MFA Instructor Dr. Dawn Reno Langley: A Q&A

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Dr. Dawn Reno Langley and the text Dr. Dawn Reno Langley, Instructor Master of Fine Arts.

After a career spent publishing articles, fiction, nonfiction and poetry pieces, Dr. Dawn Reno Langley now teaches in Southern New Hampshire University's Master of Fine Arts program, helping budding writers achieve their dreams. We asked her for her thoughts on teaching, the importance of education and more as part of SNHU's Faculty Spotlight Series.

Tell us a little bit about your professional background.

I’ve been writing for my whole life, and I’ve taught others how to write for at least half of that time. My work has ranged from nonfiction books on art and antiques to children’s books and adult novels. I’ve written hundreds of articles, essays, short stories and poetry. Suffice it to say, I write all the time – so I’ve produced a lot!

As a teacher, I’ve taught at the Montessori level (6-8th grades), junior high, high school, community college and university. I’ve also been an academic dean, which showed me the other side of education.

My Master of Fine Arts is from Vermont College, a school I’m quite proud of attending, and my Ph.D. is from the Union Institute and University, which allowed me to combine my passion for social justice with my love of creative writing.

What led you to academics, and in particular, SNHU?

I never thought I’d teach. Honestly. I thought my writing career would be enough to keep me busy for the rest of my life, but when I started doing workshops for the University of Vermont’s continuing education program, I realized I loved to teach.

As I said above, I’ve taught at many different levels, but the graduate/doctoral level is one where I feel most challenged and rewarded. Teaching at SNHU allows me to “give back.” This is the type of teaching that gives me almost immediate satisfaction, especially when I’m able to visit a student’s book signing or receive copies of their latest works in the mail. I’m more proud of them than they will ever realize!

What drew you to this field of study? What keeps you excited about it?

I’ve always written. I don’t know any other life. What keeps me excited is that every day is new and different. I have so many stories in my head that I’ll never have enough time to write them all.

What do you find rewarding in your position as an adjunct instructor?

I’ll give you a specific example. One of my former students lives in my town here in North Carolina, so I see her regularly at Barnes & Noble, where she works. When her first book was published, I was able to pop into her book signing. I know how much it took for this student to find time to write — her job and kids take up a lot of her time. Her dedication to the art will be what she needs to move forward, and I hope to see her at more signings in the near future.

There’s no better reason to be an adjunct than to see the difference a few well-placed comments on a student’s work will make on their whole lives.

Can you think of a particularly impactful or eye-opening moment as an online faculty member?

I’ve always said that I learn as much (or more) from my students than they do from me. Lately, I’ve been reminded that the online environment is a place where we all learn in a bit of a silo, and reaching into those silos can be challenging. During this past semester, I continuously found myself emailing a student whose work was always late. I knew the student was struggling and wanted to help, but if they didn’t answer, I wouldn’t be able to. Finally, we had a discussion, and the student revealed some personal information. When they finished the semester with a B, they weren’t the only ones to heave a sigh of relief. Adults have a lot on their plates when they take an online course, and we as instructors often have no clue what’s going on in their lives. I learned this semester that reaching out is more imperative in an online environment than we might know.

What advice do you have for students interested in earning their MFA? How can they stand out in their field?

My only advice is to keep the fingers on the keyboard and to listen to what resonates with you. If you apply advice and it doesn’t work, move on, but give your writing a chance to morph and grow. Think of your writing as a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger.

How can you stand out? By reading the best of the best (always keep reading) and seeing how your favorite authors construct their books. Learn from them, then put your own spin on the style. And always keep writing.

What, if anything, did you not expect from your career path?

That’s a hard question. I think I didn’t expect to become so immersed in being an academic dean that I actually gave up publishing for a while. I still wrote, but I didn’t actively publish.

How have you found ways to effectively connect with students online?

I originally thought that videos would be a way to effectively connect, but I don’t think they work as well as Skyping does. The students who have taken me up on an opportunity for a Skype/teaching/conversation always seem to improve their writing skills after we’ve talked. It’s amazing how much you can get into a 15-minute conversation. I’m surprised more students don’t make that appointment with me.

You were recognized as a Fulbright Scholar 2011 - what does that accomplishment mean to you?

I’m very proud to have spent time in Pakistan as a Fulbrighter, and I’ve made lifelong friends as a result of that trip. Being part of the program teaches you about the best of what we have to offer as a country. We truly are representatives of the United States whenever we go on a Fulbright journey. The accomplishment is less of a milestone in a career, because, personally, it changed my life.

What did you do during your time as a Fulbright Scholar? How has that time added to your professional and personal experience?

I spent a lot of time in the universities in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, talking to educators and students about my own experience in the American educational system, as well as about writing fiction and being a college administrator.

My Fulbright experience allowed me to see a side of the world I might never have visited, and I share that experience all the time with people who might have misconceptions about Pakistan itself and of the Muslim world, in general. I think my experience has actually allowed me to expand others’ horizons, as well.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

Traveling! I’ve done most of Europe, parts of Mexico, the Caribbean, most of Canada, Thailand, Pakistan, Kenya – and I’m setting my sights on South America next.

What is one (or two) books every English student should read?

Anything by Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Toni Morrison. And, depending upon the genre that the student wants to write, the best of the best of the writers in that field. (And I would hope that the student reads far more than one or two books!)

Why is education important to society as well as to you personally?

Education opens worlds for us. Most billionaires are avid readers because they want to learn more about what other people know. They’re not satisfied with what they currently know and understand—they want to continually educate themselves.

Education helps us to understand other cultures. It helps us to live in harmony with others. It teaches us how to tread softly on Mother Earth. It shows us how the past can affect our future.

To me, someone who has pursued an education (of any kind) is a curious soul who’s willing to reach out of their comfort zone. That’s the kind of person I want to know. It’s the kind of person I always want to be.

Joe Cote is a staff writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Follow him on Twitter @JoeCo2323.

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