Portrait on Main Hall Green: Melissa Range (Photo by Danny Damiani)

About the series: On Main Hall Green With … is an opportunity to connect with faculty on things in and out of the classroom. We’re featuring a different Lawrence faculty member each time — same questions, different answers.

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Melissa Range, an associate professor of English at Lawrence, is a poet with a love of both creative writing and literature.

Her poetry, which has drawn national honors, is often informed by the teaching she does.

“I am working on a historical poetry collection about the abolitionist movement, so the research I do to prepare for teaching courses on the 19th century is profoundly influencing what I end up writing poems about,” she told Art Lit Lab in a 2018 interview.

In 2015, Range was named one of five national winners in the annual Open Competition sponsored by the National Poetry Series, cited for her second collection of poems, Scriptorium.

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A year earlier she was named one of 36 national recipients of a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship in Creative Writing.

Range, who has been on the English faculty at Lawrence since 2014, has a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the University of Tennessee, a master’s in creative writing from Old Dominion University, a master of theological studies from Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri.

We caught up with Range to talk about interests in and out of the classroom.

IN THE CLASSROOM

Inside info: What’s one thing you want every student coming into your classes to know about you?

Expect the unexpected. My favorite thing about teaching is mixing it up and having the freedom to be creative. Maybe one day you’ll come into a literature class and we’ll start digging through digitized 19th century newspapers and relating advertisements for women’s hats to the poems we’re studying. Maybe one day my Emily Dickinson or Frederick Douglass finger puppets will show up. While I am deadly serious about the power of literature—I one hundred percent believe reading poems, novels, plays, and essays can make us better, more just, more empathetic people—I also have a wacky sense of humor. It will show up in the activities we do, especially in creative writing classes. You might end up writing a poem from the point of view of a spoon who wants to join a roller derby team or a snowman who just stole a car, or maybe trying to make metaphors about whatever junk I just pulled out of a cupboard in Briggs 315. (These are real and not hypothetical examples.)

Getting energized: What work have you done or will you be doing at Lawrence that gets you the most excited?

There’ve been a lot of exciting moments. Definitely teaching Native Guard in First-Year Studies; Trethewey’s one of my favorites (I teach her other books, too!). I am currently rethinking the way I teach poetry workshops and trying lots of new things in my creative writing class, so that’s fun. I really love teaching 19th century literature, especially my course on Emily Dickinson. She’s my favorite poet, and her life and art (not to mention her century) are so complex, intense, maddening, and wild. I have been so proud of how students have jumped into her poetry both times I’ve taught this class.

Going places: Is there an example of somewhere your career has taken you (either a physical space or something more intellectual, emotional or spiritual) that took you by surprise?

My career as a professor is itself a surprise. I grew up a first-generation student in a small town in southern Appalachia, and there was no expectation from anyone that I would go to college at all, let alone do anything like becoming a professor. My path to becoming a professor was quite meandering. There were all kinds of stops—and all kinds of odd jobs—along the way. I didn’t decide I even wanted to go into academia until I was in my mid-thirties; I got my job here at LU when I was 41. So, I’m living proof that you don’t have to have everything figured out the second you graduate.

But, to be Lawrence-specific, I never thought I’d be getting up in front of an entire class of first-years and giving a lecture on Native Guard. Somehow, I’ve done it six times now! And I still love that book just as much as the first time I picked it up.

OUT OF THE CLASSROOM

This or that: If you weren’t teaching for a living, what would you be doing?  

I have many ideas—opening a sandwich shop is at the top of the list. Several of my colleagues say they are in—don’t be surprised if one day there are professors slinging sammies on College Ave. Karaoke DJ? It would also be cool to open my own thrift shop. I think I’d also be great at hawking squashes at the farmers’ market. I’ve had so many odd jobs already in my life! What’s a few more?

But of course, there is actually only one other job. That’s the job I already have, which is being a poet. It just doesn’t often pay actual money.

Right at home: Whether for work, relaxation or reflection, what’s your favorite spot on campus?

I love the Wriston Galleries. There’s always something provocative to see. Wriston is also my venue of choice for poets who come to Lawrence as part of the Mia Paul Poetry Series. My poetry classes also often give readings in Wriston—so it’s got a lot of great memories for me.

One book, one recording, one film: Name one of each that speaks to your soul? Or you would recommend to a friend? Or both?

I love the poetry collection Peach State, by Adrienne Su, which came out earlier this year—it’s about food, family, place, and identity, she’s one of the best rhymers out there, and it’s funny. I’m also rereading the novel Middlemarch, by George Eliot, and my jaw is dropping every other page at her sentences and her insights. I could be here all day just talking about books. Same with records—I used to work at a record store and I have way too many I love. Lately I’ve been really into revisiting Anita Baker’s album Rapture from . . . I dunno, 1986? 87? Perfect then and perfect now! And also listening to Outkast’s Aquemeni from 1998. Such perfect rhymes! Y’all see I love rhyme, right? I actually don’t watch a lot of movies or TV, but I do have a soft spot for extremely silly comedies. One I love is What We Do in the Shadows, a vampire show that is a) not scary; and b) truly ridiculous. Also not gonna lie, even though I am not an especially good baker, sometimes the Great British Bake-Off is the only way to end a busy week.

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu