Meet the Director of Undergraduate Studies: Christina Walter

July 14, 2016

Professor Christina Walter, the new Director of Undergraduate Studies, is looking forward to the upcoming school year and the exciting developments happening in Undergraduate Studies.

Meet the Director of Undergraduate Studies
Christina Walter

What is a major goal for the coming year?  

This is an exciting time in Undergraduate Studies. In the coming year, we’re going to be rethinking the entire curriculum and major. We’ll be consulting current students and alumni of our department to hear what they find most engaging and helpful in the curriculum and to get suggestions for how we might evolve. In addition, we’ll be discussing with faculty the skills we’re aiming to foster through the major as well as ways we can better feature those skills and help students to talk about them in public and to employers. We’ll also be considering how the curriculum might help students, and indeed the whole university community, to understand the network that links writing and rhetorical studies, literary studies, creative writing, digital humanities, and media studies—a network that spans the department but extends far beyond it to other departments and programs and to the public sphere. We want UMD English to be part of the important conversations going on inside and outside universities around the country about what it means to be an English major and what the value of an English degree is. I hope we get a lot of participation at the various town-hall style meetings we’re planning for this fall to give people an opportunity to talk about their ideas, and I hope that folks who can’t come to the meetings will give us their feedback through a survey we’ll be distributing.

What book are you currently reading, or what book would you most like to teach?

Right now I’m reading Caryl Phillips’s new novel The Lost Child (2015), which reimagines Emily Brontë’s classic novel Wuthering Heights (1847). The Lost Child is set mostly in 1960s England and tells the story of Monica, a woman who wins a place at Oxford University but alienates her parents when she then abandons her degree to marry an African-Caribbean graduate student. The marriage soon falls apart, and Monica’s mental health begins to decline as she’s left to raise her two children in the shadow of the moors of northern England that Wuthering Heights made famous. Phillips sandwiches Monica’s story between two nineteenth-century scenes that feature a seven-year-old Heathcliff—the mysterious anti-hero of unknown origins in Brontë’s novel. These “time-traveling” scenes take us back into Brontë’s fictional world to supply an origin story for Heathcliff: he’s now the illegitimate son of a wealthy English landowner and an African former slave.

One of the things that inspired me to read this novel at this moment is that Phillips will be the English department’s Bebe Koch Petrou Lecturer and the closing keynote speaker for our featured symposium next spring, “Forming Black Britain” (March 9-10). Several reading groups in the department will discuss The Lost Child or another of Phillips’ fascinating novels and plays this fall, in preparation for the spring symposium. I hope to see many students, faculty, and members of the community at the symposium—and I invite anyone to contact me if you want help connecting with a group reading Phillips’ work.

What book/teacher/class helped you decide to major in English or pursue a career in higher ed?

My career trajectory has rather naïve origins and ones not connected to the inspiration of a particular teacher or class, or the love of a particular book—though I have been lucky enough to have encountered some amazing teachers and books. I decided that I wanted to get a Ph.D. and be a professor all the way back in 8th grade. Did I really know what that degree or that job meant? Definitely not. I knew that I loved the way that literature was an alternate reality where people could experience the different implications of the way our world is or could be and where people could encounter places and people far beyond their daily lives. It wasn’t only about thinking through other ways of being; it was feeling through other ways of being. And I wanted to study that and talk about it all the time, rather than just in a class here and there. I asked my English teacher what was the furthest you could go with school in literary study and she said a Ph.D., so I set my sights on that. It wasn’t until graduate school that I really began to have a sense of what being a professor meant. Fortunately for me, I was as taken with the realities of research, service, and teaching as I was with my childish ideal.

Do you have a word of advice for students? 

My first thought was to emphasize that college isn’t just about job training. It’s a place to try on new ideas and to find more ways to express what matters. But the truth is that students’ own enthusiasm will lead them to the social, cultural, and political opportunities that a university affords. Where that enthusiasm is less likely to lead them is to their professors’ offices. So my real advice would be that office hours are the only place where you can really make your course experience all about you: you can ask the questions you want to ask, talk about some aspect of the reading that didn’t come out in class discussion, try out your ideas for your paper, and even get feedback on a draft. Taking advantage of office hours can help you get the most out of a class, improve your grade, and ensure more detailed letters of recommendation down the road. Beyond the course itself, though, you can also get advice about other courses that might interest you and even find out about opportunities on campus that might not already be on your radar. So when you get your next batch of course syllabi, don’t overlook that info about office hours at the top.