen weeks in a shared ship’s cabin. It was important to CSU that they negotiate a contract that would give CSU students scholarship monies and financial aid so that they could afford the costs. In addition, they negotiated a contract whereby four CSU faculty members would sail on each voyage as Global Teaching Scholars. Instead of taking a leave or sabbatical to teach for Semester at Sea for the relatively small stipend of $11,000 (plus, of course, free room and board and 12,000 miles of travel), as a GTS I will receive my full CSU salary as well as be considered full-time faculty not on leave. I’ll be teaching for CSU, in other words, but on a different (floating) campus. I will also have some new responsibilities upon my return to CSU, such as infusing my current courses here with new international content and working with prospective CSU SAS students, but I would do both of those duties anyway. While I was thrilled to be able to travel and teach on the MV Explorer in 2013, and felt quite happily spoiled by someone else doing the cooking, the cleaning, and the laundry, it will be very nice to have health insurance and be fully paid.


“The faculty badge and plastic key to my cabin, (a card also used to pay for anything on the ship).”

Q: How has it compared with other teaching experiences that you’ve had?

In a way — this is not just puffery or PR — in a way, it’s the best that education can offer. I have taught at six universities: three of them private and three of them public. What I love about public universities is the kind of student you get to teach. Almost 25% of our CSU students are first-generation students,  and it is an honor to help new university students acclimate to college learning. I love working with students from rural Colorado who might have grown up on a cattle ranch or belong to the CSU Rodeo Club; I love working with undergrads from Denver who are adjusting from living in a large city to our small one. In my experience our CSU undergraduate education is world-class, and to offer opportunities for new students to learn everything from pathology to environmental writing, from construction management to how to build a good essay, demonstrates our breadth of opportunity and depth of commitment to offering the best courses we can devise.

Nonetheless, sometimes undergraduate courses at CSU are very large for effective undergraduate education, for the give and take of thorough discussion and analysis of everything from scientific data to what it means to be human in the early 21st century. Further, our CSU undergrads are often working 40 hours a week to be able to afford to go here, which is smart from the point of view of accruing as little debt as possible to earn a degree. But it sometimes worries me that they do not have the luxury of time; their tightly scheduled days and their challenges of balancing responsibilities with their coursework, their jobs, their families and friends, can be very challenging. Some undergrads here have to rush across town to get to classes and jobs, or are taking large classes where there is not the kind of personal interaction with professors that study after study shows is essential to good educational experiences. And Semester at Sea, by virtue of its being education on a ship, erases both those difficulties.


All the CSU students who were on the MV Explorer voyage in Fall 2013.



“Another shot of all the CSU students on the ship. (I managed to get us all together by working with the registrar’s office on the ship and sorting names. Almost 200 universities were represented by the almost 600 students on the ship. We had 11 or 12 students from CSU alone, even when the program was run by University of Virginia, as it was at that time.)”

On Semester at Sea, my class size was very small. I think I had 10 or 12 in two classes and then 24 in my literature class. My only professional responsibility was to teach these three writing classes. I had no administrative responsibilities. I was able to respond to different learning styles; I had at least three hour-long conferences with every single student in all three classes over the course of the semester. I really could get in there and teach students how to write well by going through sentences with them; discussing the rhetorical appeals that would best achieve their aims. Also, other people were doing my laundry and feeding me. I even had my own steward who called me “Madame Sarah” and took care of my laundry, cleaning my cabin, and helping me with any problem I might have. I was able to return student papers within 24 hours. Every single day at sea I would have an hour-long lunch in the cafeteria I had scheduled with a different student; I’d set up a time and we’d spend that hour talking about their writing in progress. I didn’t have to do anything except teach and talk with students. It was wonderful! My time was expected to be spent teaching alone. That was what I was hired to do, and I felt myself sort of downshift into an approach to undergraduate education that I just loved. I missed being at places where you have small classes where students are only there to learn. I know that’s a very privileged environment, but it was nice to be back in that for a little while.

So Semester at Sea has the ability to combine the best of public education — giving support and access to first-generation students and serving the land grant mission of the university’s commitment to community — with the best of private education, including small class size and students who were not distracted by commutes nor other jobs. The CSU students on the MV Explorer were in very small classes.

CSU has negotiated some fantastic scholarship opportunities for our undergraduates. President Frank mentioned informally that he hopes over the years that we will eventually have 75 CSU students on every single voyage. We’re very different from the kind of university that has sometimes run the program before. It took almost a year of negotiations, and what I’ve heard is that we just really stood strong on insisting on affordable access for our own students.

Q: How does the program compare with other study abroad programs that other students here at CSU might be interested in?

Different kind of experience. The difference is getting a taste of life in several different places. It’s more of a comparative international experience as opposed to an immersion in a single country. It’s set up better for global and intercultural studies rather than Spanish studies or study in Australia or Ireland. It’s a curriculum and experience that encourages multiple or plural understandings of culture. A student does not spend six months studying Hindu ritual in Kathmandu, for example, which would be an intensely valuable experience. Instead, SAS students might study world religion and complement intensive shipboard study with onshore experiences from attending a Catholic Mass in Dublin to learning about traditional Buddhist practice in China, studying the Japanese Tea Ceremony or talking first hand with undergraduate Tibetan Buddhists in Macleod Ganj to understand how traditional debate practices are translated in a new study context like northern India.

Semester at Sea is different because it allows you to take a multinational, multicultural lens. Every culture is understood through knowledge that accrues and in comparison to other places and cities and countries.


Schoolboys on the street in Takoradi, Ghana.



Local man in a woman’s beer-making hut in Langa Township, outside Capetown, South Africa.

Q: What would be the pros and cons of that multinational approach versus just studying in one country?

Every time we would enter a new port, the night before we would have what was called the cultural pre-port lecture, the safety lecture, the nuts & bolts lecture; we would be prepared for each new port by experts from the country about what to do next. And when we came back from Cuba — sailed from Havana to Ft. Lauderdale — the sixty international students that were on the ship got together and gave the cultural pre-port lecture to visiting the United States of America. It was so odd to hear about our own country in the context in completely fresh ways, given that we were all seeing it now through the lens of 16 other ports. We learned we were going to a country where almost 40% of the population was armed, and a country that still had the death penalty, and where 30-some thousand people had been killed by firearms the year before. Baltimore’s crime rate was the same as that in than Bogotá, Colombia. The multinational perspective allowed those of us who were from the U.S. to see our own country in a brand-new way. It made us more flexible people, and maybe people who questioned received norms a little more intently.

I would think that people who go on Semester at Sea and visit 15 different countries or 12 different countries are less inclined to believe there are universal truths, that there are universal ways of living in the world, and that there is only one way to understand religion, social stratification, ways to dress and ways to think.


Sarah giving a lecture at the Open University of West Africa in Accra, Ghana.


Drumming class in Takoradi, Ghana.

Drumming class in Takoradi, Ghana.


Sarah learning how to make empanadas in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Sarah learning how to make empanadas in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Every course taught on a Semester at Sea voyage includes a one-day field trip in a port city. For Sarah Sloane’s Women’s World Literature course, she was able to arrange lunch and a special visit for her students with Ghana’s premier author, Amma Darko. The students had read Darko’s work, Not Without Flowers

I had, with some difficulty from the US, arranged for my students and I to have lunch with Amma Darko while she talked with us for an hour. We ended up talking to her for about 2 and a half hours. My class was so into it. They had spent two weeks planning what questions they had wanted to ask her, and Ms. Darko enjoyed their energy and questions immensely.

She said that in Ghana most people don’t read a lot, not because they don’t have literacy but because it’s not the cultural custom to buy books and read. There’s a saying in Ghana that if you have a secret to keep, put it in a book because no one will read it. But one of her novels had just been picked up by the Ghanaian school system, which meant every kid in Ghana was going to read be reading one of her novels. She was so excited.

She also said one of the most inspiring things I have ever heard about writing. In response to a student’s question about how she found time to write given all her other responsibilities, Amma Darko said this: “I work from 8 to 5 every day at the post office. I have four children. I do all the cooking and cleaning, not because my husband won’t help me but because I don’t like the way he does it. And I have written six novels. If you want to write, you will find time to write.”

All of us remembered that.


Women’s World Literature (the class that went to have lunch with Amma Darko).



Student Brittany Raab, Author Amma Darko, and Professor Sarah Sloane holding a copy of Ms. Darko’s book, Not Without Flowers after lunch in Takoradi, Ghana.

Q: Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in participating in Semester at Sea?

Come talk to me. I’d love to talk with any of them about the experience. Go the International Study Abroad Fairs because there’s always someone from Semester at Sea there.

Students are chosen based on academic record but also based on evidence of flexibility, open-mindedness, and potential to get a lot out of the voyage. We want to work with students who want to drain every drop they can from this amazing experience. And while there are a lot of valuable programs through Semester at Sea where students bring aid to people we meet (for example, in Langa Township near Capetown, South Africa, where SAS students gave away thousands of toothbrushes through a program called “Global Toothbrushes”), students also are given as much if not more through local citizens’ generosity in helping us understand their world. The learning and giving go both ways.

Travel writing class

“My travel writing class in the celestial observatory at the top of the Kunsterkamera in St Petersburg, Russia.”



Bookshelf in Ernest Hemingway’s home, 45 minutes outside Havana, Cuba. “I was put in charge of the ‘Hemingway Tour’ in Cuba because I was the only English professor on the ship.”

Q: Do you have any advice for faculty who might be interested in participating?

The selection criteria might be changing now that CSU is partnering on the program, but on my voyage, it seemed like there were two or maybe three criteria that were important. Obviously, you had to have a Ph.D., and you had to have experience teaching undergraduates and do a pretty good job of it…and be committed to undergraduate education in a real way….But what mattered as much, I think, is evidence of substantial and prolonged international travel. I was surprised by that. Even before I went on that voyage, I’d gone to over 40 countries, and I’d lived overseas, I’d lived in Spain for several months, and I’d lived in Scotland for two years. I had visited or lived in a total of over 40 countries. Yet when I joined the other 30 faculty, I learned I  I had traveled less than many of the faculty that I sailed with.

Any place on earth you could think of, there was someone who had been there. I think what such extensive travel showed was that the successful faculty applicant was very flexible. I think that really is the most important criterion for both faculty and students: the ability to “roll with it.” In most international travel of more than a couple of weeks, one cannot get invested in a particular schedule or a particular route or a particular experience because things will definitely change.


Sarah with two other professors on the ship: Pinky Nelson (L) and Kathy Thornton (R), both of them former astronauts who between the two of them have logged hundreds of hours in space.

As an example of the need for flexibility, Professor Sloane shared the following story: when she and three other faculty from her voyage disembarked in Salvador, Brazil, chose to travel overland through the interior of Brazil.  None of them spoke Portuguese, although one had a phrase book from which she incanted irrelevant expressions from time to time. For example, one night when we had been traveling for hours on a local bus to Lénçois, still 200km away, the bus came to a sudden halt and all the lights went off inside. No one said anything on the whole bus, but we four middle-aged women from the US were all silently wondering about the real risk of bandits boarding the bus. My friend whispered aloud in Portuguese gleaned from her phrase book into the darkness of the empty road unfurling ahead: “I am a vegetarian.” On the other hand, we probably spoke six other languages altogether, as well as had eight graduate degrees among the four of us; and most important of all, on a quick count the four of us had probably visited or lived in 70 countries and, indeed, we all knew how to roll with it.

We got in an aqua blue Landrover. I sat in the front seat because I’m so tall, and the door wouldn’t close. We were bouncing over dirt roads; the door would fly open and I’d close it. We drove over a wood bridge and it broke. We saw a dust devil, and I thought it was a tornado. We drove through a river and across the river. We drove down boulders.

Mustaffah, the driver

Mustaffah, the driver with the aqua blue Landrover in question

We got to our first destination. It was about 95 degrees out, high humidity in the interior of Brazil, and everyone said, “We’re gonna go down. We’re gonna go down like 300 hundred steps and see this waterfall. I had my sunglasses on. They meant there was 300 actual steps, but that was the start of the trail. But then we went down about another 500 feet. I’m getting redder and redder, hotter hotter, clambering over boulders, until we get to this one place and they hand out the helmets.

I’m like, “Helmets?”

They’re like, “Yeah, the light’s right here.”

I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”

Waiting to go in.

Waiting to go in.

And we went another 60 feet straight into the ground. I have on sunglasses. We are in the middle of a cave; it would not have passed a single safety regulation in the United States….After about 45 minutes, we end up at the very bottom of this cave, and yes, there’s a little pool of water that might be over a billion years old and a teenie beam of sunlight from about 300 feet above.


There’s photographs of me sitting on this stone, with my helmet and my sunglasses, beet red, and the only way back is the way we came in. It was unbelievable.

With about 35 minutes still to go on the climb up sixty feet with ladders and ropes in the pitch-black cave–wearing my prescription sunglasses didn’t help–then over boulders and rocks another 90 minutes, all the way back to the bottom of the 300 steps and then on up those, between the hot, moist air and my thirst and fatigue, I really wasn’t sure I could go another half hour.

So I asked Diego to tell me a story. “What about?” he asked.

“Anything,” I said. “Anything to get my mind off how hot I am and how hard this climb is.”

Diego started to tell me the origin story behind each mountain. His were fairly stock folk tales of rescue, royalty, marriage, a maiden turned into stone, a boy suddenly being able to fly, but all his stories did an excellent job of keeping me distracted from my discomfort and got me up the stairs. At the top of the stairs there was a small restaurant and I threw myself on a chair and panted. One of my friends (who had already bounded like a gazelle from the belly of the cave to the restaurant and probably was on her second lunch) handed me a liter of cold water. “Not yet!” Diego gently put out his hand to signal she should stop. “Sarah’s blood is boiling. We need to wait five or ten minutes until the blood cools down and then she can drink.” My friends looked at me doubtfully, and I said, “Hey. Diego got me alive out of the cave and all the way back up here. If he says my blood is boiling, my blood is boiling. We’re going to wait ten minutes.” He conceded to a bandana soaked in cool water and put against the back of my sweaty red neck.

"Sarah and her friend and guide Diego, a 23-year-old man fluent in English and Portuguese, who single-handedly got me out of the caves near Lencois. He also took me to a Catholic church service in that village deep in the interior of Brazil. It had a "Black Christ," which is just what it sounds like––an image of Jesus Christ beautifully carved out of wood whose face is black. There are many churches with black Christs all around the world, but this was the first one I saw. Diego took me to a Saturday evening mass because I said I was interested."

Sarah and her friend and guide Diego, “a 23-year-old man fluent in English and Portuguese, who single-handedly got me out of the caves near Lencois. He also took me to a Catholic church service in that village deep in the interior of Brazil. It had a ‘Black Christ,’ which is just what it sounds like––an image of Jesus Christ beautifully carved out of wood whose face is black. There are many churches with black Christs all around the world, but this was the first one I saw. Diego took me to a Saturday evening mass because I said I was interested.”

Q: Is there anything else you want to add?

If people are interested, do come see me. Send me an email, set up an appointment, have a cup of coffee, whatever they want.

Professor Sloane is starting an essay contest for students who participate in Semester Sea that, she hopes, will not only create a history of CSU’s relationship with the organization, but allow students to think comparatively about the worldviews of the many countries participants visit.

For more information, or to apply to participate in Semester at Sea as a student or faculty member, visit the program’s official website at Students must also register through the Office of International Program’s Education Abroad, where they can apply for grants and financial aid.

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One of the hundreds of cups of tea that I had in the UK! (And a full Scottish breakfast, complete with blood pudding and beans)

This summer, in addition to serving as the interim Communications Coordinator for the English Department, I also spent three weeks touring the United Kingdom, hiking through the Scottish highlands, and attending various shows and performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest arts festival in the world.

Edinburgh was the first city designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a City of Literature in 2004. According to, Edinburgh is “a literary powerhouse, attracting and spawning best-selling writers, home to vibrant publishing houses and the birthplace of the world’s biggest book festival….Edinburgh [is] bursting with literary history and heritage.”

My traveling partner and boyfriend, Andy Robertson, was an excellent tour guide having lived in Edinburgh for 6 years (he received his Bachelor’s and Master’s at the University of Edinburgh). During our 6 days at the Fringe, we saw 12 shows (and an additional 2 in London), visited 8 “literary pubs,” drank 300 cups of tea, and learned about the history and culture of Edinburgh.


Here is some more information about the top eight literary pubs that we visited in Edinburgh:

Literary Pub Tour of Edinburgh: 

1.The White Hart Inn: Founded in 1516, the White Hart Inn is one of Edinburgh’s oldest pubs, so it’s no surprise that many notable literary figures have stayed there. Robert Burns lodged there on his last visit to Edinburgh in 1791, as did William and Dorothy Wordsworth in 1803.IMG_3180

2. Deacon Brodie’s Tavern This pub commemorates Deacon Brodie, a man whose fascinating double life is said to have inspired The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. By day, Deacon Brodie was a cabinet-maker and respected city councillor of Edinburgh, but by night he led a second life as a burglar, partly for the thrill of it and partly to fund his gambling. IMG_31923. Sheep Heid Inn: There has reputedly been a pub on this spot selling liquor and victuals since 1360. If this date is correct it would make The Sheep Heid Inn the oldest pub in Edinburgh, and possibly all of Scotland. It was cute, cozy, and a favorite destination for poets throughout the centuries. Also, at the base of Arthur’s Seat, it’s a great place to grab a post-hike beer!


4. The Blind Poet: Poems are inscribed on the wood panels inside The Blind Poet in homage to the former owner, eighteenth century poet, Thomas Blacklock. The pub now features a series of open mic and spoken word nights.


The Blind Poet was renamed by the Gilded Balloon for the Fringe Festival and served as a ticket box office for the many nearby shows.

5. Greyfriars Bobby Bar: Greyfriars Bobby Bar occupies the ground floor of a row of Georgian houses adjoining the historic Candlemakers’ Hall, built in 1722. The name of the bar is inspired by an Edinburgh legend of ay Skye terrier called Bobby. When his owner died in 1858, Bobby faithfully watched over his grave and was buried alongside his master in the Greyfriars Kirkyard in 1872. 


Standing next to a statue of Bobby the dog

6. The World Famous Frankenstein and Bier Keller: This three-story pub commemorates Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with a mechanical frankenstein that gets zapped to life every hour. IMG_3253   

7. The Conan Doyle: This pub serves as a shrine to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and is situated across the street from a statue of Sherlock Holmes.IMG_3267

8. Elephant House: Although this is not a pub, it is one of Edinburgh’s most famous cafes. JK Rowling wrote the Harry Potter series while sipping tea and eating cake in this cafe.



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Timothy Amidon, an assistant professor in the Department of English at Colorado State University, spent his summer (and much of his academic career!) researching the role of firefighter communication in preventing disasters and tragedies.

Tim has more than 15 years of experience in the fire service as a firefighter and officer with Westerly Fire Department in Rhode Island, a fire instructor with the Rhode Island Fire Academy, and a technician with Rhode Island Search and Rescue. He has devoted his academic research to understanding and improving firefighter communication.


According to Tim, about 100 firefighters die each year in the line of duty, and many more are seriously injured. Structural and equipment issues can play a role in these casualties, but communication problems are a factor that is often overlooked or misunderstood. If a firefighter is unable to correctly interpret fire behavior and communicate important information back to the rest of the team, for instance, the situation can quickly escalate to danger. Firefighters must learn how to use aural and radio literacy to rapidly process and prioritize communications in a high-stress environment.

Read the following interview with Tim, and check out this story from Source to learn more about his research!

What inspired you to get involved in firefighting? 

Well, my dad likes to say I became a firefighter because he read Margaret Wise Brown’s The Little Fireman to me too many times. But, growing up around a lot of folks in the service (my dad was in the Navy) probably had something to do with it. The exact reason is that when I was growing up, my best friends were a set of twins, and their dad, Steve (who was in the Coast Guard) was a volunteer in Westerly Fire Department in Westerly, Rhode Island. Growing up, Steve would occasionally bring us to the station where we’d play pool, wash dishes, and help the firefighters clean up after meetings. Sometimes he’d let us ride along in his truck to the alarms too, and we could sit in the truck and watch firefighters work. But, that ended up being pretty boring, mostly, because a lot of the alarms I remember going to as a teenager were false.

Anyways, when I was in high school a couple of the older guys that I surfed with and looked up to were lifeguards, so I started training to become a lifeguard so I could work at the beach with them when I turned 16. That first summer, I had a lot of opportunities to help people and I realized that being a first responder was something that I enjoyed: the first day I worked on the beach, for what it’s worth, a patron had a cardiac event, so I got indoctrinated into the reality of responding pretty quickly.

After two summers, I was 18, a senior in high school, and I wanted to help in other ways, too, so I asked Steve to sponsor me to join the fire department. I filled out an application, had a physical and a background check, went to an interview with leaders of the department, and, after being approved and taking an oath, they gave me a helmet, a set of gear, and a pager and said show up when that goes off. So, I did for 16 years, until I moved out here. While I was showing up over that period of time, I got super involved. I went to a lot of fire academy classes and earned a lot of certifications: tech-rescue disciplines like swift water, rope, and heavy rescue to rapid intervention and organizational certifications like fire officer, safety officer, fire instructor. After some time, I became a lieutenant, then, a captain for one of the engine companies in the department. Also, I began teaching firefighting at the RI State Fire Academy, the Union Fire District, as well as with the Tiverton Fire Department recruit academies. And, I joined RI Urban Search and Rescue and served with them for a couple of years.


Tim ventilating a roof at a residential structure fire in Westerly, Rhode Island

Did you have a particular experience that piqued your interest in the communication between firefighters?

Yes. Lots of experiences with communication, but really a big part of it for me is that communication is how firefighters understand that term. To me it’s literacy. I’m really, ultimately, a literacy researcher. And, as a digital rhetorician/computer and composition scholar, I understand literacy as a thing that has both multimodal and multimedia dimensions.

In graduate school, I read Beverly Sauer’s The Rhetoric of Risk, which is a study of the ways official discourse regarding risk in mining communities differs from the embodied literacies and practices that miners use to construct and communicate risk. As I read the body of research on rhetoric and risk communication, I came to understand that there really isn’t much other work that looks at the ways how other types of blue-collar workers, like firefighters, use embodied literacies–tactile, kinesthetic, aural, visual, gestural literacies–to construct and communicate knowledge in risk environments. That’s when I said, whoa, ok, I see that there is a huge gap in research here. We don’t know much about the ways that blue-collar workers like miners do literacy in workplace settings. Most workplace writing (literacy) studies are of engineers or software developers and things like that. And, so, I was like, hey, I think this subjectivity where I’m a rhetoric and literacy scholar and a firefighter might be related. Up to that point, I kind of just did those different things and didn’t see them as super related, so it was really Sauer’s work that pushed me to start pushing this connection as a researcher.

To answer your question, yeah, I do have first-hand experiences that relate to the time I spent serving my community that influence how I think about some of these things. Right now, I’m really interested in how firefighters learn the many tacit forms of literacy they use to construct knowledge in risk settings, and how we might teach those in more transparent/less tacit ways so that firefighters have access to the forms of literacy and knowledge-making practices that would help them work more safely when they are in risk environments. Things like reading smoke, for instance, is something that is difficult to teach, but it happens. I want to learn more about how those types of literacies are acquired by new members of this discourse community.

What does your research with firefighter communication involve? 

I’m working on a couple of projects related to fire fighting, but not actual wildland fire communications presently. One project is with a researcher and former wildland firefighter, Mike Caggiano, who knows a great deal about the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). I’ve been working with Mike on a project that was funded by the the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute. In that project, we’re trying to better understand if/how different homeowners, firefighters, and forest mitigation specialists understand/construct defensible space as a similar concept. Our preliminary data suggests that they are some pretty significant differences regarding the ways that defensible space is understood, rhetorically, by the stakeholders. For instance, we are seeing different definitions about what it is. Especially, regarding the aims of what it does, how it works, and if it is effective under various conditions (e.g., if firefighters respond; if it is a crown fire). Right now, we’re finishing up some of the coding and analysis of that project, and we’re hoping to finish writing the paper and submit it to a journal by December.

There are three projects that deal more with communication at the firefighter/fireground level that I’m working on right now, too. I have been working on a foundational article that sets out the preliminary methodological argument for why combining methods like (genre ecology modeling) from writing activity and genre research (WAGR) with multimodal and sensory ethnography (Sarah Pink’s work, also Brian McNely over at University at Kentucky) are useful for studying the types of literacies I’m interested in better understanding. I’m trying to get this one out by this fall.

I’m working on a different methodological project related to challenges of enacting participatory community based research in communities where you’re perceived as an insider with W. Michele Simmons. We’ll be presenting on this at SIGDOC in Washington, D.C. in September, and we’ll have a peer-reviewed paper on this in the upcoming SIGDOC Proceedings. We plan to start a larger study that expands on this preliminary work.

And, I’m working with an interdisciplinary PRECIP team (Elizabeth Williams, Kim Henry, and Tiffany Lipsey) and leaders from the training division of Poudre Fire Authority to refine and develop research methods that will enable us to better understand how ‘communications’ connect to safety in fireground practices. So, we’re really looking, primarily at structure fire settings, but I’d suspect that what we learn will have relevance for wildland firefighting, too.

Travis Garcia and his coworkers at Poudre Fire Authority Station 1. January 15, 2013

Travis Garcia and his coworkers at Poudre Fire Authority Station 1. (January 15, 2013) Tim is working with the training division of the Poudre Fire Authority to develop research methods to improve communications and safety. (Image from Source).

Have you ever witnessed a disaster that possibly could have been prevented by better communication between firefighters?

The communications failures associated with 9/11 and the Challenger explosion are very well documented in research. And, personally, yes, I’ve been on scenes were things went poorly due to poor “communications.” Communicating in risk environments is highly challenging for a number of reasons. One is that first responders are working in time sensitive contexts. Folks make decisions in seconds that have huge consequences for the emergency and the responders alike. It’s important to understand that, but I think as a researcher you have to really, really be cognizant of that to avoid coming off as a “Monday morning quarterback.” Folks make tough decisions–that often impact whether they and others will live– with little time to do so. That’s consequential.

Another is that the environments themselves impact the how responders make sense of information and communicate that information. There are issues of power, credibility, and trust that impact how decisions are made, but also the fact that firefighters often can’t hear, see, or talk well because they are working in gear and places that are loud or dark or where there is zero visibility. So, when I say, yes I’ve seen communications breakdowns or situations where these contributed to ‘disaster’, I mean it in the sense that literacy is a two way kind of thing. It’s about reading and writing. I’ve been in situations, personally as a firefighter and rescuer, where I didn’t have access to the types of literacies that would have enabled me to make effective decisions to mitigate my own risk as a worker. I’ve been on scenes where improved command and operations could have reduced the risks that myself and members of my engine company were exposed to.

In a lecture this past spring, you also mentioned “a culture of bravery” and some other problems within firefighting culture. Can you say more about some of these issues?

There is a mantle of ‘warrior’ ethos that firefighters often take up. They/we wear maltese crosses. It’s not just symbolism that we adorn to equipment or our shirts or hats, it’s an oath and creed that we live to: we are willing to give our life to help save another. I value anyone who takes that oath seriously very highly, and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that. That being said, there are times where folks need to tap out and they don’t. There is a culture where we won’t ask for help or admit that we don’t know something or show weakness because that’s not acceptable in a culture of bravery. That’s not good for learners, though. So, you need to have that culture of bravery because it helps you to do things you didn’t know you were capable of doing, but you also have to create a culture where it’s ok to be a learner.

It’s not just because you want to show you have less fear or because you want to be the hero or because you think you’re invincible. Risk decisions should be made carefully, but also quickly when necessary, in ways that allow for space for folks to say here’s what I’m not comfortable with. Maybe that happens after the event. But, there needs to be a space where folks that do this type of work can talk openly about why decisions weren’t always the best, and sometimes those spaces just don’t exist. And, there are a whole host of cultural reasons for that. Normative expectations of gender performance, for instance.


Tim answering questions about his research, Spring 2016. (Image from Source).

What might be the greater implications of your research? How could firefighting departments across the nation use your research to put better communication skills into practice?

As a writing teacher, the most basic one is that firefighters need to actually practice using the genres they use on firegrounds before they need to use them in a high risk setting. That seems like it should be a no-brainer, but plenty of firefighters nationally haven’t been trained in a practice or learning setting to actually give a size-up over the radio. They might be taught here’s what a size-up is. But, they have zero experience even in training settings performing that genre. That’s astounding to me.

Maydays. Every firefighter in the nation should be practicing how to call a mayday on the radio at least once a week. More widely, we need to treat and respect the ways that different types of workers do knowledge work. Literacy researcher Mike Rose says we have this binary associated with work and what it means culturally, where somehow we don’t view mechanical work as involving knowledge. And, that’s just wrong. Some of the smartest folks I know are firefighters. Geniuses. But, they’d be ridiculed if they wrote a sentence in first year comp. We need to do a hell of a better job of valuing literacy and not just school house literacies. There’s a lot of elitism that alienates folks in these types of professions that devalues and displaces their ways of knowledge making and communicating. We need to improve that.