Veteran scholar Bruce Krajewski (pronounced “cry-eff-ski”) joined UT Arlington this summer as professor and chair of the Department of English. It’s the fourth chair appointment of his career, the most recent at Texas Woman’s University in Denton.
Communications coordinator James Dunning sat down with Krajewski to discuss his journey to Arlington and what plans he has for the department.
Q: Over the past 25 years, you’ve had teaching stints at the University of Chicago, Laurentian University in Canada, Georgia Southern University and Texas Woman’s. How has your approach to the classroom and to students evolved over the years?
A: I had teachers in elementary school and high school who were inspiring… and I knew at an early age I wanted to do what they were doing. I’m not of the same school as others who have a notion that the teacher is a facilitator or ‘one among equals.’ Obviously, teachers learn from students and vice versa. But I don’t forget that I’m the one being paid to teach.
One of the ongoing challenges as a teacher is to find examples and applications that students can latch on to for understanding the concepts you’re trying to explain. Twenty years ago, I could use a “Gilligan’s Island” example and students got it. Almost everyone was watching the same networks, so you could mention “CBS Evening News” or “60 Minutes” and most people would know that example. Now that’s not true. There are so many versions of the media students are paying attention to that it’s splintered to the point where I would have to spend a lot of time to come with an array of examples that everyone would understand. I don’t know the latest things happening in punk rock or hip hop or what shows they’re watching on Comedy Central, but I try. Sometimes it’s embarrassing. One time, I thought, I’d be cool and relevant to my students and mention Beyoncé. But I didn’t know there was that little accent at the end. So I said, “you know, like that song by ‘bee-ons.’” And they all started laughing. I didn’t know it was pronounced “bee-on-say.” [Laughing.] So those kinds of moments are fun.
Here, we take pride in the fact that UTA is a diverse university. We have people from many different countries, from different socioeconomic and learning backgrounds. So their experiences are wildly different from mine. And my experiences might not resonate with anyone in the classroom. So it’s my responsibility as a teacher to find examples that will help make concepts clearer to my students.
Q: Are there newer challenges today’s instructors face?
A: There are greater legal responsibilities that teachers have. Like active shooter alerts that come through Mav Alerts on our campus or through high school alerts. It’s something that happens when there’s an emergency or a similar situation. People suddenly realize their role is very different from that of the students. You’re responsible to help your students, follow protocol, etc. That’s what makes the teacher role very different. It’s an important role but some people seem to want to dismiss it in an effort to become more like the students.
Q: Apart from the pop culture references, how do you think students have changed over the past three decades?
A: The culture of the classroom has shifted to a utilitarian model. The students – as well as the parents who are paying for their student’s tuition – have very definite, practical goals for their degrees. How is this going to get me a job? It’s a far more difficult thing to explain in a humanities class than an engineering or science class. When I first began teaching, I didn’t have to do that sort of thing. The culture at the time valued Shakespeare and philosophy. Nowadays, you have to make a case for Shakespeare. It’s not self-evident that learning for learning’s sake is an okay thing to do.
Q: The English department is more than reading and writing and training students to become teachers. What are some of the changes you that you have seen in the academic world or among your peers?
A: There’s more of an openness to the kinds of things people are willing to count as literature. There’s scholarship now on philosophy in literature or environmental studies and nature writers. That might have been a harder sell to an administration 20 years ago. But English has evolved to the point where people recognize the impact of literature on other parts of the world and the world has an influence on literature. You can talk about a hip hop artist in your class because you see the lyrics of that artist are based on a Shakespeare play or a reference to a famous writer or novel.
The world of literature on college campuses has expanded exponentially. It’s something that’s happened in my lifetime. When I was in grad school [Nobel prize-winning novelist] Saul Bellow said something to the effect of “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be glad to read him.” People of course, took offense to that, and justifiably so. But now we have plenty of courses on world literature and people don’t think twice about offering a course on Native American literature or Chinese-American literature or Latino literature.
Part of the pressure to cover other authors and other literary works comes from the student population. It’s not just a group of professors sitting in a room coming up with a reading list. These days there is more of a sense from instructors that successful courses deal with the audience in front of them. You want to pay attention to the students, who they are, and what items might appeal to them.
Q: As chair, what are some of your goals for the department in the coming years?
A: This is my fourth stint as chair. I’ve learned a lot of from being at three other places. They’ve all been places that were multidisciplinary; no place had just an English department. In Georgia, it was a literature and philosophy department and they had a center for Irish studies built in. Texas Woman’s had different components to it besides English, and they had a rhetoric piece. When I was in Canada, they had just started a multidisciplinary M.A. degree that involved native studies and foreign languages. Everywhere I’ve been there have been multiple things going on, and that has been helpful.
One of the goals I have here is to publicize the wonderful things the students and faculty are doing in our department. We have some really outstanding people doing some amazing things. But I don’t think the department’s reputation outside of UTA is as well known as it should be. We want to expand out promotional materials, offer a regular newsletter, be more in touch with our alumni. Our hope is to make connections with the community and create events at local museums or galleries and have those groups come to our campus. It’s about helping people become acquainted with our faculty and students. We don’t want to be an isolated jewel on campus.
Q: You’ve lived in North Texas for a number of years. What was your impression of UT Arlington before you started working here?
A: I understood the UT system had more resources than other institutions in Texas. But I didn’t appreciate how that translated into certain advantages that I had not experienced at Texas Woman’s University. There’s more money here in ways I could not have imagined from the outside. People are willing to think about projects and ideas that would be impractical to bring up at TWU because of the lack of funding. Here, you can talk about a new graduate degree or a special program for our undergraduate students… the possibilities are there to not only think about them, but to actually do them.
Q: How do you think those discussions among faculty or the efforts to promote what’s going in the department will benefit the university in the long run?
A: We’re clearly also focused on the university’s quest for Tier One status. One of the requirements is 200 Ph.D. graduates per year across the university. We’re in a good position to help with that; a Ph.D. in English is a lot cheaper than a Ph.D. in engineering. Engineering departments have to supply their students with lab space, and students are usually required to get funding, NSF funding, or some other kind of research assistance. We’re not like that. If we can get our candidates through the program in a healthy amount of time, we can show how our program is contributing to that 200-Ph.D.s-per year goal at a fairly low cost to the university. We can raise the bar in our Ph.D. and M.A. programs to land even better students, and better students are more likely to finish on time. The faculty is happier because the quality of students in front of them improves, students feel better because they’re graduating from a program that has high standards and is better known, and we have more resources because the university recognizes how we’re contributing to the Tier One mission.
(By James Dunning, COLA Communications)