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Department of English at Idaho State University Celebrates 50 Years of Doctoral Education

October 24, 2022

Dr. Jack Hickerson and Dr. Mary Hickerson, among the first class of graduates from the ISU D.A. in English
Dr. Jack Hickerson and Dr. Mary Hickerson

The Idaho State University Department of English and Philosophy is celebrating 50 years of doctoral education in English.

In 1971, with support from the Carnegie Foundation, the Department established the Doctor of Arts in English. In 2009, the Department received permission to rename the degree Ph.D. in English and the Teaching of English. In that time, nearly 120 students have earned their doctoral degrees in English at Idaho State. Most graduates have pursued faculty careers in higher education in the U.S. and abroad. 

Originally conceived at Carnegie Mellon University, D.A. programs were founded across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s to address a perceived shortage of teachers for community and small liberal arts colleges. The D.A., or “teaching doctorate” as it was often called, provided broad, rather than specialized, training in literature, linguistics, related fields, and content-area pedagogy. 

In 1971, with support from the Carnegie Foundation, Idaho State University established four D.A. programs in Biology, Political Science, Math, and English. ISU became the only university to offer a doctoral degree in English in Idaho, Wyoming, or Montana, a distinction that remains today. 

The first graduate from the D.A. program was Dr. Mary Hickerson (1972). She and her husband, Dr. Perry John (Jack) Hickerson, were among the first cohort of graduates from the D.A. in English. 

Before coming to Idaho State, both were full-time faculty members with M.A. degrees at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU). With support from Carnegie Fellowships, the two took leaves-of-absence from SMSU to pursue doctoral training. 

As Jack Hickerson recalls his and Mary’s decision, “The degree program came along at just the right time. He says, “it was the perfect degree for us because of the fellowship support and because of the range of courses and excellent professors.” 

After earning the D.A., Drs. Jack and Mary Hickerson were promoted at SMSU and went on to decades-long careers as professors in the Department of English. Looking back, Dr. Mary Hickerson appreciates that the program provided a foundation for many courses that she and Jack went on to develop and teach at SMSU, such as Greek Myth and Literature and Literature of the American West. According to Jack, they both look back on their time at Idaho State with fondness.

Virginia (Ginny) Tinsley Johnson was also one of the first graduates of the program and she too recalled her time at ISU with appreciation. Like the Hickersons, she already held a faculty position. Hers was at North Idaho College, but she had been considering pursuing a Ph.D. 

With a leave-of-absence, she came to ISU. She says that the multidisciplinary coursework was exciting and valuable. When she returned to North Idaho College, she participated in the development of a new course, Introduction to the Humanities, which drew on the kind of interdisciplinary work in music, art, literature, and history that she had done at ISU. She eventually became head of a multidisciplinary department involving literature, languages, communications, and the fine arts. She credits the multidisciplinary training she gained through the D.A. program with providing a background to do that work. 

The D.A. also set up Dr. Johnson for a career characterized by a commitment to teaching. In 1985 Dr. Johnson was named National Teacher of the Year by the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT). She was the first person from the West and the first woman to receive the award.

When it was established, ISU’s English D.A. was a two-year degree. Over the decades, the training the program offered deepened, becoming more like a Ph.D., with more coursework and significant research requirements. At the same time universities around the country replaced their D.A. degrees with Ph.D. programs. The Department of English and Philosophy at ISU followed suit, and in 2009 its D.A. officially became the Ph.D. in English and the Teaching of English. The first graduate from the Ph.D. program was Dr. Meredith Harvey (2010), who is now an Associate Professor at George Williams College, Aurora University (Aurora, IL). 

While providing more specialized training, the degree is nationally distinctive for its integrated emphasis on teaching, as it builds in theoretical and practical training for students in teaching college-level English in coursework, exams, internships, and the dissertation. In 2014, the Modern Language Association’s Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature recognized ISU’s English Ph.D. as a distinctive model for doctoral training in English. 

Both the D.A. and the Ph.D. programs have attracted students from around the globe, with recent students hailing from Canada, Egypt, India, Iran, Libya, Nigeria, the United Kingdom, and Zimbabwe, in addition to those from the United States. Graduates of these programs have pursued faculty careers at a wide variety of two- and four-year, private and public universities. 

Other graduates have gone on to positions at the College of Southern Idaho, Snow College (Utah), BYU-Idaho, Walla Walla Community College, Columbia Basin Community College (Washington), Multnomah University (Portland), the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, the College of Coastal Georgia, Cairo University, and Kenyatta University (Nairobi, Kenya). Graduates have also gone on to successful careers in student affairs, secondary education, grant writing, and communications. 

Alumni attest that their training helped to find a job, and provided a foundation that has continued to support them over the course of their careers.

Douglas Schaak, currently a full professor at Multnomah University (Portland), completed the D.A. in 2002. He describes himself as always a proud Bengal and a proud graduate of the D.A. in English program.

“The D.A. was stimulating and rigorous, formative and transformational,” Schaak says. “I’m especially grateful for the pedagogical component of the degree which prepared me for the classroom when I began my full-time career at Multnomah.” 

“Teaching alongside Professors Susan Swetnam and Roger Schmidt gave me the direction and confidence I needed to know that I could be an effective college instructor,” Schaak says. 

Even 20 years later, he says he continues to draw on the competencies he developed during the D.A. degree.

Schaak has encouraged many Multnomah University students to pursue graduate work with ISU, including his son, Hogan Schaak, who earned his M.A. in 2019 and is currently a doctoral candidate for the Ph.D. 

Michael Lee came to ISU at a transitional point in his career. He already held a faculty position at Columbia Basin Community College. He joined the D.A. in 2007 and later transitioned to the Ph.D. program to increase his credentials and develop professionally. Coming to ISU during his sabbatical year, he completed his coursework in-person and then returned to his faculty role, studying for his comprehensive exams and writing his dissertation while working full-time. 

Lee was one of the first students to earn the Ph.D. in English and the Teaching of English, in 2010. He is currently the Vice President for Instruction at Columbia Basin. 

“I still remember the support I had from my dissertation advisor,” Lee says, “who is a mentor in both leadership and scholarship.”

He warmly recalls that his students cheered when he returned from his successful dissertation defense.

“The English department was supportive of my attempts to balance my graduate student work with my career as a faculty member,” he explains. “As someone who had been teaching writing and literature for many years, I felt stretched intellectually in the program. I returned to my classroom reminded of what it meant to be writing as my students were. I could talk to my students about the work I was doing.”

Dahood El-Oqla earned his Ph.D. in 2013 and is currently a faculty member at Walla Walla Community College (WWCC).

“The pedagogical and literary training I received at ISU defined and polished my ability to study and teach literature from a post-colonial perspective,” he says.

El-Oqla says his Ph.D. work also instilled in him a passion to advocate for the rights of underserved student populations and he now does this in his current position by providing learning opportunities that validate the voices and experiences of all students and by helping all students to access academic and professional resources inside and outside the classroom.

Kelly Moor writes that her D.A. in English helped her to attain her first tenure-track faculty position, and later to change her career path in the face of personal tragedy. Dr. Moor completed her D.A. in 2009, at a time when she says faculty positions were evaporating in the midst of the recession. Still, she was hired into a tenure-track position in English at a regional university in Oklahoma, where she taught first-year writing and Latin.

When her husband passed away prematurely two years later, she wanted to move back to Pocatello to be close to family, friends, and the supportive relationships she had developed at ISU. Moor was hired as a Senior Lecturer in the first-year success program at ISU and developed a passion for helping students to bolster the skills they need to persist and succeed in their first year. She was eventually promoted to Director of First-Year Transition, and she is now Director of Strategic Communications for Student Affairs. 

She reflects that the most significant gift of the D.A. program was its emphasis upon teaching. 

“Experienced instructors mentored me as I was developing my teaching skills,” Moor says. “Many of these professors had and have my admiration because they prioritized the student experience and valued their teaching roles.” 

Having worked with faculty at different universities and across ISU, she writes, “My doctoral program provided both an exceptional model of good teaching and the tools to develop my own methods in the classroom.” 

While she no longer works directly with students, she feels her job now is an extension of the work she did in the classroom, since she’s communicating persistence and success strategies to students at the university. 

Noran Amin earned her PhD in English in May 2020. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at Cairo University. 

“The program’s training in pedagogy provided me with practical skills that are easily transferable to different teaching contexts,” Amin says. 

She says that the program prepared her well to jump into teaching junior and senior undergraduate students at Cairo University. She also says that being an assistant professor requires involvement in campus-wide service and administration, and the program also equipped her for these duties, providing opportunities for her to serve on department committees and as the student representative on Idaho State’s Graduate Council. 

Amin, who defended her dissertation during the Covid-19-related quarantine of spring 2020, praised the faculty and staff in the program who also taught crucial lessons on resilience in the face of adversity. 

“My dissertation committee worked tirelessly to lead me to the finish line,” Amin says. She says that this lesson in perseverance prepared her to work at Cairo University for two years under Covid restrictions, keeping one purpose in mind: “one will always strive to lead students to success.” 

The Ph.D. in English and the Teaching of English is one of two graduate degree programs in the Department of English and Philosophy. The other is the M.A. in English, which was established in 1960. The M.A. and Ph.D. offer competitive admission and multi-year funding packages to qualified students. The Department also offers a graduate certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and a graduate certificate in Biomedical Ethics.

For more information contact the Department of English and Philosophy at 208-282-4472, or email english@isu.edu. For graduate program information, please visit the department’s Graduate Program page.


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