• Dr. Jim Kilfoyle

When one considers the concept of exploring majors and self-discovery in college, the journey taken by professors is often overlooked. After all, it seems unnecessary to ask such questions; one would expect that they majored in the subject they’re teaching at some point. 

When asked about his process of pursuing a discipline, Associate Professor of English Jim Kilfoyle shares, “I was pretty sure from the time I was in my midteens that I would study English in college and, if everything worked, I would end up doing something like this. Part of the reason was I just loved to read and was bookish from a young age. I really enjoyed encountering real and imagined worlds, or imagined worlds that passed as real through reading.” Kilfoyle pursued his passion with confidence and with the hope that, one day, he might end up exactly where he is now. 

However, his studies as an undergraduate were not without surprises—or doubts. He remarks that he was also considering a second major in either history or philosophy. While exploring this possibility, he encountered a course titled Religion and the Meanings of America, which examined the politics and culture of the U.S. through religious movements and literature. Although this was cross-listed as both a history and philosophy course, it ultimately led Kilfoyle to pursuing a second major in religion: “That course did everything I could have hoped for in a history and philosophy course and more, so I thought, ‘why not pursue this?’” Another reason for his choice was personal faith. “I was brought up in a fairly observant Roman Catholic household,” Kilfoyle shares, “so religion was an important family practice and family identity, and I wanted to get a handle on that, take a step back, and think about what that meant in my life, the life of my family, and the communities we were a part of.” 

Casting the net

Like many students before and since, Kilfoyle experienced moments of doubt on his educational journey. “When I was a senior in college, I had … not exactly a crisis of faith, but I thought, ‘Uh would this work out?’ So I applied to law schools,” he admitted. Although the applications were submitted out of apprehension, he was  accepted by one program. He comments that he might have gone through with it had he gotten into a particular New Haven Ivy League school (which he did not: “I didn’t deserve to get into Yale Law School,” he adds). “I thought, ‘Do I really want to do this? Can I see myself as a lawyer?’” he recalls. “I discovered the answer was no in the course of that year.” So he proceeded onward with renewed confidence in his chosen path, taking time to work for a year, then continuing to grad school.

Toward the end of grad school, the time had arrived for Kilfoyle to venture forth into the realm of academia once more—–this time as a professor. So how exactly does one obtain a job teaching in the humanities? Well, by applying literally everywhere (no exaggeration!), which is exactly what he did. Kilfoyle’s initial applications were tailored to liberal-arts schools, and they were tailored quite well considering that all of the schools he interviewed with were liberal-arts colleges—one of which was Southwestern University. “It felt like a very good fit, and I was very excited to come here,” Kilfoyle reflects. “And fortunately, the people at SU seemed to like me as well. It’s one of those things that with humanities P.h.D.s, you’re just casting as wide a net as you can and hoping for a good match. And from my point of view, anyway, that certainly happened.” 

Making room for change

When asked what the greatest change in English as a discipline has been since becoming a professor, Kilfoyle cites the inclusion and recovery of voices unrecognized and forgotten. “Women’s voices in particular, voices of minority writers, voices of people writing from countries other than the U.K. and the U.S. are much more important to the discipline and recognized by the discipline,” he remarks. In addition, there has been a “whole project of recovery and noticing again there were people generating literature and contributing to ongoing conversations about a wide variety of issues that are accessed by literature.” 

Not only has the literature studied within the discipline been greatly expanded, but so has the work it accomplishes and, perhaps even more importantly, how. Kilfoyle recalls his days as an undergraduate, when he was trained to read texts in isolation to wring them dry for more ingenious interpretations of their meaning. Now, however, a text’s situation in society, education, and the lives of people are front and center while reading critically. It is this change within the discipline that has given it an insurmountably important place at the heart of a liberal-arts education. 

Now, however, a text’s situation in society, education, and the lives of people are front and center while reading critically. It is this change within the discipline that has given it an insurmountably important place at the heart of a liberal-arts education. 

So it was only fitting that the curriculum at Southwestern evolve along with the discipline of English itself. When Kilfoyle arrived at Southwestern, the English curriculum was structured around the Junior General Examination. The JGE was a four-hour field exam over a departmentally selected literary canon that English students were expected to pass. “In many ways, that was a model that had deep roots, and you could justify it pretty effectively if you choose to,” Kilfoyle admits. “But it had the unfortunate effect of locking faculty and students down to that list.” With new and rediscovered works that might have previously gone unnoticed, it was clear that the English department at Southwestern was going to have to match the inclusivity and evolution of the discipline as a whole. Kilfoyle says that he and fellow English professor Helene Meyers “reimagined how the major could be structured primarily to create greater freedom for students and faculty in the classroom and also to represent what was happening in the field better.” Thus, the Junior General Examination was no more. In its place was a curriculum that sought out diversity, inclusivity, and reading with a greater sense of self- and social consciousness—as well as some salty upperclassmen who had to take the exam only to see it discarded the next year.

Never a dull moment

Of course, being a professor entails trying to completely restructure a major only some of the time. But what are the other notable aspects of teaching English at Southwestern, such as being 20% of said department’s faculty? According to Kilfoyle (who found the question to be “funny in a sort of cruel way”) there is an element of compulsory flexibility that, although challenging to manage at times, allows the faculty a great degree of flexibility regarding the courses they offer. “It almost compels us to explore areas in teaching that we are interested in,” he comments. “We are pulled toward being generalists in ways that are at times a little frustrating and at times really gratifying.” 

Alongside being able to frequently rotate what he teaches, who Kilfoyle teaches each semester has kept his experiences teaching full of remarkable surprises. With every set of new students comes a new set of strengths and interests to drive and contribute to class discussions. “They remain fresh, even if I’m still hauling my moldy carcass to class, [and] it ends up being a different kind of experience than previous years,” he laughs. When asked about memorable moments from his teaching career at Southwestern, Kilfoyle first cites a particular discussion from a survey of English literature course he taught several years ago. The class had been asked to read Ben Jonson’s “On My First Sonne,” and that particular group of students “took the poem and ran with it.” The class was deeply invested in discussing the implications of grief, self-representation, and the theology of the poem and left little room for Kilfoyle himself to speak—much to his delight (and not just because he got to sit there). “It was fun to witness,” he says. “That kind of thing can happen, and has happened, pretty often. But that stands out as one moment where it kind of worked out at its best.”

Even though students and faculty have brought about many surprising and delightful moments in his teaching, Kilfoyle has had no shortage of those himself—although his moments carry a little more … chaos … than the former. For example, during an 8:00 a.m. survey course, the class was finishing up their discussion of King Lear, and when asked to comment on Lear’s final entrance, Kilfoyle was met with a rather lethargic response (or lack thereof). Seeing that the class needed a refresher, he proceeded to grab his jacket, walk out into the hallway of the third floor of Cullen, and begin wailing as Lear did offstage when he arrived with Cordelia dead in his arms. “That woke everybody up,” he recalls. “What I wasn’t expecting was that the staff came running. University Relations staff who heard this noise were very distressed. But I assured them it was just theater.” 

And if one were to take Literary and Critical Theory with Kilfoyle, they would not only have a wide and deep knowledge of literary theory bestowed upon them, but they would also be regaled with an absolutely legendary tire-changing method (guised as a defense of the obscenely thick required textbook). Upon driving back from dropping his son off at college, Kilfoyle unfortunately had a tire blowout in east Tennessee. After (ironically) not reading the owner’s manual carefully, he placed the carjack underneath the body of the car as opposed to the frame, allowing enough room to remove the flat, but not enough to put on the spare. “To hold the car up well enough to pull the jack from underneath the car in order to reposition it correctly, as a travelling English professor with a whole bunch of thick, square books, [I] took a few of them, most importantly the Norton Anthology, [and] put them under the rear axle of the car,” he explains. “[I] basically [put]t the car up on the block made by those books, lowered the jack, repositioned it, and was able to jack the car back up high enough to put the spare on.” A photo of this ordeal has been graciously provided. 

To all the future English majors

Although hearing your professor scream in the hallway and learning how to jack a car with a stack of textbooks are certainly notable takeaways some English majors at Southwestern have gotten, what does the major as a whole provide to all who take its path? Although this is somewhat self-evident, Kilfoyle remarks that one of the primary values of being an English major is learning to read and write better. On the surface, this may not seem like much, but in reality, a whole world where a mastery of language, communication, and critical thinking are invaluable becomes accessible to those within the discipline. Careers such as education and communication specialist come to mind first, but other possibilities extend into the realms of law, policymaking, entrepreneurialism, and even medicine. “What a liberal-arts education does in a broad sense is to help people develop critical thinking—but to help them develop their imagination and help them rethink what is possible is what English does. It does it through a particular mode of human thought, so that’s not to say you can’t do similar things in the sciences or with mathematical reasoning. But it’s very much a central function of liberal-arts education.” 

“What a liberal-arts education does in a broad sense is to help people develop critical thinking—but to help them develop their imagination and help them rethink what is possible is what English does. It does it through a particular mode of human thought, so that’s not to say you can’t do similar things in the sciences or with mathematical reasoning. But it’s very much a central function of liberal-arts education.” 

The benefits of pursuing the path of English extend into personal enrichment as well. That reading is a way to push back against the strenuous demands of an overconnected existence. “Making that kind of time for yourself is as important as those other kinds of moments, moments away from the press of our overconnected and overmediated lives,” Kilfoyle says. Honestly, the pace and habits of thinking associated with reading a novel, to be sure, or even a good short poem are a good opportunity for self-care, self-cultivation, and personal development that matters.”