Veteran Professor Wendy Faris will retire at the end of this semester after 30 years of teaching at UT Arlington.
Faris joined the UT Arlington family in 1984 as a visiting assistant professor after short teaching stints at Colgate University, the University of Texas at Dallas and Harvard University. She completed her bachelor’s of arts degree in Spanish literature at Stanford University and earned her master’s degree and Ph.D. at Harvard in Comparative Literature. She served as chair of the Department of English at UT Arlington from 2004-2013.
Throughout her career, Faris has received numerous honors for her research and teaching. She was named to the UT Arlington Academy of Distinguished Scholars in 2008. She has received numerous Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities awards. And she has been a visiting professor at two other universities, holding endowed chairs appointments: the Crawshaw Chair of Literature at Colgate University (1982-83) and the Robert O. Schulz Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Northern Colorado (1994-95).
Faris sat down with College of Liberal Arts Communications Coordinator James Dunning to talk about three decades worth of teaching, research and being a part of the UT Arlington legacy.
Q: The campus has changed a lot since you arrived in 1984: more buildings, more students, more diversity. What stands out from the past 30 years?
A: I’m a fan of modern, contemporary architecture, so I love the way the campus has grown over the years. The new buildings are more attractive. On campus, there is always more going on, more students in dorms, more activity and buzz.
Q: And what about the students? Have they changed since you first started teaching here?
A: I can’t say I see a big difference. A large university like UTA has a load of students; some of them are strong students, some of them are not. I hear some people say, “oh, students are so less educated than they were before,” but I don’t see that. I tend to focus on my material, what I’m teaching, so I haven’t seen much difference with the students I’ve had over the past 30 years.
Q: Have you made adjustments to the way you teach or what you teach through the years?
A: I don’t require from my students as much reading as I used to. I used to require a lot of reading, and I still believe in it, but I finally realized that students can absorb just so much and really profit from it, so I’ve cut back on that a bit.
Of course, I’m a big fan of literature and I enjoy exploring the intricacies of texts with students, and working toward the mastery of wonderful pieces of literature. I tend to teach fairly well-known literature—although magical realism is kind of new and used to be non-canonical when I started teaching it, though now it’s making its way into the mainstream.
Q: You started your academic career researching Latin American literature and authors like Carlos Fuentes and Virginia Woolf. Has your research taken you into other fields of study over time?
A: My new field is magical realism in literature. It’s a burgeoning field of study. For me, beauty is really essential. I know that’s hard to say: What is a good, beautiful, aesthetically pleasing piece of literature? For one person it might be one thing, for someone else it might be another. But it really has to do with meaningful thought and complexity of structure and I still teach that way.
I enjoy looking at more recent, more socially relevant literary criticism. But what I most love to do is take a piece of literature and analyze it in great detail. I’m working now on an article about a work from Nigerian author Ben Okri and I’m looking at a specific style of his that I’ve noticed. I recently went to a conference and presented on that and got some really helpful suggestions from some colleagues who were in my session.
Q: Studying literature can be a daunting endeavor. How do you make it more accessible for your students?
A: I’ve gotten into comparing painting and literature with my students over the years. Art is such a big part of my life. Between literature and art, I love them both. I tell my students that looking at an author through the artwork created or inspired by his or her work can be a great way to get published.
Q: What have you enjoyed most about teaching?
A: I’ve loved teaching graduate student seminars. Those students are more like colleagues and you can have really interesting conversations. I don’t see myself as a really gifted teacher; some people have an amazing gift for teaching. I think I’ve gotten better at that over the years. But I really like the idea of introducing students to literature, especially literature they’ve never read before. And introducing topics like magical realism is great; you can see students get excited about something they haven’t read or haven’t approached in this way.
Q: In 2004, you became chair of the Department of English. What inspired you to take on that role?
A: One of the reasons I wanted to be chair was that I really liked working with my colleagues. In academia, you’re often alone, either in the classroom or conducting research. The English department has fantastic professors who are willing to work and cooperate and I loved that atmosphere of mutual respect and esteem. It was here when I got here; it’s not like I created it as chair, by any means! My approach as chair was to take some time to discuss the issues with my colleagues and figure out the best way to proceed. That takes time. And a lot of discussion.
Q: Were there any new challenges you faced as a department chair?
A: During my time as chair, we went through an economic downturn and had to cut budgets. But we managed to do it and survived. Everyone put their shoulders to the wheel and we made it through. But these days, there’s less and less funding coming from the state, and universities are working harder to find funding from outside sources. It’s difficult for a chair – or any faculty really – to do that because it’s not our bailiwick. That was one of the areas I found to be the most challenging.
Q: Over the past 30 years, was there a UT Arlington faculty member or two that had a direct impact on your career?
A: The person who hired me, the chair, Judy McDowell, she was important to my career because she took me on and hired me and we became colleagues. There are a lot of people in our department who I admire. I didn’t have a singular mentor; there were several people who helped or influenced me along the way.
Q: What about your students? Any standouts?
A: I have two graduate students right now who I really enjoy working with: Barbie Fowler, who is working on British modernism from a post-colonial perspective, and Rachael Mariboho, who is studying magical realism. They’re both lovely. And I found out that even after retirement I can continue to work with them on their dissertations, so I’ll be available for them.
Q: What is next for you?
A: I’m a project-aholic, so I’ve got a ton of projects lined up. I’ll continue to read and occasionally write. I have a book in mind, but I don’t know if that will happen. But there’s another whole side to my life: I’m a fairly serious amateur artist. So I’ll be doing more artwork. My brother is a painter and I may work for him and help him market his artwork.
I have a little house in France so I’ll be spending some time there. I think I also might move to upper state New York. There’s a small chance I could stay here, but I like moving around and being isolated in nature.
(Story and photo by James Dunning/COLA)