Focus on Faculty
Peter Smagorinsky, Distinguished Research Professor in the College of Education, says his favorite course is always the one he’s teaching at the moment.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I got my B.A. at Kenyon College in English literature, and my M.A.T. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago in English education, which is the field of how to teach literature, writing and language in middle and high schools. I teach courses for pre-service teachers in planning instruction and service-learning. I also do one-on-one work with doctoral students working on my research projects. I also have served on my share of committees, although I tend to dislike meetings in general.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
I came to UGA in 1998 after having taught at the University of Oklahoma for eight years; before that, I was a high school English teacher in Illinois for 14 years. I came here because of the reputation of the faculty, and the opportunity to recruit doctoral students on a national scale. UGA has a highly regarded College of Education and so provided me with a better platform for establishing a research trajectory in a supportive environment than I had at OU. I’ve now been here for 14 years and have remained in spite of annual inquiries from other universities, and so the qualities that attracted me to UGA in the first place have panned out as anticipated, while other qualities have emerged to reinforce my sense of affiliation with the university.
What are your favorite courses and why?
My favorite course is always the one I am teaching at the moment. Each course has a distinct potential for engaging with ideas, and each group of students provides a unique way of thinking. I have taught a few classes with bad chemistry over the years, but they are rare enough to stand out in my memory in the midst of all the gratifying courses I’ve taught.
What interests you about your field?
Pretty much everything. Education gets a bad rap, but it’s actually about the most fascinating human activity I could imagine. It involves the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, human geography, communication, rhetoric, linguistics and many others, not to mention pretty much every academic discipline available. Schools are often the most important institutions in a community, particularly those in rural settings. Classrooms are teeming with hormones, ideas, conflicts and occasional birds and wasps that fly in through the window. Doing research in and about schools is eternally challenging and interesting. The fact that there’s so much teacher-bashing, not to mention College of Education bashing, in the popular press is very discouraging given the importance of education in our society.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
Getting promoted to Distinguished Research Professor was surely a highlight, because I’d worked hard for several decades to earn the honor. I’m also happy with the recognition I’ve gotten from UGA and the College of Education for my mentoring of doctoral students, because those awards validate the work I do nearly every day of the week with the people who come to study with me.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching?
I like to think that I try to integrate my research, teaching and service so that they’re interrelated. On a few occasions, I have not been satisfied with the books available for teaching certain courses, so I wrote my own books and found publishers for them. My service-learning course requires community service and also has served as a research site for me, which is probably the neatest package of the three elements of this career I’ve developed yet. And my work with my doctoral students is centered on my research, so I teach them the skills they’ll need to do their independent research for their dissertations in the context of working on my own studies, and they get authorship credit on each project they contribute to. So, whenever possible, I integrate the different aspects of my work so that each feeds the other.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
It really depends on the course. My doctoral students aren’t in a classroom, but rather work with me one-on-one, and I hope that they emerge from the experience as more knowledgeable and independent researchers. My master’s students tend to be enrolled in very practical courses about teaching methods, and so I hope that they learn ways of teaching that are both theoretically sound and practically useful in their classrooms. My service-learning course primarily enrolls undergraduate sophomores getting their first experience visiting schools, engaging in book club discussions, and teaching class sessions based on their service and reading experiences; I hope that from these activities they get a better understanding of the issues facing schools in terms of diverse populations and the knowledge needed to teach them effectively and sensitively.
Describe your ideal student.
Well, of course I like smart students, and UGA’s College of Education has a lot of them. But just being intelligent only gets you so far. I guess what I value in a person is humility, because that quality enables a person to always think that there’s more to learn. That disposition sets the stage for a lifetime of growth.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is…
…work. Confucius is credited with saying, “Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.” That pretty much sums up my approach to my career. If I didn’t love what I do, I’d quit and do something else. I am also known to attend football games on Saturdays in the fall, and have been involved in pre-game recruiting events since serving as chair of UGA’s Intercollegiate Athletics Committee several years ago.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to…
…be with my family and work in my yard. Check out my gardens at www.petersmagorinsky.net.
Community/civic involvement includes….
I have had a relationship with the Pinewood Estates residential community that serves Latino immigrants on the north side of Athens for several years. I encourage everyone to donate used furniture, clothing, kitchen appliances, and anything else that’s collecting dust to the Catholic mission that Sister Margarita Martin has established there. They also need tutors for their after-school program for the children living in the community.
I’m not a great film buff, so I’ll have to stick to books, and my favorites are the ones I’ve written because I learn more from writing than I do from reading. Sorry if that sounds selfish, but it’s the truth. I would say that David Halberstam is my favorite writer outside my reading for work; he’s written a lot of books about 20th century America that are completely engrossing and informative.
Proudest moment at UGA?
Every time my students do something fabulous.