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Interview with John Stokes, March 3, 2003 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with John Stokes, March 3, 2003
March 3, 2003
Interview with Dr. John Stokes, Professor of English at UNCW and former Assistant Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
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Interviewee: Stokes, John Interviewer: Riggins, Adina Date of Interview: 3/3/2003 Series: Voices of UNCW Length: 25 minutes

Riggins: We're back with Dr. John Stokes, and we are learning about your experience at Oklahoma City University. You were talking about the interdisciplinary program that you taught there and, I'm sorry we got interrupted for just a second.

Stokes: Well it was the kind of situation where you melded with faculty and other departments in the teaching of a common course. So it was the kind of thing that you became creative or you didn't work well. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I enjoyed creative ideas with other faculty and ideas that we could develop with the students. It was a lot of fun.

Riggins: That sounds real good. So you went there after graduating from Drew in 1969. How long did you stay there?

Stokes: I was at Oklahoma City University for four years.

Riggins: While you were there was Dr. Cahill in administration there?

Stokes: He was an associate dean and left while I was still there, I think, to take up the position of provost here, and vice chancellor, and fortunately I had the good sense to give him a call and ask him if something might come available. And he didn't not contact me right away, but when something did come available, he did, and I was very grateful.

Riggins: Oh that's nice. You were looking for something different. Was that a tenure track job over there.

Stokes: It was tenure track there and no, I was looking for an opportunity to get back closer to home for both me and my wife.

Riggins: Oh, I see. Is she from North Carolina as well?

Stokes: She is from South Carolina.

Riggins: So you were looking for something closer to home. I guess having been born and raised in North Carolina and parts of South Carolina, had you heard of the UNCW?

Stokes: No. UNCW, when I came here, was just under 2,000 students, very few buildings on campus, so it hadn't begun, really, to establish a reputation. But it was also a nice place to teach and I'll remain grateful to Dr. Cahill for some time.

Riggins: Mm-hmm. That's a good story. So he called you up. Did you have an interview set up and all that?

Stokes: A very friendly interview.

Riggins: More informal?

Stokes: He came out to Oklahoma, he has family there and he interviewed me at just a comfortable sitting room at Oklahoma City University.

Riggins: So, it was just with him and you didn't have a committee or anything?

Stokes: You're relying me on my memory and it's not something you can rely upon.

Riggins: Oh no problem. Yeah that's fine. So it was very friendly and then they said you would start. Once it was arranged you began in the Fall of '73 or so?

Stokes: Correct.

Riggins: Who was department chair at that time?

Stokes: I think Joanne Corbett was.

Riggins: She may have been. Yeah. So what, it was a small University at the time? What was it like? Were the people teaching in the Department pretty stretched? Did you have to teach a lot of classes?

Stokes: Well, you started out, you taught four classes which was the normal load. The university has changed a good bit, taken on graduate degree programs and so the teaching load has to vary under the circumstances. But, I would say the faculty could then meet in a small auditorium in Kenan classroom building, and I knew most of the faculty on campus.

Riggins: You hear that. Not anymore right?

Stokes: Right.

Riggins: What were the students like at this time? Were they similar to those you had know at Oklahoma City University?

Stokes: Yeah. And people would ask me frequently, are the students different today from earlier years, and I must say I don't find a great deal of difference in the students. I still enjoy working with the students. I still enjoy having them in my office and I don't see a lot of difference between the students of 1973 and 2003.

Riggins: Oh that's interesting. With your background in religion, have you collaborated with the religion department much?

Stokes: No. I know several of the faculty in religion, but it has not gone any further than that.

Riggins: Are you involved in the MALS Program, the liberal studies?

Stokes: No. That's the one that Mike Wentworth heads up. Right? Yeah. I know Mike very well. I have a great deal of respect for what he has accomplished with that program, but I have not been involved in that program.

Riggins: Let's look at some of my questions here. Speaking about the University, when you first came, I suppose when you came the chancellor was Dr. Wagoner?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: Did you get to know him, while you were here?

Stokes: No. I was a little lower down on the totem pole. (laughs). I had met him on a few occasions, always very pleasant.

Riggins: But you really got to know him. Who else do you remember from your early days who you got to know and kind of was influential or very helpful to you? You mentioned Charlie Cahill?

Stokes: Well Dr. Cahill also got me involved at a lower level of administrative responsibilities, which I appreciated. I have a (coughs) number of people I feel indebted to, and still very close to. Dan Plyler is one of them. He suffered through me as an assistant dean when he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Riggins: Assistant dean of the college of Arts and Sciences.

Stokes: And I got to meet Isabell Fouchee, who was in English for a time and then took on administrative responsibilities. Dorothy Marshall, who was registrar and just a number-- and I stayed in administration for quite some time. And the last several years have been back full time in the English department.

Riggins: Oh I see, so you were assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: For how long about? You don't have to be exact.

Stokes: Since they were still driving cattle across the Mississippi.

Riggins: (laughter) Good enough. Dan Plyler was dean? I interviewed him as well.

Stokes: He also was kind enough to put me in the position of director of General College and we started an advising program for freshmen and undecided students, and I thoroughly enjoyed that.

Riggins: That's great. So you enjoyed administration?

Stokes: I'll say, I had an administrative position that enabled me to continue to stay closely involved with the students. And that's frankly where, I feel, I belong.

Riggins: Mm-hmm. Were you able to teach during this time, or not?

Stokes: One course per semester.

Riggins: What were some of the challenges during your time as assistant dean at the, of the College of Arts and Sciences? Were there some transitions?

Stokes: Well the challenges were starting up the General College Advising Program from nothing. Went up to Chapel Hill and Duke and talked to a great number of people at different universities to see what they had going, and to see what would be workable for us and what would serve our needs well. So, I'd say that was a big challenge, then finding faculty that also had a good reputation with students to serve as advisors, for, I must say, inadequate stipend.

Riggins: That's interesting. Is that how it works now with a faculty serving as advisors to these freshmen and undecided?

Stokes: I don't know whether that's how it still works. I think there are, yes, some faculty advisors connected with the General College, but I have not been involved with the General College for several years. Dr. Syed [ph?] continued it after me, and as I understand did a very nice job.

Riggins: Euthri [ph?] Syed?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: Have not talked to him yet, but I plan to.

Stokes: You need to.

Riggins: He probably has some good stories. They were starting that up from nothing. I think that is real important. I know I went into college as an undecided, and it would have been nice to have something like that, you know, where you can talk to actual faculty members. I'm not saying that other employees aren't helpful, but it's nice to still know that you have an in with faculty just because you haven't declared a major.

Stokes: Well, what made that program work was we had a number of really good faculty who were very good with the students, and that is what made the program work so well.

Riggins: When you were with the College of Arts and Sciences, was this during a time where there was more going on, I guess, at the division level where for example the departments started conducting their own search committees and it wasn't so much at the academic affairs level for faculty and things like that?

Stokes: Help me out with your question.

Riggins: Well, for example, now if there is an opening in foreign languages or philosophy and religion, that department conducts a search for the new faculty. I'm sure there is some coordination with provost office for sure, and they have some kind of final say. But it seems like in the earlier days, when Dr. Cahill was first here, all the searches came out of his office, for the most part.

Stokes: Oh, now that I can't answer. Yeah, that would be a decision that would have had to have been made by him. I would say that, very quickly, positions were allocated to the various deans. And then they allocated them to the chairs in the various departments. But during the time that I was in administration or at least most of the years that I was in administration, the faculty grew, the number of students grew dramatically, the number of buildings set up to accommodate group. But that was in a time when funds were not as tight as they are now.

Riggins: That's nice. You were able to work with that. Was that, perhaps because we became part of the university system and we had to have some-- ?

Stokes: No, it was just a time during which the economy of the state was more healthy, and I think you give some credit to Dr. Wagoner for getting us started down the right lines. And then you give a great deal of credit to Dr. Cahill and to Dr. Plyler.

Riggins: There was an incredible amount of growth during the '70s and '80s. I suppose there are a lot of buildings that came up too that you guys oversaw?

Stokes: Somebody did. I didn't oversee them, thankfully.

Riggins: That's good.

Stokes: I did have to find office space when buildings started becoming short. And it's amazing how many broom closets became faculty offices. I'm being facetious somewhat. But we were able to discover-- it's amazing how many spaces could be converted that were not really being used, could be converted for necessary faculty office space.

Riggins: Really, so you got to maybe talk to some faculty about that, about their offices and their having to move and things like that?

Stokes: Well, you knew it when you saw somebody coming in with a tape measure that things were going to change.

Riggins: What did you teach during this time? Did you kind of teach in your specialty or you had one class per semester?

Stokes: Everybody at the time-- this has changed. Everybody at the time in the English Department taught freshman composition. And it was not unusual to teach a humanities level literature course and then probably teach one course for me in European literature or world literature.

Riggins: I suppose you were involved in administration at the time when the English department and other departments began offering graduate degrees?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: What was that, was that a busy time?

Stokes: Well, it was a busy time for somebody. It didn't involve me with my work in the general college. No, it didn't involve me. Dan Plyler clearly was involved with a number of Chairs in developing graduate programs and Dr. Cahill, I can assure you, was involved. But the general college was a program while he coordinated efforts with the various departments was not involved in recruiting faculty.

Riggins: You're in the General College. I suppose starting that from nothing and going to have-- what were some of the programs that you put into place as part of the General College? You mentioned the advising.

Stokes: The advising was the primary program. Then we began to put together the freshman seminar, which is, still being offered. We offered academic assistance programs to students, study schools assistance. We added a person to work primarily with African-American and other minority students. And then we added a program for academic assistance for student athletes.

Riggins: That is a lot. And this was all done when you were the first director, basically at the general college.

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: And Dr. Syed followed you?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: And now it's doctor-- she's from art history. I can't remember her name.

Stokes: Yes and I'm in the same press. I know her very well. She was one of my advisors. I, at a smarter moment, recruited her as one of my advisors, so I apologize for that.

Riggins: Don't feel bad. I can't remember her name either and I certainly know who she is.

Stokes: You need to interview her as well. She has a wonderful sense of humor.

Riggins: Oh good. With all of your administrative duties along with teaching, did you have time to focus on writing or scholarship?

Stokes: I presented a number of papers at national and regional conferences having to do with primarily advising, having to do with working with freshman, having to do with freshman seminars. Those were the primary things. The National Academic Advising Association was one. National Association for freshman seminars, which was really started up at the University of South Carolina. That was my primary involvement and, yes, you stole time to do some writing. But there in the, I'd say in the last half dozen years that I was involved with it vacations were a time in which I took work along.

Riggins: Really? And tried to fit it in then.

Stokes: Well, it's because the university was growing, the programs had to grow with it and the responsibilities had to grow with it.

Riggins: When you were a director of General College, did you have contact with Dr. Friday's [ph?] office?

Stokes: No. No, not at my level. Anything that I was involved in if I had recommendations or if I had responsibilities, it would be directly to Dan Plyler. So, it would go up the chain-of-command that way.

Riggins: Can you talk about the freshman seminar course for a while? I hear about that quite a bit since I work in the library and we help students in that course with their assignments. How did that evolve? Was there a need that you felt that was present?

Stokes: Yes, the need we felt was that students needed some transition to college life, and I'm not talking just about academics though that was an important part of it. We felt they needed some connectedness between their first time experience on campus with what the differences were academically, what the challenges were academically, what the services were that were available in student affairs, in university housing and the list goes on. And still we had things that we did that we felt were pretty innovative that enabled us to work directly with minority students.

Riggins: Through the freshman seminar or through-- ?

Stokes: Through the freshman seminar, yes, was one of the ways that we did that. Another way that we did that was we hired fairly early in the general college tenure, we hired a person to be director of academic assistance programs to minority students and that turned out to be a very good thing.

Riggins: It got students involved with academics on a more individual level?

Stokes: Very much so.

Riggins: Oh, that's interesting. Was the Uni course, the freshman seminar, I guess now it's called Uni 101 or I don't know if it always was. Was it ever required for all freshmen?

Stokes: No, never. It is required on some campuses, but it would take a great deal of funding to set that up and make it a requirement because you would have to hire enough faculty to teach everyone of the freshman. And especially under current circumstances with the state budget, it just wouldn't be possible.

Riggins: Interesting. Is that the main reason why it wouldn't be?

Stokes: No, the main reason, we chose after attending a national conference after visiting an already set-up program at the University of South Carolina, we chose to make it available as something that we would advise students to take, but not require them to take. Just so they could be involved in the transition between high school and university level work.

Riggins: Is this a course as useful for non-traditional students or not so much, it's more for the people right out of high school?

Stokes: Absolutely, any student that is a freshman who needs some ability to discover what's available on campus and discover what the challenges are on campus.

Riggins: And I know some librarians have taught the course.

Stokes: I do have a question for you.

Riggins: Sure.

Stokes: Am I going to get back in time for my 10:00 appointment?

Riggins: Oh, my goodness, you do have a 10:00 appointment. We better wrap things up then. But perhaps we can reschedule for a part two if you have time.

Stokes: A part two?

Riggins: Yeah. If I promise to be on time that time.

Stokes: (laughs) We'll see.

Riggins: Okay.

Stokes: We'll see.

Riggins: All right.

Stokes: You've probably come pretty close to exhausting what I could do for you anyway.

Riggins: Uh-huh, sure. Well, let's wrap things up the. But it was good to hear about the unique courses, as well as your time here, the rest of your time here. And what we'll do is since you do have an appointment at 10:00...

Stokes: I think I can make that one pretty comfortably.

Riggins: I'll wrap that up. So, today is March 3, 2003, and I'm here with Dr. John Stokes and we will perhaps continue this on a later date.

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