Chris is a local kid. That doesn’t mean he always knew his way around campus, however. He’s figured it out by now, after a few years of grad school under his belt, but he was a student in a new town just like most new graduate students, regardless of the fact that his childhood was spent within a few miles of campus. “It was weird to come back to Ann Arbor. I didn’t know campus at all; I didn’t know which building was Angell Hall. I just grew up playing video games at Pinball Pete’s.”
After he graduated from Pioneer High School and Carleton College in Minnesota, Chris worked for Teach for America in Las Vegas. He stayed there for five years teaching high school English at both ends of the spectrum: remedial English and honors American literature. He met his wife Molly in Las Vegas through Teach for America when she was placed there as well. Surprisingly, they didn’t know each other at Carleton, which they attended together. “I liked Vegas, but the Midwest is where our families are from, and we wanted to be closer to them for grad school.”
Chris is lucky Michigan showed up in his google search. He laughs and says, “I would have applied to Michigan anyway, but when I searched for programs in ‘education’ and ‘English,’ the joint program at U-M was the only one that came up. I have wonderful support here. I was afraid that coming back might be weird because I already had an everyday professional life and I worried that I was just going to be doing the same college-y things. It was great, though. In my program, we all have had lives, have families, and have had jobs.”
Chris’ wife is also in the joint Ph.D. program in English and Education. He says, “I applied first; she wasn’t sure she wanted to come back. Then I came home every day talking about classes and things I’m writing about, and she saw how great the program was and the kind of questions you can ask. Being in same program is really cool. Since we’ve been doing similar things all the time, we can talk about it. We are trying to cultivate exactly the same resume.” he laughs.
Both of them being in grad school at the same time wasn’t challenging enough, so the Parsons added a new member to their family when their son was born a year ago. “My folks live in town and helped out a lot. This year, the U-M Child Care Subsidy will help. The program is very supportive; they make having a family doable.” Chris says.
Chris is a teacher at heart, and his talent has been noticed by students and faculty, earning him an Outstanding Graduate Student Instructor Award last year. He’s grateful for the experience he’s received here, saying, “Because of the joint interdisciplinary program, I’ve had opportunities to teach a wide variety of things –including English 125 and English 225, an upper level writing class. I taught in School of Education, working with teacher candidates and providing field instruction for student teachers.”
“What I really love is talking to teachers about teaching. No one is more passionate than a new teacher. When they’re getting ready to go in front of a bunch of middle or high school students, no one is more eager and thirsty to get more out of a class. I taught those students the Methods for Teaching English, a capstone class in the School of Ed, then did field instruction with the same students for their student teaching. I was able to see seven of them student teach. That year of teaching was probably the most fun I’ve ever had.”
Thanks to such a broad variety of opportunities, Chris has found his passion. “I want to train secondary English teachers, possibly working in school systems or in a tenure track position.” He’s got some time to decide, as he’s finishing his dissertation this year and working as a grad student mentor in the English department. He explains, “This year is like a bonus year. I will be a grad student mentor for the English department and work with GSIs who will teach writing. They are English and Literature grad students and M.F.A.s who have a ton of content knowledge but some of them are teaching for the first time.” His eyes light up when he thinks about the experience to come.
“The diversity of experiences, — the amount of jobs I’ve had here — is amazing. I’ve taught college writing to freshman and upperclassmen, I’ve worked with teacher candidates in the School of Education, and I’ll work with GSIs teaching in the English Department Writing Program.” In five years, I’ve made myself more flexible. This looks good on a resume and is really just good for me as a teacher generally. I’ve worked with grade 9 through graduate students and have developed myself in a wide variety of ways.
Chris’ dissertation topic stemmed from his teaching experience in Las Vegas. “I noticed my lower level reading class was all male one year and tended to have a high percentage of males overall. I also noticed that my honors students were generally up to 80% female. I thought about gender and literacy more after I finished teaching, and it became a question I posed in my grad school application.”
Anne Curzan, his dissertation advisor, encouraged him to write a short paper on the subject. He expands, “I read books that created a huge panic about boys and literacy, but the panicked tone of the books wasn’t hitting with accuracy the experience I had, because the boys I taught got passionate about books. I want to get people to see past the ‘boys read like this and girls read like this,’ and we can look at it better if the tone isn’t so panicked. In these books about boys and literature, they only interviewed boys. There was no balance.”
Chris covers gender and identity more broadly in his study by examining a more holistic picture of what’s going on. He describes, “I include all female, all male, and mixed gender classes in an interview and observation study. It’s been so fun. The high school students love talking about things like gender. They had a great time talking about these issues. I hope this study will show a more complete picture about how gender might affect literacy. People make sense of gender in their lives, even if their idea of gender isn’t true, but at same time it’s something out there that people are grappling with.”
Chris’s graduate program is small and very close-knit, and they spend much of their time with other families – or out at happy hours with them. “My wife and I get student ticket prices for UMS productions at the Power Center and Hill. We like seeing symphonies and orchestras from all over the world. There are lots of those opportunities.”
Then he reflects on reality with a baby in the house. “Now we stay home and watch lots of movies.”
So what are this English teacher’s favorite books? “I have lots: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is my favorite book to teach to high school students. It’s exciting to have conversations with students about the language – especially with diverse students. It’s great to see students learn how smart Jim is, and Huck is just a charming kid. For me personally, I love The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz because there’s so much energy in the language, characters, and ideas—and I got to teach a few of his short stories when I taught American Lit. I’ve also always loved Jane Austen. My best friend bought me an “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen” bumper sticker from Dawn Treader in town. I also have to mention Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mystery novels which are great stories, funny, and feed my mystery novel habit.”