A Poet Transforms her Classes into Community
- Written by John Chadwick
Evie Shockley Helps Students Empower Themselves Through Literature
Evie Shockley was drawn to the mystery of poetry.
But as an undergraduate English major in the 1980s, she found that mystery intimidating.
“I felt intimidated by having to talk about other people’s work,” Shockley said. “As for creating my own, - oh my God, that seemed completely beyond my grasp at the time.”
After going to law school, and working as an attorney for several years, she found herself drawn back. She yearned to study literature and find her voice as a writer. She quit the law firm, and entered graduate school.
She’s now recognized as a compelling new voice in American poetry, as well as a gifted professor in the School of Arts and Sciences who draws students from across the academic disciplines. She received a Rutgers Faculty Scholar-Teacher Award in 2014 for outstanding contributions in research and teaching.
Her latest poetry collection, the new black, (Wesleyan University Press, 2011) is an acclaimed synthesis of experimental and traditional styles that is both distinctly personal and topical, addressing complex questions about race in America. Her scholarly book, Renegade Poetics, (University of Iowa Press, 2011) examines innovative poets whose work demonstrates the expansiveness of black poetry.
“Some people bloom late, and for me that was certainly the case,” Shockley said. “But eventually I came into an understanding of what poetry could do, and that was incredibly empowering.”
Shockley wants to help students discover that same sense of empowerment. Her teaching style – informal and conversational, yet insistent on student participation – can transform any class into a small-group workshop.
“I tell each class on the first day of our meetings that we need to think of each other as a learning community,” she said. “We are involved in creating for the semester, and we need to get to know one another, and not speak of each other as ‘she’ or ‘he,’ but by name.”
In 2011, Shockley won a Presidential Fellowship for Teaching Excellence for her ability to foster productive, open discussion among her students. She was also awarded a Board of Trustees Research Fellowship for Scholarly Excellence.
Her approach strikes a chord with students, drawing budding writers and poets as well as students curious about literature and wanting to experience its power. For undergraduates, Shockley teaches a range of courses in creative writing and African American literature.
“It’s a very effective way to learn, because she’s really expecting you to share your ideas,” said Breanna Casey, a junior studying English and journalism. “I would spend a lot of time before class going over the readings, organizing my thoughts, and preparing what I was going to say.”
Mona Saleh, a senior majoring in English and Biology, said Shockley’s course in Contemporary Narratives of Slavery helped students reach back across time to take a penetrating and unforgettable look into slavery.
“We all know slavery happened,” she said “But reading the narratives of the people who actually lived it was devastating. It showed me that there is so much still to unpack and understand, and that the repercussions will extend indefinitely into history.”
Shockley, a Nashville native, and the daughter of two public school teachers, grew up in a home filled with books and a love for reading. “You could sometimes get out of doing chores if you were reading,” she said. “My Mom might let me skip the dusting if I finished some chapters.”
That early foundation has led to what she says is a lifelong love affair with the written word, and an understanding of teaching as a way to provide a transformational moment of possibility for students.
“I feel what I can do and should do is communicate how much I love this stuff, communicate literature as a serious intellectual matter; at the level of emotion, and as a lens on our society,” Shockley said. “There are all those layers of reasons that students might also come to love, if not my whole field, then certain texts they are going to encounter.”
In 2012, Shockley continued to garner recognition for her work.
- She was awarded the Theodore H. Holmes and Bernice Holmes National Poetry Prize from Princeton University.
- She gave an invited talk, “When Formalism is Innovative: Black Aesthetics in Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Anniad,” as part of a lecture series on New Directions in African American Literary and Cultural Criticism, Department of English, University of Pittsburgh.
- Shockley was also invited to read from her new poems at Vassar College, Pennsylvania State University, Swarthmore College, Lehigh University, Cave Canem Fellows Reading in New York City, University of Vermont, and the Vermont Studio Center, and the Jones Library in Amherst, Mass.
- Evie Shockley was invited to give a hybrid lecture-presentation-poetry reading at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC for the Langston Hughes Birthday Tribute. (You can see her reading on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDpayYPbp8s, beginning at 15:03).
Learn more about Evie Shockley on her Department of English faculty page.