The Storied Life of Amy Smith


It seemed destined for Amy Smith to become a teacher of literature. Her young life played out like epic adventures already written. At the age of five, her family moved out of Africa (Tanzania) to settle in a little house on the prairie.

On a sustainable farm in upstate New York with a British mother and American father, Amy learned how to work hard, make hay, shovel manure and live the life of a poor farm girl with "1960s hippie parents."

“It was a good way to grow up, and it has helped me to connect with LU students from rural areas because I grew up in a rural area.”

The country girl, who could still recall celebrating her early childhood birthdays in the Serengeti observing giraffes and elephants, decided to attend Binghamton University, where she spent 11 years, ultimately obtaining her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature: Philosophy, Literature, and the Theory of Criticism, and connected with classmates from New York City.

“Most of the students were from New York City, so I’ve always liked that LU has a mix of students. Our student population has a lot of different kids from different backgrounds, and I love that.”

Amy joined LU in 2009 after a friend who was working at LU encouraged her to apply for an assistant teaching position in the Department of English & Modern Languages. She began her Cardinal career teaching a general philosophy class that all students were required to take. Since that time, she has become an associate professor teaching mythology, Asian literature, British literature and a variety of advanced courses in her research areas, which include Greek myth, modernism, religion and literature, ethics and literature, Asian religions and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Amy believes teaching literature and studying stories, even ancient ones, helps students get through hard times and has become even more relevant in more recent times.

“We’ve always used stories as a way to understand our human experience, especially when you’re going through situations where you really don’t understand what’s going on, where you’re being challenged. We’ve got a lot of different situations right now that are like that for our society and societies around the world where we need to try and make sense of our situation and understand our humanity in the situation.”

Seeking to understand the importance of literature and its relevance to the here and now is the basis for Amy’s research. Her favorite subject and dissertation and book topic, “Virginia Woolf,” used Greek mythology in her works. Amy studies and teaches about Woolf, who once inadvertently baked her wedding ring in a pudding, and other 21st century authors, who incorporate literature of old into their modern works.

“Why does a writer, like Ralph Ellison, who is trying to understand the experience of the Jim Crow error and being a black man in the 40s and 50s look to Greek mythology and find that helpful? I think about that in my research and have students think about that.”

Amy is a co-translator for several collections of short Korean stories. She works with a native Korean as the English expert and they have another book in the works. Additionally, Amy is finishing a book, “Virginia Woolf’s Politics of Myth,” a large monograph that she has worked on for years.

“I’ve had a lot of setbacks, some external to me, but I keep plotting along with it. It’s been a good opportunity for personal growth. It’s very similar to my students’ experiences in that you have these setbacks and you have to keep working and improving and moving forward.”

In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Amy, who developed and taught online courses prior to coming to LU, is the Director for the Center for Teaching and Learning Enhancement. The center focuses on pedagogy and varying innovative teaching practices to help faculty increase the teaching tools. The center has been critical during the pandemic.

“It’s been a really hard time for students and for faculty. We’ve been working a lot with faculty to teach them how to create those really exciting experiences where students are getting rich deep learning in a really radically different environment.”

Amy is so passionate about creating online courses that fully engage students, she’s published on the topic. A paper coming out in a collection titled, “Approaches to teaching literature online,” provides a framework or a theory of online teaching.

“I connect to one of my classes and talk about a big project that we do where students really learn very high-level things and really get a lot out of it and take ownership of their learning. I find that kind of stuff really exciting. You get to be really creative when developing online classes. You can kind of think about things in a completely different way than you might think about them for the classroom.”

The center hosts a blog intended to reach more faculty and provide resources that faculty need at the moment. Amy peruses all of the free resources and curates the ones of value and shares them as well as success stories from other faculty members.

Other passions include gardening, much to her chagrin. “I have always said I’m never going to do that, but I got very into growing vegetables this past winter and we didn’t buy produce for months. It’s a stress reliever, and I get very proud of myself when I can say ‘everything we’re eating for dinner was grown in the garden.’”

And Amy is a student advocate. She considers helping students through crises a privilege and a proud professional achievement but she also enjoys teaching in creative ways that allow students the freedom to explore and learn from one another. As a teacher she likes to take a step back, create an environment where students can work on problems important to them that allows them to grow and develop.

“I had a former student who is now a high school teacher contact me in the fall to ask if he could use a project he had done in a class he took as a freshman and if I could help him with that. He said he felt like he learned to be a teacher from that composition class. So those moments are really exciting. You can see how you inspire them to think about learning and teaching in different ways, and they go out and make it their own and make a big difference.”

This teacher of teachers and students would now like to close the pandemic saga of her life and open a new book about triumph and overcoming adversity. In both books, she would write about the resiliency and compassion she has experienced from the LU community.

“I have faculty members reach out to me all the time asking ‘what can I do to help students better.’ They’re not just talking about academics but how to support students as people. We have students who need technology or security or food. I think that seeing those parts of humanity and building of community, outreach and care makes me really proud to be part of this university and this community.”

(You have two years to increase your knowledge of Virginia Woolf. Amy has ensured the International Virginia Woolf conference of 2022 will be held at Lamar University.)

Category: Features

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