Category Archives: English

Translating the French/English Dialectic

By Dr Lee Elaine Skallerup

Quebec Map


I knew what I wanted to write for my PhD dissertation during my last semester as an undergraduate. I was taking a course in Québécois poetry and I was introduced to the poetry of Anne Hébert, along with her fascinating correspondence with her translator Frank Scott. Once I found out there had been other, subsequent translations of her poems into English and other correspondences, I knew that I was going to write about it.

I grew up in the English part of Montreal, Quebec, Canada. While I went a French immersion school, I lived most of the time in English. When it came time to choose a university, I took a more unconventional path, choosing to study professional writing in English at a French university about an hour and a half south-east of Montreal, in the heart of French Quebec. My goal was to eventually become (ideally) a journalist and (at worst) a technical writer. As I went through my program, I found myself (a) drawn to Québécois culture and (b) not at all interested in technical writing.

I decided that I was going to do an MA in Comparative Canadian Literature. This decision led me to take the class in Québécois poetry, to get one of the requirements out of the way. As one of my friends and classmates pointed out, this was funny because poetry and translation were my “worst” subject, not to mention that my MA thesis was on French and English Canadian dystopias. But at the same time, it made perfect sense.

For five years, I lived essentially “in translation.” I was continually translating myself for my friends and the world around me so I could understand it. I was also an oddity; I stepped into the “belly of the beast” just after the 1995 Referendum, when Quebec came a few thousand votes away from becoming its own country. Linguistic tensions were high, and there I was, an Anglophone, at a French university. It was some of the best five years of my life, and I became the person I am because of the experience I had there.

When I read the letters between Scott and Hébert, how Scott sought to bridge what is commonly known as “the two solitudes” of Canada, I knew I had found something I wanted to keep looking into. And, who could read Hébert’s poetry and not be moved by the haunting imagery, the economy of language, and the powerful messages about female oppression and empowerment? My project turned into an archival hunt that took me across the country, over the sea, and it grew larger than I could ever have imagined. The things that connected everyone, dead or alive, was a love of an author and her poetry.

This might not be as odd or improbable as some other stories, but it is perhaps rare that I knew when I was 21 what I was going to spend the next ten years working towards. And, I got there, too.

Dr Lee Elaine Skallerup has been teaching at various universities – from large research institutions to smaller ones aimed at non-traditional and minority students – over the last ten years off the tenure track. She gained her PhD “Found in Translation: The Journey of Anne Hébert’s Poetry (in)to English” in 2007 from University of Alberta, Canada. Her blog College Ready Writing focuses on education, higher education, teaching and starting an education business . You can follow her on Twitter @readywriting.



Filed under English

PhD: A Mission in Itself

By Suanna H. Davis

I was awarded my PhD in 2000. My major field was Rhetoric and Composition, which is a subset of English, focused on writing theory, practice, and pedagogy.

My dissertation topic [was] a rhetorical examination of the missionary newsletters of the Churches of Christ.
It has been so long ago, that I have no idea when I decided upon the topic. I remember that I was frustrated with the theories presented in my rhetoric courses, which all presupposed the lack of God, something I personally disagreed with and still feel is an issue with many theories. I remember that I wanted to pursue a topic that was experiential, and my other choice was very emotionally traumatic; the death of my chair for that topic allowed me to change the topic without repercussions.

When I began, I was a young (according to Dr. Lauer) PhD candidate in rhetoric and composition at Purdue. Usually graduate students will find a dissertation that combines both of their major fields. My first field was rhetoric and composition and my second field was Old English languages and literature. I was unsuccessful in finding a topic that interested me and combined both Old English and rhetoric. After two promising ideas were exploded because “You won’t be able to research the topic,” I abandoned Old English studies entirely in my quest for dissertation material.  

Instead my background and experience prior to Purdue lead me to my dissertation topic. 

I wrote on the rhetorical construction of missionary newsletters for the Churches of Christ, a small, non-hierarchical group with quite a few missionaries for their size. The Churches of Christ have no missionary organizations and each individual missionary must find an overseeing congregation and raise funds themselves. There is no funnel for would-be missionaries, little help, and limited education in how to write, raise funds, or keep in touch with the congregations. I know a lot about the churches and their structures because I am a lifetime member of the Churches of Christ.

My work experience was one of the reasons I chose my topic. Before graduate school, I spent two years overseas working as a secretary in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland with the Spanish-speaking church of my denomination. While there, I also translated articles for and typed an international Spanish-language church magazine. My boss was a missionary to the Spanish-speaking immigrants and I was considered a missionary apprentice. While I was in Switzerland, I wrote my own missionary newsletter to supporters and colleagues. Then following my return to the States, while working as a high school teacher and in graduate school, I did some editing work for a missionary newsletter and a missionary magazine. So I had personal experience both as a short-term missionary and working with missionary writing.

My educational experience was also instrumental in choosing the dissertation topic. While I have a BSEd with majors of History and English, an MA in English, and a PhD in English, I also have taken twenty-one graduate school hours in missions-related classes, including six which I took following my first year as a PhD candidate. Both my rhetoric and composition courses and the missions classes helped me to examine and understand the newsletters I was scrutinizing.

Originally I was hoping to see how the missionary newsletters impacted the local congregations, but I found they didn’t. In fact, many members within the congregations did not even know their congregation supported missionaries. This lack of knowledge was so pervasive that at one of the larger congregations, even staff members did not know that the church financially supported missions. 

Because I could not see or show any change in the local congregations based on the newsletters, I had to find a different approach. Because of that, I looked at the genre of newsletters, theories of discourse analysis, genre analysis, and social epistemic rhetoric. I also did an audience analysis and looked at what factors increased the congregations’ awareness of their participation with missions. The audience analysis was useful in practical ways, but not particularly useful for the dissertation. However, the other aspects were sufficient to develop a dissertation from.

My significant involvement with my church and the work of missionaries -not simply my own experience – led me to desire to study the main communication venue (at the time) of missionaries on the field. Obviously most of the factors that went into my decision to study this topic were extra-curricular or at least not related to my graduate degree program. 

Until I finished my PhD in 2000, I had moved about every two years (on average) for my entire life. Because of these moves, I had been a member of over fifteen churches, some with very different views of tradition, dogma, and missions. This allowed me to see that the congregations were different based on beliefs and actions and I categorized churches based on what I knew of them and chose congregations from different categories who were known within the Churches of Christ for supporting missions.

The missionary newsletters I examined were not only from the Churches of Christ and from missionaries who were overseen by supportive congregations. I also chose congregations from the state of Texas, where the Churches of Christ are particularly strong. In addition all of the missionaries whose writing I read were overseen and supported primarily by churches in cities, rather than rural or town populations.

The work was engrossing, especially as at the time I was still considering returning to the mission field myself.

Since I was a homeschooling mother of two when I finished, the work took longer than it should have, twelve years, and I am particularly appreciative of Dr. Lauer’s encouragement and help. When I talk to graduate students now, I recommend finishing the dissertation first. While I wouldn’t trade my husband, whom I married during my coursework at Purdue, or my children, who were born after my coursework was finished and I was in a job which would convert to tenure-track upon the completion of my dissertation, the dissertation is definitely easier to finish if your only commitment is to finishing the dissertation.


Suanna H. Davis is an assistant professor at Abilene Christian University where she teaches rhetoric and composition. She gained her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Purdue University (US) in 2000. Her blog Teaching College English focuses on aspects of teaching, but includes her life as a voluntary and then job-hunting adjunct, her  job search, various presentation and publishing sagas, and a more complete biography. You can follow her on Twitter @DrDavisTCE.


Filed under Education, English, Rhetoric and Composition

It’s all about the language

by Elizabeth Kate Switaj

My PhD idea came to me after a mugging on a beach in Cambodia.  No, seeing a knife pointed at me didn’t make my life flash before my eyes. The adrenaline didn’t help my brain rush to some shocking new insight.

What changed things was that my passport was stolen. Getting a new copy wasn’t a problem: I had a photocopy and a digital copy saved to my Gmail account. Getting a new visa for China, where I had been teaching English at a university, would prove more difficult. I soon learned that I would have to return to the US and go through the same process I had before to get my visa initially.  It would take more time than was remaining before the start of the semester.

I decided then that my career as an EFL instructor had reached its end and that it was time for me to pursue a PhD. My experience teaching EFL, however, led directly to the project I would propose.

Elizabeth with students

Elizabeth with some of the students of whom teaching shaped her research (Photo submitted by Elizabeth Kate Switaj)

After finishing my MFA [Master of Fine Arts] in Poetics and Creative Writing, I had moved to Japan where I started teaching English at one of the infamous Eikaiwa (English conversation) schools – the one with the evil chicken-beaked pink bunny as a mascot. My experience at the now-bankrupt company was unusually positive: during my first year there, I worked at a small branch with very little supervision and during my second year, I rarely set foot in a branch as I taught in elementary schools through the government contracts program. After I left Japan, I spent about a year in New York teaching English to immigrants in the evening (and writing copy for an online kimono retailer two days out of the week  – but that’s another story). Then, I moved to China where I taught composition, oral English, and movie courses to English majors for three semesters.

Along the way, I continued writing and publishing my poetry. I was checking my email in a (literally) freezing Beijing hostel while on break from the university that I found out that Paper Kite Press was going to publish my first collection. The language of those poems – the language of all my written work – had been deeply influenced by my teaching experience. My understanding of the mechanics of the English language had been refined by having to explain them and by discovering which idiosyncrasies of language produced by my students interfered with communication and which did not. I also found that other poets of my acquaintance who taught the language in which they wrote (many but not all of whom I had met through a monthly open mic in a British pub in Tokyo) could trace similar influences in their writing.

This understanding of how language teaching can shape literary work led me to wonder whether similar connections could be found in the work of earlier authors. And when circumstances convinced me that it was time to return to academia and pursue a PhD, I decided that I wanted to apply this inquiry to the work of James Joyce. Not only did Joyce spend years teaching English to speakers of other languages, but also, his famously unique uses of language made his work seem particularly well-suited to being considered from this angle. Going into the third year of my research, I still think that’s the case, though I’ve also found a related pedagogical streak in his works that goes deeper than I had realized.

Elizabeth Kate Switaj is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast and an Editorial Assistant for Irish Pages: a Journal of Contemporary Writing. Her first collection of poetry, Magdalene & the Mermaids, was published in 2009 by Paper Kite Press. You can find her creative writing at her website or follow on her on Twitter at @EKSwitaj


Filed under Education, English