How an English Professor Writes

Melissa Goldthwaite, Ph.D.
Professor of English


Quick Facts

What are you reading now?
Color Purple

Favorite word?

Oxford comma or no?

Favorite punctuation mark?

SJU Writes: Who’s the best or most influential writing teacher you have ever had?

MG: Two writing teachers come to mind. One was my undergraduate writing teacher, William Jolliff. He taught both poetry and advanced writing, and from him I learned that all of the writing that I did, whether it was essays or poetry, could be creative. So I didn’t have the divide that some people feel between academic and creative writing. And he was also funny and smart. I think about him a lot. He was a great teacher.

The other person that I think of is my graduate dissertation director, Andrea Lunsford. I think about her more in terms of modeling for me how a professional in my field should be and interact. I was her research assistant, and I saw how she was every day,: how she interacted with other people in the field, how she did her research, and her writing. She was a role model for me.

SJU Writes: Do you write with the advice of a particular person echoing in your mind as you compose?

MG: Well I can give you two examples from the two teachers that I just mentioned. One thing that Bill Jolliff said to me when I was anxious about miscommunication in writing was, “Mellissa, just because words don’t communicate absolutely, doesn’t mean they don’t communicate at all.” That calmed me down a little bit, and I worked on communicating what I wanted to communicate, instead of worrying that I would be misunderstood.

The other thing that stands out in my mind is something that Andrea Lunsford said to me. For my dissertation I had to interview someone who I was nervous about interviewing, and I can get very wrought, so she said to me “Melissa, just do it.” And I did it, and I felt a lot better afterwards. So, when I get myself worked up about something that I need to do, I remember her words: “’Just do it.’ I know it’s a Nike commercial, but it’s also very good advice.

SJU Writes: What advice do you have for students trying to write in your discipline?

MG: I would say read a lot. When you’re reading, try to figure out how the writer does what he or she does. Pay attention to your own responses. If there is something in what you’re reading that you think is really amazing, figure out why it’s amazing. Maybe it’s because it’s something you identify with, but maybe there’s something about the sentence structure or the way that the writer is doing what he or she is doing that makes you respond to it. And if you feel put off by something, try to figure out why you’re put off by it.

—Gia Primerano ’17, M.A. ‘19