Photograph by Lance Holt, Holt Images

During her travels to North Vietnam, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton visited with school children in Tong Thuony, hiked through rice fields from Can Cau market to Bac Ha and got to know Mr. Duong, assistant headmaster of the school.

In the Field with Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton

Associate Professor of English, Director of the Deborah S. Ellis Writing Center, Paideia® Professor

If Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton asked you “Do you consider your education to be a private asset or a vehicle for public good?” how would you answer?

Most Southwestern students choose the latter option. That’s one reason Piedmont-Marton loves her job. “At Southwestern, we see a majority of students start careers that include strong elements of social activism,” she says.

Piedmont-Marton herself sets the standard to follow. “It’s Elisabeth’s curiosity, creativity and passion for social justice that combine to make her one of the premier intellects and teachers I know,” says David Gaines, associate professor of English and Director of the Paideia® Program. Delilah Dominguez ’09 says, “Dr. Piedmont-Marton is not just a professor out to teach literary theory but a person concerned about connecting with people.”

That connection begins in the classroom and continues off campus and even to remote parts of the world. Whether discussing civic engagement with a student over coffee, weighing in on local politics or helping to raise more than $23,000 to build a school in Vietnam, Piedmont-Marton puts her words into action.

Gaines says, “Elisabeth is the embodiment of intellect turned to good works on campus and in the world. She is the best kind of political activist, always willing to walk her talk.”

Piedmont-Marton brings that focus on civic responsibility to students through the University’s Paideia Program, in which she is a professor. Paideia, meaning the “sum total of one’s education,” is an integrative educational program that stresses intellectual curiosity and civic engagement, she explains. “We reflect on the connection between our roles as citizens and as intellectuals. We read about and discuss what our responsibilities are and how to participate; how to give back to the community and to society as a whole.”

Having traveled to Vietnam twice in three years, Piedmont-Marton has read extensively about the region across a wide range of disciplines: politics, history, ethnography and literature. “Thanks to my involvement with Paideia,” she says, “I’ve been thinking of how I can take up the responsibilities of intellectual citizenship and bring my work as a professor and writer into fuller engagement with the world.”

She explains that most writing about Vietnam from the last two decades focuses on the policy of doi moi, or economic reform, and how it affects Vietnam’s status as one of the few remaining countries with a communist government. Currently, those interested in learning about contemporary Vietnam will have to look to writing that is at least 10 years old.

Helping build a much-needed school near the market town of Bac Ha in the Lao Cai Province led Piedmont-Marton to the idea of writing a book that would explore the world of modern day North Vietnam. “The book will bring together my scholarly work in war and literature, a grassroots civic engagement project and my ambitions as a writer,” she says.

It could also position Piedmont-Marton as a “concentrated messenger of a culture,” just as food is perceived to be in one of her favorite books, Heat, by Bill Buford.

Getting to SU

Piedmont-Marton didn’t take a traditional path to Southwestern. She lived in Chicago, Ill., Washington, D.C. and Austin, and worked as an aerobics instructor, waitress, sports stringer and mentor to college basketball players, all the while earning her master’s degree and doctorate. She’s happy to share her real life examples and knowledge in the classroom. “I learned to be a better teacher because of those experiences,” she says.

Piedmont-Marton is an example to her students. Sophomore Griffin Ferry says, “All the things you wouldn’t expect a professor to do, she does … even when my First-Year Seminar with her was over, she still checked in to see how I was doing.”

“Elisabeth is a populist with refined tastes,” says Gaines. “She appreciates the beauty in everything from a text to the dinner table to social justice.”

Piedmont-Marton and her husband, Bruce Marton, live in South Austin and enjoy backpacking, camping, running, reading, watching sports, cooking and entertaining. She also loves to travel and cites Budapest, Hungary; Dubrovnik, Croatia; North Vietnam; and Glacier National Park, Mont. as her favorite places, but has been happy to call Southwestern home for 10 years.

Students say Piedmont-Marton’s humility and humor help make her classroom feel like home. Dominguez says in the midst of a student’s often-chaotic campus life, “Her classes are like Robert Frost’s definition of poetry—momentary stays against confusion.”


To read more about Piedmont-Marton’s journeys to North Vietnam, visit her blog at

Deborah S. Ellis Writing Center

In 1999, Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton came to Southwestern and developed the Deborah S. Ellis Writing Center, named for the late Debby Ellis, a scholar of medieval literature, beloved English teacher and a founder of the women’s studies program. Now in its 10th year, the Writing Center is considered by Piedmont-Marton to be a success.

Student consultants receive training on how to help other students with their writing, working one-on-one with writers at all levels, on all texts and at all stages in the process. Piedmont-Marton is confident in that training. “I trust the students to make decisions,” she says. “It’s a collaborative culture, and the students don’t want to let each other down.”

“Through the Writing Center, Dr. Piedmont-Marton tries to understand what’s at work in the writer, without regard to academic level or discipline,” says Delilah Dominguez ’09.

Of Piedmont-Marton’s writing expertise, Emily Northrop, associate professor of economics and chair of the economics and business department, says, “Over the years I’ve had many conversations with Elisabeth on how to be more effective in teaching students to write. In telling me and other faculty what we don’t particularly want to hear, her advice has always been expert, convincing, encouraging and fun.”

Write Like A Pro

Five Tips from Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton
  1. Read a lot.
  2. Writing is messy. Be willing to make mistakes in the process.
  3. Don’t lose sight of your reader.
  4. Find actual readers to provide feedback.
  5. Revision often means getting rid of your favorite parts.