Alum Spotlight: Jessica Miller

Jessica Miller, aka J. Kasper Kramer

Jessica Miller, MA English, 2017

I was given space and time to write and research on my own, but I also always had help when I needed it. —Jessica Miller, UTC ‘17


Jessica Miller writes under the pen name J. Kasper Kramer and, like the protagonist in The Story That Cannot Be Told, “wanted all her life to be a writer.” With the release of her debut novel from Simon and Schuster’s Atheneum Books and starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review, and School Library Journal—tremendous accomplishments, especially for a debut author—Miller has achieved that goal and more.


 If I had wound up at a different school, I honestly might not have had so much success publishing my first novel. The Story That Cannot Be Told


The Story That Cannot Be Told is about 10 year-old Ileana who loves to write and lives in Romania in the 1980s, when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu ruled all aspects of life there.

Miller got the idea for The Story That Cannot Be Told when she was living in Japan and teaching at an international school. She received offers from a couple programs, including the one at UTC, but had a hard time deciding where to attend since she couldn’t tour the schools or meet the professors while living so far away.

According to Miller, “a little luck from the universe intervened at that point, because a job opportunity opened up for my husband in Chattanooga, and that made the decision for us. If I had wound up at a different school, I honestly might not have had so much success publishing my first novel.”


The guidance I got from UTC faculty was invaluable.


One of the first classes Miller took was Dr. Sarah Einstein’s creative nonfiction workshop. She hadn’t written in the genre before but “wound up absolutely falling in love.” Her first two publications were essays that came out of that class, and she still writes creative nonfiction.

She also loved Dr. Matthew Guy’s Literary Theory and Criticism class, which made her think deeply and in new ways about the stories she reads and writes.

And Miller cites her work with Professor Sybil Baker as key to the development of her novel. She explains, “I wrote Story as my master’s thesis, and my independent study with Professor Baker is where the first chapters and initial plotting for the novel all happened. The guidance I got from UTC faculty was invaluable.”

The initial idea for The Story That Cannot Be Told came from the personal stories she heard from friends she met while teaching in Japan. They told her about growing up in Communist Romania, and these women and their stories played an important role in her research process. Her studies at UTC helped Miller organize her research and story ideas. In addition to providing excellent feedback on her writing, her professors gave her suggestions for readings that complimented her work and helped her develop her craft.


Holding a physical copy of my book for the first time…It had me shaking and in tears—I just had dreamed about it for so, so long, you know?


For Miller, the publishing process has been both scary and wonderful. As a debut author, she saw each step as “a major first—first revisions with a real editor, first copy edits, first reviews, first signings—all of it was intimidating.” Some of the great moments included an early signing at Books of Wonder in New York City and a tour of Simon & Schuster’s headquarters. But, she adds, the best part was “Holding a physical copy of my book for the first time, with my name on the cover. It had me shaking and in tears—I just had dreamed about it for so, so long, you know?”

With three new novels currently in progress, Miller will soon grow used to the fanfare surrounding her work. She’s at work on a young adult novel set in 1850s Poland about a woman whose family believes she’s a changeling, and she’s drafting two middle grade novels: a ghost story set in 1910 New York City and a folklore-inspired tale set in contemporary Japan.


No one is going to force you to finish your book. If you really want to see your words in print—if you really want other people to read them—you have to fight for it.


Miller wants current creative writing students to know that their courses are important, but “ultimately, you have to set your own goals and stick to them. A professor might help you revise a novel—in some courses, you might even have deadlines for word count and plot beats—but no one is going to force you to finish your book. If you really want to see your words in print—if you really want other people to read them—you have to fight for it.”

Luckily for her readers, Miller has immense talent, fight and, as she says, “more stories in my head than I have time to write.”

You can purchase The Story That Cannot Be Told, from Star Line Books at 1467 Market Street, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million, and many other retailers. UTC is lucky to still have Jessica Miller teaching English courses on campus—so she may even sign your copy!


Outstanding Graduating Seniors: Spring 2019

Three “Outstanding Graduating Seniors,” Jacque Scott, Daniel Ortega, and Jeremy “JB” Beck, are honored this Spring. Passionate about their work, present in class, active in the department, excelling in their studies, this year’s “OGS” are worthy role models for rising English students.

Jacque: Creative Writing

Jacque Scott

Jacque seems to naturally excel: “I have always loved reading and writing.” Even as a child, Jacque recounts how she “wanted was a small notebook so that I could write my mom a story.”

Jacque is involved in Sigma Tau Delta, Meacham Writers Workshop, the Sequoya Review,  the Writing and Communication Center, and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference. She received a SEARCH grant: “I used the grant to interview a few people who survived the 2016 Gatlinburg Fires so that I could complete a short story for my honors thesis. Those interviews are archived in the Special Collections in the UTC Library.” Jacque presented her research at this year’s ReSEARCH Dialogues and has also received multiple travel grants to present at the International Writing Center Association Conference and the National Council of Undergraduate Research Conference.

Jacque was also accepted into the New York State Summer Writers Institute last year and this year into into the Tin House Summer Workshop. These distinctions name only a small part of Jaque’s accomplishments during her time at UTC.

Jacque tirelessly works toward her calling and is often met with creative and motivational roadblocks. “General motivation is a common obstacle I have to work through all the time. I don’t have that ‘I write because if I didn’t, I would explode’ gene. I hear that a lot from other writers, and I don’t get it. There are so many other things I would rather do. I do have to think to write [and] once I get over that initial hump and force myself to get into it, I can write for hours.”

For Jacque, “writing a first draft is hardly ever fun. Writing is hard. I struggle a lot … and because of that, I am a very slow writer.” Her advice is to never relent in your efforts: “pick apart sentences and tweak them until [you] find the right rhythm.”

Writing comes easier to Jacque when “reading a really good book or being out in nature … so that when I come back to the page, I can do so with a fresh perspective.”

Jacque will start a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, a program that only let in two fiction students this year. As can only be expected, Jacque also wishes to get her doctoral degree in Creative Writing make being an author her career.

JB: Rhetoric & Professional Writing

JB Beck

If you’re not familiar with JB, simply talk to him for a few seconds and you’ll have a new best friend. Always kind and respectful to everyone, their ideas, beliefs, and opinions, JB is always engaged in class and diligent about his work; JB is undoubtedly dedicated to learning, seeking answers, and debating issues— any professor’s ideal student.

JB says his passion for writing was inspired by reading screenplays and theatre scripts during his childhood; a specific instance he recalls is when his parents gifted him an annotated screenplay of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day: “I must’ve read that script a hundred times.” JB also tells that he was captivated and intrigued by Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and Last Action Hero. “Being a kid, I loved the idea that writers could create an anti-hero.”

JB’s unique interests keep his work vitalized and filled with inspiration. “Nothing keeps you energized and focused at midnight like blaring Kiss or Van Halen… hearing Paul Stanley belt out a chorus really motivates me.” JB also birdwatches, and is particularly fond of “vultures; I find that watching them feed or circle on thermal updrafts is quite inspiring.” He also plays chess as often as possible.

Despite motivational music and the beauty of vultures, JB still struggles with “fatigue and mental focus.” With every piece, he explained, it is “important to me to master the information [to] master an argument;” a tiring task. JB has continuously and unwaveringly used this strenuous writing technique. “It can be physically draining. You spend your breaks and holidays studying.” JB pursued, though, and his tremendous effort and dedication proved to serve him well— unquestionably worthy of the title “outstanding.”

Daniel: Literature

Hardworking and ponderous, Daniel is passionate about literature, and believes that this track is much more than reading: “a degree in Literature, or probably any humanity, should be a requirement for anyone in the professional world. We are seeing now out of Silicon Valley how important it is to really carefully consider the world we are building. We are seeing how harmful a purely technical education can be, because the systems we erect can have dire, unforeseen consequences.”

Daniel’s passions originated from an exact moment during his sophomore year in high school, when All Quiet on the Western Front. “It was one of the first times I was acutely aware of how powerful good writing can be, how democratic, and how the right choice of words can reach across time and space in ways no other medium can.”

Despite Daniel’s passion for the written word, he concedes that “It’s natural that you won’t always love what you’re studying in a class.” If you do not connect with every piece of assigned literature— stay positive: “everyone has different tastes. Some stuff is harder than others.” Even Daniel occasionally struggles with reading or writing about the texts. His solution is to “try and remember what you loved reading and talking about in class, and write about that.”

Daniel sees literature as a path that leads self-discovery, and claims we should be inspired when writing about texts. “The best papers [are] also the easiest. If a paper is truly laborious, you’re probably not ready to write it.” Literature is everything you make, want, or need it to be.

One of Daniel’s recent accomplishments reveals his ability to adapt within different academic areas: “ [I wrote] an article about some research UTC did with the Aquarium. I didn’t know anything about these fish or what the research involved, but … I can now say I possess more knowledge of the defensive mechanisms of the Barrens Topminnow as it relates to the chemical Chondroitin than 99.99% of the planet.”

Daniel maintained a healthy work-life balance in a relatively simple way and to the delight of the introverted English majors among us: “You know that Meyers-Briggs test question, ‘would you rather go out to a party or stay inside and read a book?’ Well, I recommend you pick the latter.”

So, who are their role models?

JACQUE: “Dr. Sarah Einstein, Professor Sybil Baker, and J. Kasper Kramer.”

“Other writers who inspire me: Aimee Bender, Jhumpa Lahiri, Jorge Luis Borges, Miranda July, and Carmen Maria Machado.”

JB: “Prof. James K. Pickard, Carrie Meadows, and Dr. Katherine Rehyansky.”

“H.P. Lovecraft is a hero of mine and one of my biggest influences is Clive Barker. I also love Bram Stoker, William S. Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon and Stephen King.”

DANIEL: “Absolutely all of my professors inspire me … this was especially true for Dr. Rehyansky.”

Advice and words of encouragement for English majors

JACQUE:  “You learn a set of skills that other majors really don’t—empathy, problem-solving, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, etc.”

“[L]earn to manage time and prioritize.”

“Read, and read a lot… write in the margins, underline sentences, circle patterns of words and images.”

JB: “Constantly read and write. Look at arguments that you don’t agree with, [and] never skip class… The learning process does not end with what goes on in the classroom.”

“Create an armory of analytical skills and remember that building a paper takes time.”

“Train yourself to take handwritten notes.”

DANIEL:  “If you’re considering being an English major, it’s because you’re a thoughtful person … You have the opportunity to study writings under some of the best professors in the world. You’re a person open to new ideas. You have come to the right spot; you’re on the right track!”

“I can learn any job I need to, and can answer to any professional challenge that comes my way”

“Do an internship.”  “Start early.”

Alum Spotlight: Rachel (Sauls) Wright, “Don’t Worry, Your English Degrees Will be Useful”

Rachel (Sauls) Wright

Rachel (Sauls) Wright

Rachel (Sauls) Wright’s academic and professional success, as well as her growing list of accomplishments, offers a convincing rebuttal to the unfortunately common criticism of English degrees. Wright has answered the “what do you plan to do with that English degree?” question by becoming a prolific writer and holding the Internal Communications & Media Relations Manager position at Mohawk Industries, a S&P 500 company. Dedicated to her undergraduate studies at UTC, she earned two B.A. degrees in English and Communications (2011), neither of which hindered her employment status, as she was soon thereafter hired by the world’s largest flooring company, Mohawk Industries. While working full-time, maintaining family and spousal relationships, friendships, and taking care of a “lazy pet,” Wright decided to head back to UTC to earn an English M.A., which she completed in 2016.

Wright put forth tremendous effort, and when asked how she would respond to the idea that English degrees are “useless” or “impractical,” she explains that “these days it seems like employers consider most degrees ‘useless’ unless the candidate has relevant experience.” Looking ahead is essential: “the key is researching the job market so you have a realistic idea of what’s available to you after graduation.”

Only being informed about the job market, though, is usually not enough. A passionate English major should expect to do “the legwork to get experience. Clear communication and compelling storytelling are integral to so many fields, including non-profit work, public relations, advertising, marketing and internal communications. Where I think English undergraduate and graduate students have an advantage is using effective argument to articulate the skills and value they can bring to a team.”

Wright heeded her own advice. During her undergraduate studies, she involved herself in “both The Echo and the Sequoya Review,” “completed two internships,” and “ took creative writing classes.” When asked why these experiences were relevant and beneficial toward her career, she explained that “being involved in student media taught me how to work on a deadline while also giving me practical writing and editing experience.  [The] internships were essential for getting that ‘real world experience’ so many employers are looking for, and they also gave a better understanding of the types of jobs I wanted to pursue post graduation.”

Undergraduate experience did not only push her closer to an ideal career, but it saved her from further pursuing one she would not have enjoyed later on: “initially, PR sounded appealing to me, but [the] PR internship shifted my perspective without making me feel like I wasted my time.” The work experience opened new vantage points to how Wright viewed her future occupation, as she states, “creative writing is often considered the least practical of all when it comes to English coursework, but I am eternally grateful for my workshops, because they taught me how to give and receive constructive feedback.”

In Wright’s first job after graduation, a few days in, her experience from schoolwork immediately became applicable and advantageous. Wright states, “a week into my first job after graduation, my supervising editor gave me feedback that I may have taken poorly or personally if it weren’t for [creative writing] workshop[s]. Thanks to my creative writing background, I was able to implement the feedback and adjust my writing style without feeling like a failure.”

Despite working full-time at Mohawk, Wright made the exciting—and daunting— decision to head back to UTC. Though warmly welcomed into the English graduate program, Wright began to feel the stress of her many commitments, both in professional and personal life; she “had less time and energy for family, friends, and other interests.” Wright claims that a support group of the people in your life is also necessary when pursuing a graduate degree. Wright recalls the many people who made lifestyle changes to help accommodate and allow for her attendance: “my coworkers covered for me when I left early for class, my spouse took on additional responsibilities at home and my friends and family spent less time with me during the program.”

Graduate school can be more than the degree at the end of the tunnel. Wright urges a potential and current students “to cultivate strong relationships within your graduate school community,” because “the people I learned from and alongside during graduate school are some of the smartest, most caring, creative and interesting people I’ve had the pleasure of meeting … and they were incredible resources when it came to sharing relevant articles for papers, talking through difficult texts or ideas, and just generally commiserating about life or school.” Graduate school is a community, and a wealth personal and professional connections and support can come from being a graduate student.

Many previously unseen career paths may appear by making these new connections. “Be open minded about your future,” Wright suggests. “Be confident in the skills you’ve developed. There are countless opportunities to use your degree with and find meaningful work.”

The long-term problems are easy to overcome. The “day-to-day basis,” the balancing of the small things, like commutes, feeding a pet, making dinner, is when school begins to overwhelm. To combat the struggle, feelings of helplessness, Wright advises that “being fully invested and setting realistic expectations [is] essential.” Learn to deal with one day at a time. She also urges students in similar positions to take “care of themselves physically and mentally,” and to “make time to recharge,” to care for yourself, whether that be the decision to “spend time with friends and family, prepare a healthy meal or even just go outside, but it’s absolutely necessary.”

Wright’s final message? “Put yourself out there and see what happens.”  So forget the negative rhetoric that discourages getting an English degree.

Rachel will give a talk, “I got a job with an English degree, and you can too,” to English undergraduate and graduate students on March 26th at 5:30pm in room 112 of 540 McCallie. There will be pizza!

EVENT CANCELED and to be rescheduled.

The Take on ‘Take Five’

a photo of the stage and microphone

The audience awaits Dr. Shaheen’s presentation

In a politically, morally, and emotionally divided and diverse social climate, the obvious thematic choice, according to Dr. Aaron Shaheen, the Take Five coordinator for this Spring’s  Take Five book club meetings and discussions, had to be ‘frontiers and borders.’

If you’ve never attended the book club, “‘Take Five’ refers to the five different books chosen by the five different UTC faculty who present them. These books all center around some theme [and] try to be both broad and engaging enough to attract a wide-ranging audience and to attract a number of different interpretations,” Shaheen said.

Beginning in 1992, the inaugural theme was “simply ‘Five Great American Novels,’” and has since evolved into a tradition kept alive by passionate scholars. Clif Cleaveland began this year’s round of Take Five meetings with Paulette Jiles’s News of the World, followed by Hugh Prevost, who chose Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman. Both highly esteemed panel members are now retired but chose to return to Take Five, continuing the tradition, just as Dr. Aaron Shaheen does by having taken on the Connor Professorship in American Literature. Named after the founder, George C. Connor, the position which entails hosting, planning, organizing, and leading each session. Dr. Shaheen’s book of choice for this upcoming session, is, as he describes, “the fourth best novel in the English language: Willa Cather’s 1922 Pulitzer-winning novel One of Ours.”

When asked why he might take on such a responsibility—one of shouldering the responsibility and tradition of Take Five meetings in addition to his other obligations—Dr. Shaheen said that, “Take Five has become a labor of love…  The first time I was pretty overwhelmed with the task of reading five different books, creating a 35-minute presentation on one of them, and having intelligent things to say about the other four–all while teaching my regular classes. After that first go-around I told myself I wouldn’t do it again, and yet when Verbie [who previously held the position and recently retired from the English Department] asked me to commit for a later year, I somehow couldn’t say no, despite the work involved. I simply had too much fun doing it.”

Dr. Aaron Shaheen, George C. Connor Professor of American Literature sitting at desk

Dr. Aaron Shaheen, George C. Connor Professor of American Literature

Dr. Shaheen believes that Take Five “is one the most important ways the English department gives back to its former students and to the Chattanooga community,” as all ages, UTC students or not, are welcome to attend Take Five meetings. Dr. Shaheen understands that the demographically older attendance at these meetings is “because they have the time to read the books. For students who are already taking a full load of classes and working part-time or full-time, adding five more books to their schedule is too much.”

However, Dr. Shaheen insists that “by no means must potential attendees have read the books in order to attend the sessions. The night’s presenter usually offers a summary of the book at one point in the remarks, and the presentation itself is geared toward a non-academic audience. The discussion of the books can whet the appetites for those who have not read the books–much like a good back cover can make a book attractive to a browser at a bookstore.”

If passionate commentary on literature, casual and “spontaneous” discussion, or a light and social dinner might interest you, Dr. Shaheen will be at each session, ready to greet you warmly. He begins each session by  “welcoming the guests and introducing the speaker” and he prefers to be “more folksy and personal.” The speaker of the night (one of the five panelists) gives a 35-40 minute talk on their book of choice, and after a brief intermission, an open, “interesting and often humorous” discussion between the five panelists and attendees will ensue.

Dr. Shaheen finds Take Five, and other discussion-focused book clubs, especially valuable because “books are best understood in open settings because all the participants can help each other out. Interpretation of texts is most successful in a collaborative setting. I may have only so much to bring to a discussion of a certain novel, but where I fall short in my knowledge or insight, another participant can fill in the gaps.” Dr. Shaheen considers this discussion the most exciting part of each session—everyone is welcome to share their thoughts, ideas, or jokes, and open them up for debate. Even if you have not read the book, you’ll have plenty of context from the speaker’s summary and presentation to work with, and to formulate your own ideas or interpretations. He reports that “spontaneous discussion [often] arises. We don’t take ourselves too seriously on that stage, though we certainly take the readings seriously.”


Take Five audience, February 26, 2019

In his own Take Five session, Dr. Shaheen hosted and presented his book of choice, the 1922 Pulitzer-winning novel One of Ours, to a packed hall. Eager attendees, consisting of students and community members, filled their plates, poured some coffee,  squeezed in next to each other, and turned all attention to the passionate yet eloquent presentation. Dr. Shaheen explains the story is “about a young man who mourns the loss of the American frontier and, foolishly or not, treats World War I as his own frontier, as an attempt not to establish civilization exactly, but to save it from mechanized weaponry.” Describing the novel as “ironic” because of a compelling and unexpected role reversal in thematic elements: “this ‘frontier’ novel that moves not from east to west, but from west to east.” Cather does not pander to any romanticization of war, but writes with “sincerity and tenderness.”

The intermission following the presentation allowed guests to digest and chatter about the array of ideas to which they had just been introduced. One woman who saw the Take five ad in the newspaper, a Chattanoogan and retired schoolteacher, remarked how she was glad there was a space she was able to come discuss a books in a non-pretentious, yet still academic, environment. The following talk with the panelists offered more unique insights and points of interest, sparking comments from many of the guests, leading to exciting discussions, slight debates, and questions, and the panelists regarding each with sincere consideration and respect.

Dr. Shaheen explained that “the ‘feel’ for [Take Five sessions] is informal. Many of the attendees have been coming for years, so for them and for the panelists, the sessions provide a chance to socialize and reconnect.” Leave your berets at home—or wear them; it’s always a judgement-free zone.

If you’re feeling hesitant to attend a Take Five session, Dr. Shaheen reassures us that “current students who are already overloaded with tests and assignments can experience literature in a low-impact and very friendly environment. And there’s a free dinner involved. Come for the food and stay for the learning and camaraderie!”

The upcoming Take Five sessions will be on March 19th where Dr. Matthew Guy will speak on Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, and on April 2nd, the final session of the year, where former host Verbie Prevost will speak on Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.

Resisting Swamp Monsters: My Time as the Social Media Coordinator & Staff Writer

swamp thing memeIf you had asked me at the start of this semester why I was an English Major, I would have said I wasn’t sure. Just a semester ago, I thought I wanted to be an English teacher. My English teachers had helped me discover and love literature, and I wanted to do the same for the next generation. But I learned from my first stent in assistant teaching that teachers have a special kind of bravery that I don’t possess. Dazed, confused, and uncertain, I was fortunately picked up by Dr. Hunter to be Social Media Coordinator for the English Department—something that initially felt foreign to what being an English major meant to me.

I felt something click into place was when I found out I would be doing a story about Dr. Sean Latham, preeminent scholar of James Joyce. Dr. Latham would be coming to UTC to deliver a lecture on his latest research, and I was supposed to do a blog post to drum up attention. I have always loved Joyce, so I was excited. I was, however, much more nervous. Dr. Hunter told me my interview would be emailed to each and every Mocs email account, students, staff, and faculty. Thousands of people would be offered my story to read, unsolicited, on a Monday morning, drinking coffee, straight into their inbox. The power of going public with my writing was intoxicating, as well as utterly terrifying. Shyly, I chose the least intrusive format for a story I could, a direct-to-text interview. I decided to write questions I thought would make Joyce sound interesting, and hope against hope Dr. Latham would spare some time to respond.

If he would let me, I could have just kissed Dr. Latham for what he sent back. Reading his responses was like unwrapping present you know is good the second you get a peek through the wrapper. He had sent me back, in long and lucid sentences, some 1200 passionate, evocative, words, arranged just for me. I was amazed that such talented and intelligent writing had been sent straight to my inbox. Furthermore, I was wild with excitement at the thought  of other people reading it.

I describe this experience because I started out this semester not sure if I would actually be happy with a career in social media. I used social media in my daily life, but distantly, somewhat removed from the culture, believing social media to be run by a swamp monster that would suck me into an ooze of narcissism if I got too close. Given our political climate in the year 2018, we all know how real the swamp monster is. However, I learned this semester that there is also a considerable plot in cyberspace populated with authors, librarians, teachers, and other passionate people dedicated to offering an alternative to that swamp monster.

With my internship I felt like I was doing my part to carve out a chunk of cyberspace that was safe, and good. I hoped that what I wrote would bring people to new and greater understanding. I felt like I was fighting off swamp monsters, abreast and in league with other brilliant people.

Now, I feel ready to graduate. I have written some seven blog posts, posted about a hundred times to social media, conducted a half dozen interviews, learned a little about Photoshop and blogs. I learned about marketing, social media, and analytics. I even got a paying job out of it! I’m now the “Student Media Specialist” for the College of Arts and Sciences—a job with an emerging and evolving definition. Basically, I get to help make the websites of the College a little better.

Social media isn’t all a swamp. Perhaps I’m on the dry land, keeping the swamp monster at bay, buttressing the shoreline. If anyone is reading this, especially freshmen and sophomores, and you are considering majoring in English or any of the humanities, I implore you to do so. With my internship I found a way to connect my academic interests in English and the skills I’ve developed as an English major with possible future jobs. In my case, I see how I can get a good job doing something that improves the intellectual ecology of the planet. This is an exciting time to be alive and literate!


Alum Spotlight: Conni Boykins

Conni Boykins

Don’t listen to the people who make (bad) jokes about you making no money. They’re sad, you’re great, and English degrees are well worth your time. –Conni Boykins, UTC ‘15


In the age of the emoji, the skills businesses value above all else is the increasingly rare ability to read vastly and write fluently, to take complex information and concisely condense, synthesize, and analyze it. English majors are being hired in practically every field, from law firms to tech agencies and financial firms. Conni Boykins, UTC English alum (’15), is a great example of how useful an English degree can be in the professional world. She used her experience as an English major to get a job with The Patten Group, a Chattanooga based investment firm.

Conni was living in Atlanta, pursuing a degree in accounting, realizing to new depths each day how much she hated it. On top of that, the program was costing her a fortune. She needed a switch but didn’t want to move back to her hometown in Knoxville, so the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was the clear choice. Like many English majors, Conni is a self-selector, professing a lifelong love of reading and writing. She decided to focus in on a Rhetoric and Professional Writing track she wanted to get a job in professional writing and felt like that offered her the most potential.

The program offered her an opportunity to develop her skills not just as a professional, but as a well-rounded and critically-thinking human being. Part of what is so valuable about an English degree is that English courses encourage the student to think complexly and analyze information closely from multiple angles. She said that people who are trained in finance sometimes can only see as far as the numbers go. Her education taught to to look between more holistically at the situation. Conni cited Persuasion and Propaganda as greatly increasing her value as an employee, saying:

“I read a lot of corporate jargon and research that often overweights the positives and underweights the negatives,” Conni said, “That class really strengthened my ability to cut out the noise and get to the heart of the thing.”

She got to take some fun elective classes in her time at UTC, too, exploring her passions in an academic context. One of her favorite classes was Rhetoric, Food, and Culture with Dr. Ingraham.

“Food and cooking are a huge part of my life and I loved incorporating the two into my education.” Conni said.

While at UTC, Conni also had the chance to get involved with the community. She joined the UTC chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, the national English Honors Society, and Spectrum, UTC’s LGBTQQIA organization, as well as participating in a number of events hosted at the Women’s Center.

Towards the end of her time at UTC, Conni signed on as an intern with the Patten Group, an investment managing firm in Chattanooga through the English department’s internship office.

She attributes her success as a professional to asking a lot of questions and looking for new opportunities to apply herself with her time at Patten. Conni focused on doing good work and learning a lot, conducting extra research and reading books on her own outside of her on-the-job training. After interning for one semester, they promoted her from Research Intern to Executive Assistant and Research Intern. The Patten Group then offered her a full-time position as Junior Research Writer and Intern Assistant immediately after graduation. Although she had spent two years studying accounting in Atlanta, Conni says she went in pretty blind into Patten, saying accounting and investing are universes apart in the world of finances.

For English Majors considering trying an internship out, Conni recommends asking lots of questions, looking for side-projects and extra tasks to help you stand out, and to really try to develop an efficient workflow in a professional setting.

When I asked Conni if she had any advice for students considering an English degree at UTC, she had this to say:

“DO IT. The skills you learn are broadly applicable and you can truly do anything with the major.”

Dacre Stoker: Dracul, the prequel to Dracula

Dacre Stoker, co-author of Dracul

Dacre Stoker, co-author of Dracul

Dacre Stoker, great-grand nephew of Bram Stoker and co-author with J.D Barker of the first authorized prequel to Dracula, Dracul, will be visiting UTC on Nov. 8th at 7pm in Derthick 201.

Dracul is an historical fictionalized origin story of his great-grand uncle’s life leading up to the writing of his immortal horror fiction novel, Dracula. Dacre Stoker is in many ways the perfect person to write the prequel to his great-grand uncle’s historic novel, as he has been researching and writing about his family’s history for many years. In anticipation of his coming talk, reading, and book signing, we asked Stoker to respond to some questions about his book and what he would be coming to talk about.

What was your experience like co-writing Dracul with J.D Barker ?

First of all we wrote Dracul in the epistolary manner, the same way Bram wrote Dracula. We wanted readers to attain a similar feel when reading both novels. Our collaboration was very symbiotic. I provided a family historical timeline, and tons of factual research from my family. JD and I wove fact and fiction into the story in a seamless manner. JD’s writing style is much more suited for a mystery thriller than mine, so his voice was the predominate one in the finished text.

Students will be interested to know that the protagonist of your novel is based on your own great-grand uncle, Bram Stoker himself. What inspired you to make that decision?

Most of the characters, Bram Stoker, his older sister, Matilda, their older brother Thornley, and other members of the Stoker family as well as Arminius Vambery are all based on real people and are featured in our story. Dracul reads like a made up mystery thriller. It’s not until readers take a look at the Author’s Note at the end, do they realize that most of the story was real or based on real events.

What was the research process for you like, to discover who your ancestor would be as a character?



I have been researching my family for many years, so creating life-like characterizations of each of them for our novel was actually quite easy and exciting, especially as I saw them come back to life in or story.

Vampires are an ancient monster various cultures have represented in diverse ways across the globe and throughout history. Yet, vampires seem to have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years. To what do you attribute the vampire’s both lasting and resurgent popularity?

We all need to be aware that the Vampire has existed in superstitions and folklore in most of the world’s cultures for thousands of years. So they have always been around in one form or another. It takes good authors and screenwriters to adapt a story for these Vampires to continue to be new and exciting and not simply a revised re-run.

What else would you like students to know about your new novel and your coming lecture at our campus?

I am very excited to be coming to UTC. I love to spread the word about my famous relative and some of the secrets and mysteries behind his writing of Dracula as well as highlight my latest efforts with JD Barker about Dracul, the prequel to Dracula. I can guarantee that you will be entertained and learn something at the same time.

Black Panther Week: Showcasing Marvel’s Most Important Hero

Tweet @UTCEnglish what you’ve been doing in preparation for #blackpantherweek

The English department will be hosting a series of three events this October discussing the cultural significance of Marvel Comics’ Black Panther.

On October 23rd, students and faculty are invited to attend a roundtable discussion of diversity and comic books. On October 24th, Dr. James Arnett and his African Sci-Fi class will be presenting the whole history of the Black Panther comic series. Black Panther Week will culminate with a screening of the 2018 Ryan Coogler film on the 30th. For information on the times and location of the events, see the Black Panther posters posted around campus, or on the UTC English calendar and social media accounts.

In anticipation of these events, Dr. James Arnett and Tiffany Mitchell, English professors at UTC, wanted to talk about the sorts of things they will be exploring in the events to follow. Arnett and Mitchell have worked together on diversity projects before. In the spring of 2016, Arnett and Mitchell worked on Lemonade Week, a series of four events based around Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade. The event was a great success, culminating in a massive symposium-style presentation where nine faculty members and around four dozen students contributed videos, writings, and performances.

Tiffany Mitchell, UTC

“We are adept at giving any number of proper academic lectures on campus,” Arnett said, “We receive notices all the time, but we don’t have many opportunities to bridge the gaps in between those art objects and objects students are seeking out in their free time. Black Panther Week is a way to create a standardized conversation across the board that avoids jargon and rarification, and allows all of us to speak about the same things.”

James Arnett, UTC

Black Panther tells the story of T’Challa, heir to technologically advanced Wakanda, who must stop a challenger to the throne named Killmonger from ascending to power and dispersing Wakanda’s secret technology to the African diaspora. Black Panther stands apart in the Marvel pantheon and as a Hollywood production for its nearly all-black cast and production. Arnett and Mitchell hope Black Panther Week will get students thinking about what it means to circulate cultural objects about blackness. One of the things that interests both of them about Black Panther as an art object is that it poses an alternative history to Africa grounded in strength and self-protection, rather than fear and violence.

 “Black Panther shows us this beautiful Africa if it wasn’t raped and pillaged and carved up,” Mitchell said, “It is this one little slice of land that could have been. Unfortunately, we have a monolithic view of Africa. When you think of Africa, you think of the bush. Black Panther portrays parts of Africa as it really is . . . varied, plus this sci-fi, futuristic vision of what it could look like.”

Black Panther showcases in both the foreground and background individuated blackness. Many of the lip plates, hairstyles, and costumes represented in the different tribes of Wakanda are all inspired by actual African tribes. For instance, Ruth E. Carter, costume designer for the film, modeled Okoye and the Dora Milaje on the Turkana and Maasai tribes. This sect of warrior women in red first appeared in the Black Panther comics in 1998. In the original, they sported stilettos, red mini skirts, and straight black hair. For the 2018 film, Carter adapted the characters to be more battle ready. The stilettos and mini skirts are gone, and instead the Dora Milaje are uniformly bald and wear practical battle armor. “We needed to present another female warrior that was fully clothed with her vitals protected,” Carter said in an interview with Vulture. “She’s really, truly ready for battle” .

“I thought it was beautiful,” Mitchell said, “When T’challa and Okoye were in the casino in Korea. As soon as the fighting starts, Okoye flings her wig off. That was powerful.”

Design choices like the shaved heads of the Dora Milaje are immediately relevant to American culture and politics. Colonizer mentality has always had a stranglehold on black hairstyles. Back in May of this year, the Supreme Court refused to hear the 2013 lawsuit of a black woman whose job offer was rescinded after refusing to cut her dreadlocks off . In Tennessee, a stylist can be fined thousands of dollars for practicing braiding without a license, placing unnecessary regulations on black business owners under the guise of civic well-being.

“Facilities that do braids in Tennessee have to meet the same requirements that a regular salon would have,” Mitchell said. “But these are things that a braiding salon would never need. Its crazy!”

While events that celebrate diversity and bring attention to the overwhelming whiteness of Hollywood enjoy popularity and success within the English department, programming such as this is under constant threat of defunding and disintegrating.

“I think we are responding to some of the legislative pressures against diversity programs at UTK and here at UTC and trying to sort of rush into the gap that is being made by the evacuating of financial and political support.” Arnett said, “Our students are still our students, and we want to respond to attempts to disaggregate them. It is more and more important for us to have these sorts of events that bring people together if the spaces themselves are under existential threat.”



Black Panther Week Poster
Tuesday, October 23, 5:30 pm, Multicultural Center UC
English Faculty Rountable, Diversity and Comic Books
Wednesday, October 24, 5:30, Raccoon Mountain Room, UC
Whole History of Marvel comics’ Black Panther
Tuesday, October 30th, 8pm
Derthick 201, Black Panther Film Screening


Alum Spotlight: Laura Coker

Laura Coker, Paralegal, with signage to prove it!

It is a tired and thoroughly unfunny trope that English Majors must aspire to be either teachers of English or baristas once they graduate college. Even I, a senior this year, have started feeling acute anxiety at the thought of leaving academia–the only world I have ever known– to join the ranks of professionals.

To demystify embarking on a professional career path, I reached out to UTC English Alum Laura Coker, one of our Outstanding Graduating Seniors of 2017, and asked her about her time at UTC and her search for gainful employment after graduation.

When I asked her to walk me through the processes she took to find the job she has now, Laura responded: “It was honestly a nightmare.”

Around six months prior to her graduation, Laura began applying to any and all positions listed online that had any writing component to them. She applied to social media positions, grant writing positions, and law firms. 

Anything. Everything.

Laura estimates she sent out around 40 well developed applications in those 6 months. And it worked! Eventually, Laura saw and applied for a position as a clerk at the regional law firm Leitner, Williams, Dooley, & Napolitan, PLLC. As a clerk, Laura was responsible for assisting the workflow of the various attorneys and paralegals in the firm, making copies scanning documents, organizing pleadings, and filing paperwork.

Just a few months later, after demonstrating herself as a hard worker with excellent skills in reading and writing, Laura was promoted to paralegal. Now she works closely with that same attorney on a daily basis, assisting and weighing in on significant court cases in the Chattanooga area in a way that is fulfilling and meaningful to her.

Laura Coker with Reid Elsea, 2017 English Outstanding Seniors.

“You would be surprised at how many people can’t form a complete sentence or don’t know basic sentence structures,” Laura said. “I’m also able to analyze texts more closely than most people, notice details that may seem insignificant but, do in fact, have a purpose. I’m also able to communicate verbally and through email with people. Maybe that doesn’t seem like it would be difficult, but one little detail can make all of the difference in the outcome of a case.”

There you have it: a veritable paragon of the English Major success story. Forward this blog post to any family member that challenges your life-decisions this Thanksgiving.

What can you do to make the most of your short time here at UTC? Laura, like most English Majors, was of the self-selecting type, expressing a lifelong love of reading and writing. Choosing to be an English Major was never a question in her mind, because it was what she loved and what she was good at. 

One thing Laura stressed about getting the most out of an English degree, is getting involved in extracurricular activities, participating in internships, and getting published. Laura was a member of the UTC chapter of the English Honors group Sigma Tau Delta. Laura worked on the University’s literary and arts magazine, The Sequoya Review.

During her sophomore year, she worked as an intern for senator Bob Corker. Her job working for Corker was answering phone calls, recording these calls, and synthesizing them into a newsreel for Corker to hear the concerns and complaints of his constituency. 

One thing I took away from Laura was the flexibility the English Major offers. Although Laura concentrated in Rhetoric and Professional Writing, many of the classes she cited as most influential in her education were primarily literary in focus. Her four favorite classes she took at UTC were History of the English Language, Shakespeare, Lord of the Rings, and Women’s Rhetoric. 

“History of the English Language strengthened my linguistic abilities, Shakespeare and Lord of the Rings developed my skills in reading comprehension. Women’s Rhetoric was great because we analyzed current events and tied them to the rhetoric from older pieces written by women,” Laura said, “Another one I should mention would be Design for Writers because it taught me how to use Illustrator, InDesign, and Photoshop, which I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and are important to know in this technologically driven world.”

Edward Hirsch: How to Read a Poem

Edward Hirsch

Poet, author Edward Hirsch

Dr. Edward Hirsch has devoted his life to advocating poetry. He is the author of nine volumes of poetry, most recently Gabriel: A Poem. He is the author of five books of prose, including How to Read a Poem an Fall in love with Poetry—a national bestseller. He is the president of the John Simon Guggenheim memorial Foundation, and the recipient of both MacArthur and Guggenheim Fellowships.

He will deliver a lecture on the nature of reading poetry, the interchange between the poet, the poem, and the reader.

Dr. Hirsch was kind enough to answer a few questions in regards to his upcoming visit.

What originally drew you to poetry? Was there a specific experience with poetry that crystalized for you the transformative power of poetry?

I was first drawn to poetry out of emotional desperation. As a teenager, I was overwhelmed by feelings I didn’t understand and I gravitated toward poetry as a way to try to describe the intensity of what I was feeling. I wasn’t writing poems, I was writing expressive lines.

It was after I started college that I began to see the connection between reading and writing poetry. I fell in love with the English Metaphysical poets. I loved the way they structured arguments. I started to try to do that myself. That’s how I stumbled into the realization that the poet is a maker and the poem is a made thing.

Your book How to Read Poetry came out in 1999. Between then and now, the world has transformed in unimaginable ways. Do you feel your book is more important now than when it was first published? And how have you observed America’s culture of poetry and literature change in that time?

I can’t speak to the importance of my own book. But I still recognize the need for an intervention. I still believe that poetry speaks to our inner lives in necessary ways. And I believe that we need poems to help us clarify our response to the world.

The news cycle is even more intense now. Everything is even more distracting. Poems help to focus our attention. The good news is that it turns out that a lot of social media is quite good for disseminating poetry. The bad news is that it doesn’t encourage people to take much time and pay attention.

The first poem I encountered of yours was “For the Sleepwalkers.” It was in my senior year of high school and I was struck by how in the opening line you declare your desire to “say something wonderful.” Do you feel that is the proper function of poetry: to say something wonderful? If so, are you comfortable being classified as a romantic?

I loved the challenge of the first line in “For the Sleepwalkers,” I’m glad you responded to it. I would say that saying something wonderful is just one of the tasks of poetry. Perhaps it’s equally important to say something deep. I’m comfortable, in any case, with the designation as a romantic poet. I’d love to be able to continue the American romantic line, which runs from Whitman through Stevens, Crane, and Bishop.