BROWSE BY:     Title Number Subject Creator Digital Content

Interview with John Stokes, August 25, 2009 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

pdf icon Get PDF Version
Interview with John Stokes, August 25, 2009
August 25, 2009
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Stokes, John Interviewer: Riggins, Adina Date of Interview: 8/25/2009 Series: Voices of UNCW Length: 1 hour

Riggins: What I'll do is I'll introduce myself and state the date, and where we are, and then I'll ask you to introduce yourself for the camera. And we'll proceed with--I'd like to get some background information about you and where you grew up. And how you came to UNCW much later down the road. And then I'd like to just ask about some of the people you worked with and I just spoke to someone today who worked with your wife, actually, in athletics. Carol . . .?

Stokes: Carolyn?

Riggins: I think her name is Carol but she's worked here for like 11 years. But she's said she . . .

Stokes: Okay. Carol Talent?

Riggins: No, she worked with . . . Did your wife work in athletics by any chance?

Stokes: She worked in athletics and she worked, let's see, part-time in the Dean Arts and Sciences office.

Riggins: Okay, yes.

Stokes: So, I don't know who the Carol would be.

Riggins: Yes, she knew you in athletics. Or she knew her, so. Yes, well, that's who told her you were coming.

Stokes: And now years ago they used to do the Handel's "Messiah" in Kenan auditorium. And I don't know whether there was a charge to attend or not but anybody who wanted to could come sing. And you'd sit out in the audience and the orchestra would be up front. And I remember coming in with a high tenor part, higher than I could hit any longer. Higher with a screech. Three measures before I was supposed to. (laughs) And my friend who was sitting next to me just was bent over having a good, appropriate laugh.

Riggins: That's a good one. Would you mind doing that one for the camera?

Stokes: And happily of course they were able to edit that out.

Riggins: Oh, it was being recorded. This wasn't in front of an audience then.

Stokes: Um-hum. But we, you just came and sang. I don't recall that there was any rehearsal. If there was it's, I was too-- it's been too many decades ago for me to remember it. I don't think there was though. You just came and brought your music and that was it.

Riggins: Gorilla, kind of gorilla orpheo there. Alright, I'll start in just a moment. Okay, ready? Alright. Hello, today is August 25, 2009. And my name is Adina Riggins. I am the archivist here. I'm standing behind the camera. I'm the archivist for UNCW. So I'll be off camera conducting this interview. In front of me is the subject of our interview, Dr. John Stokes, who will be talking to us about his time at UNCW and before and after. And I'm very pleased to welcome him here and glad that he'll be participating in our Voices of UNCW faculty and Staff series. Dr. Stokes please state your full name for the benefit of the transcriptionist, and then . . .

Stokes: Feel like I'm in court. John L. Stokes.

Riggins: John L. Stokes. Thank you.

Stokes: And retired from the English Department. Taught here since 1973.

Riggins: 1973, that's when you started here.

Stokes: That's back during the Polar Ice Melt.

Riggins: Not that long ago. Well, where were you born and where did you grow up?

Stokes: Born in Greensboro, grew up all over North Carolina. While my dad was in the ministry. Then we moved to Nashville and let's see. Yes, shortening it. My dad then took on the presidency of Pfeiffer Junior College, a dying Junior College, just about 40 miles Northeast of Charlotte. And turned it into a four-year institution. And I think we were there for as long as, let's say from my Freshman high school until after I finished my graduate school requirements.

Riggins: That was the longest you had stayed in one place, maybe?

Stokes: Yes, really, by far.

Riggins: Before the interview started you mentioned that your father had a Ph.D. from Yale?

Stokes: He had a Ph.D. from Yale.

Riggins: What was his educational background?

Stokes: It was in an unusual and rarely used field of religion. And he got his degree during the final years of the depression. There were no teaching jobs so he went into the pastoral ministry.

Riggins: Was his Ph.D. in Christianity?

Stokes: I don't remember.

Riggins: But, in order to, religion in general.

Stokes: Well it was too, too tightly focused a field for it to be of much practical use. They dropped the degree a couple of years after he got his doctorate. That much I do know. But there just weren't any teaching positions.

Riggins: What denomination was he working in?

Stokes: Methodist.

Riggins: So, he worked all over North Carolina, basically?

Stokes: He had pastorates in the Western Conference of North Carolina. And then took a church, a big church in Rock hill, South Carolina. And then he went with the Methodist Board of higher education in Nashville, and then to Pfeiffer.

Riggins: Well, how did he like growing up. Or how did you like growing up in the, as a church, you know, child of the church?

Stokes: A church brat.

Riggins: Yes, I guess that's the word.

Stokes: Yes. Let's see--

Riggins: Didn't know much different I suppose.

Stokes: Yes, you're taking me back too far. And memory is not my strong point. As everybody in my family will assure you.

Riggins: Okay, that's fine. Then he found himself and needed in education. So he said, when he started at Pfeiffer Junior College it was struggling?

Stokes: When he started there it was struggling for enrollment. And he brought the enrollment up, brought in some good faculty members. And then in--as soon as he had the necessary quality of faculty, and increased number of students the baccalaureate program was accredited as a four-year institution.

Riggins: I understand that there is a building on campus named after him because he was president there for many years.

Stokes: He was president there more years than I can mathematically figure out for you.

Riggins: Twenty, maybe close to 20, or between . . .?

Stokes: At least, yes.

Riggins: Wow, but he liked it there. Or enough to, that he . . .

Stokes: I don't know whether he liked it there or whether he felt the need to take care of my education. I got no scholarships at Pfeiffer, there weren't many offered. Not even athletic scholarships. I remember we had an excellent baseball team and we just happened to have a really good coach. And all he got was a half scholarship per year. Let's see. When I went to seminary at Emory I got a half scholarship for academics and another half because I sang in the, in a choral group they had. And then I got a partial scholarship when I went to Drew University and got my doctorate.

Riggins: I see. So it, you did your undergraduate at Pfeiffer. Your undergraduate degree was at Pfeiffer is that correct?

Stokes: It was kind of a humanities degree.

Riggins: At Pfeiffer college?

Stokes: Pfeiffer College? Yes.

Riggins: And now it's Pfeiffer University?

Stokes: Pfeiffer University, but that's because they first got a school of education--no, a school of business and then offered a master's degree. And as soon as you offer a master's degree you can get it accredited. You're a university.

Riggins: Even if it's just one.

Stokes: Even if it's just one (laughs)

Riggins: Right, well I know there are schools that have done that too.

Stokes: Sure.

Riggins: Elon College.

Stokes: Campbell is now Campbell University. I think it's first master's or equivalent to master's was law.

Riggins: Right. So, it was long as it's post baccalaureate, you can do it. And then after you finished at college what did you do next?

Stokes: Was teaching at Oklahoma City University. And liked it an awful lot. It was a university, small private. But in a place I liked a lot. Oklahoma City was just a delightful place to live. The university emphasized teaching as most small, private colleges do. It had a master's degree in music so it could be a university. And frankly it had an excellent music program and a fine drama department. An excellent stage. And could occasionally invite more well known actors to participate. And performed musicals there that were really top quality.

Riggins: Yes, were you involved in that? Did you advise?

Stokes: No, no. My singing voice would not be acceptable. Truly.

Riggins: So, you stayed with teaching English and literature.

Stokes: Yes. Acting was not something I would have done. I don't think I could have remembered my lines even if I had wanted to.

Riggins: That does seem hard, definitely. Well, how did you find . . . You said you went to Anna Maria first after college? How did you find yourself at Anna Maria?

Stokes: I had an uncle who was an associate dean and I could have gone to Duke just as easily. Frankly, I had a good friend who was attending Georgia Tech. So, it was easy for me there. And on the whole I liked it there.

Riggins: What was the program there. It was a masters in divinity? Did you say?

Stokes: It was a bachelors of divinity. Now, I think they have upgraded it and called it a master's. Mine was more academically oriented in anticipation of my going on and getting a doctorate.

Riggins: In some field?

Stokes: Um-hum.

Riggins: How did you decide to do the religion or divinity as opposed to English?

Stokes: I just oriented it toward graduate school, toward going on and getting the terminal degree. And let's see. As such, I had to pass a language exam. And goodness knows how I did that?

Riggins: What language would it have been?

Stokes: German.

Riggins: German. Yes, where did you take German. Was that . . .?

Stokes: I really learned German when I was in graduate school and knew I had to pass the language exam. And so a little older lady was serving as a tutor to graduate students at Drew University. And she was more like a Prussian general but I learned German under her. And then of course as, if you don't use it, why it goes away.

Riggins: So that was where you went for your Ph.D. was Drew University.

Stokes: Yes, in New Jersey.

Riggins: In New Jersey. And that was in English or in? Was that in English?

Stokes: No, that was in Humanities, Literature and Religion.

Riggins: Really, well I guess it's all interrelated. The analysis of text and the humanities environment.

Stokes: Yes, I chose to put more emphasis on the literary aspects of it. And my professors were more oriented towards European literature than English and American.

Riggins: Okay, so Continental?

Stokes: Well, yes. That suited me just fine. I had two or three courses at Drew in psychology, a practicing psychiatrist came out from New York City and gave the seminars. And so that's something that I used later here in developing a course in psychology in Literature.

Riggins: Okay, and did you read the primary texts like Freud or (inaudible)?

Stokes: No, I have read Freud. But Freud became shall we say, out of taste, distasteful. So I studied more Carl Jung than I did Freud. And frankly Carl Jung is much more refreshing to the reader, to me anyway, than Freud's strange sexually oriented philosophy.

Riggins: Okay, it's different. Perhaps out of place in history, I don't know. At the time?

Stokes: Freud still has a place in history. Still regarded as the father of psychology even though there were others working in neurology with him, and developing that field.

Riggins: Well, that sounds good. So, how did you like the North, and being in New Jersey and the university there?

Stokes: I like it. I liked Drew University. It wasn't over large and one of the things that I-- I had so many good professors. Let's see. One of the things I thoroughly enjoyed is I happened upon an undergraduate student, a senior who was already scholarshipped to go to Germany to study organ. And he was interested in forming a baroque ensemble. And we were going to do all Bach Motets in German, which we could do because two or three of our German professors, and I don't mean department--their native tongue was German. So they could help us with the pronunciation. And frankly, it was a lot easier than many people might think. And we drew a standing room only crowd when we performed for the campus. And I was surprised. We walked out there, got on our risers and performed, and there were there the undergraduate and graduate students all seated in that good sized room. And standing around on the flanks and the back of the room. So that was our highlight.

Riggins: That sounds good.

Stokes: Oh, it was enjoy--and it was primarily enjoyable to me.

Riggins: A good break.

Stokes: Relief--yes, it was a relief from the pressure of the hours, and hours of study and research, and preparation for every one of the seminars we were taking.

Riggins: Right, just really, yes, focused in academic. Well, that's great that you were able to fit that in.

Stokes: Oh, it--as I got started in it, it was so much fun. And we were not trained voices but we could do the, the baroque that Bach had done. And Bach of course is the pinnacle of Baroque music.

Riggins: Yes, Bach, that sounds about right. So, do you play an instrument as well as sing?

Stokes: No, happily. I was forced as a child. This I do remember. I was forced as a child to take piano lessons twice. And piano didn't like me. I didn't like it. So we got along just fine.

Riggins: When you weren't near each other.

Stokes: As long as I didn't have to practice. I hated practice, and I hated performing. I don't mind singing in a choral group. I do not-- piano is a singular thing. And you have to perform alone. And I just, that's not my style. Anymore than remembering lines in a play.

Riggins: How about being a soloist singer? Are you interested in--

Stokes: I did some of that with my untrained voice, when, in churches. But that was limited.

Riggins: Untrained voice? You mean you've not had lessons?

Stokes: I've had no vocal training. I think if I had ever gone to a music professor and asked for vocal training he would have said, "Son you don't have the voice for training." And he'd have been right too.

Riggins: But you enjoy it and you obviously like it.

Stokes: Oh, absolutely.

Riggins: And you appreciate the music even though you didn't stop-- you stopped playing piano, you still, you very much loved--

Stokes: Oh, I stopped as soon as I was allowed to.

Riggins: But you like classical music and?

Stokes: I like Bach. I like, let's see, Mozart. I like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Chopin, and Dave Brubeck who is . . . And a modern jazz quartet. And there are others. And frankly in country music I like George Jones. I've even actually bought some of his CDs and, but, my wife doesn't like to listen to him.

Riggins: Well, sounds like a lot of those musicians you named have, or were pianists, too right?

Stokes: Actually Dave Brubeck was trained as a classical pianist. And he had a group of four. And Paul Desmond who has done some infinity television commercials. Paul Desmond played the clarinet and got to hear them in person the original group, the original group was the only good Dave Brubeck quartet. And they performed nationally, internationally, the original group. And they showed up at Pfeiffer and so I drove back home to hear that. And absolutely worth it. Joe Morello played the drums. I can't remember the delightful guy who performed on the bass. And it was not one of these electric basses. It was-- he was just marvelous.

Riggins: So, I mean, your parents would have been proud of your appreciation and knowledge of music if they . . .?

Stokes: I'm not sure they would have appreciated Dave Brubeck.

Riggins: Or, country music maybe?

Stokes: No, I didn't develop an interest in country music until later.

Riggins: That's what-- yeah, right. Did you have brothers or sisters?

Stokes: One sister, and she lives in Winston, Salem.

Riggins: Okay. Well, she's not, not too far at all. Stayed in the area where you guys were raised. So you enjoyed your Ph.D. Program, which I'm not sure most people, a lot of people can say, at least nowadays that they enjoyed it.

Stokes: Well, I enjoyed several of the seminars I took. I enjoyed several of the professors. I really did. I didn't enjoy having to study for language exams. I didn't enjoy having to do the research and having to write the dissertation. That was a burden. And that's the best way that I can frame it.

Riggins: Right, I think for anybody. But was your area of concentration?

Stokes: There is no area of concentration. Today in the English department they would call me, and even when I came here, a generalist. Meaning, I could teach a number of courses. I was not qualified to teach English Literature or any branch of it, or American Literature. Or any branch of it aside from Psychology in Literature. So, I could teach Freshman Composition, Introduction to Literature, World Literature, so forth.

Riggins: Right. And when you came and that was probably in demand. The ability to teach many courses. I know, I interviewed recently, Dr. John Meyers. Did he come around the same time as you?

Stokes: John Meyers. Almost nobody came before I did who's still around.

Riggins: Oh, sure they are.

Stokes: Not many, not many. Let's say, I do have some colleagues who are among the retired faculty that-- and we get together twice a year. And that's fun. John Meyers was in music and he came after me.

Riggins: Art History.

Stokes: Art History was it--okay. I know he was chair for awhile. And yes, I liked John.

Riggins: Right. He came and they wanted him to teach everything, too. And I've heard that from a number of professors who started around that time. Was there was a shortage of faculty and they really needed you to be versatile. So, what was your dissertation on or was it too painful?

Stokes: On Franz Kafka.

Riggins: And that was, after that were you tired of Kafka after completing it?

Stokes: No, I retained an interest. I still have a non-reading interest. I have kept his books, some of them still in the German with a dictionary I could slowly read them. And every once in awhile I'll pick up some of his brief works and not many people know it but frankly it's his really brief works. His parables and paradoxes, which take up no more than usually two and a half pages. That are his best and I know people like to think of the great massive novels that he wrote, and every anthology has included The Metamorphosis. And The Metamorphosis approaches what he accomplishes later on in some of his briefer works. But it doesn't quite get there.

Riggins: Interesting. That's-- well that's kind of handy because you can teach your brief work in a class session. Did you have students read those parables?

Stokes: I did and frankly, they're very challenging for undergraduate students. But, on some days when I wanted to give them a change out, I would throw out these little paragraphs of parables or paradoxes, and see how they could handle them. And usually it would take two or three readings before one or two students actually got it. But, and out-- I wouldn't throw Kafka's reading at them because if you're going to interpret them responsibly you have to get down into the language itself. And even the German to English translations are pretty good. But you still have to get down into them a bit too deeply than I think most undergraduate students should have imposed upon that. Now, would I impose that upon Kafka upon graduate students? Sure.

Riggins: Right. Well, I suppose that explains the Kafkaesque adjective. It's not obvious to read.

Stokes: Correct. Kafka will use language and he calls it, I like to practice deception though without using it. So, he'll give you the clue and then he'll give you an opportunity to read past it, and then you don't even think you've seen it. And so you're not caused to look back. And only if I, with the undergraduates, only if I asked them to read it again, slowly, and they still don't get it. And then I'll say, "Okay, read it one more time." And it's just a paragraph. And I'll get one or two that will get it. That will finally pick up the language that was there, but that they missed.

Riggins: Well, that sounds like it's effective strategy. When you came. Well, when you finished your Ph.D. what did you do? Did you come here directly, or?

Stokes: Oh, I slit my throat. When you finish a dissertation. Oh, gee, it's-- you crash.

Riggins: You celebrate! You defend. The defense is . . .?

Stokes: I had to go back and defend it. That was no problem. Well, I've heard some horror stories from other grad folks who have finished doctorates. About two professors who didn't like one another. And the one tried to get this major professor or student who was defending. And I didn't have that situation. I had folks who asked me legitimate questions, and since you've done however many hundreds of pages on this thing. You should be able to answer them.

Riggins: Right, well, that sounds terrible where your student gets in trouble because some-- his advisor's colleague has . . .

Stokes: That's an unusual horror story but it does exist.

Riggins: So you had your defense and then?

Stokes: Then I got the degree. I actually went all the way back from Oklahoma City University all the way back to New Jersey. I guess I was so proud of having completed it after that dissertation was finally over that I wanted to go back.

Riggins: And you walked in the ceremony.

Stokes: I walked in the ceremony. And I did a little dipsey-doo with a bow.

Riggins: I see. So you had gone back to Oklahoma City or was this the _____.

Stokes: I taught at Oklahoma City University for four years and I loved it. And then because I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Cahill and he came here and I called him, and asked him if he might have something available. And he found something. And I've been very grateful to him ever since.

Riggins: Yes, do you still see him occasionally?

Stokes: Yes, I do. I, we have played lots of golf together. And I still enjoy his company.

Riggins: Yes, he's real, great individual who's done a lot for this university. It's a good decision to bring him on, right?

Stokes: I couldn't agree more.

Riggins: They needed him. You heard of UNCW because of Dr. Cahill, (inaudible)?

Stokes: Yes, and that's the only one.

Riggins: Right. And did you have a family at this point?

Stokes: Mm-hmm. Had two daughters and then our third daughter was born in Raleigh. I got to be in the delivery room in the hospital in New Jersey for our first two. And the hospital had a policy against it in Raleigh. So, I had to sit in a tight little room upstairs away from the delivery room. And I would have been very calm in there. But policy prohibited and I sat in that little room frustrated and a bit angry.

Riggins: And because she was born in Raleigh although you were living here. Is that . . .?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: Okay, yes. That's just how it worked. Times have changed. I think they encourage fathers now to be in the delivery room. So you were ahead of your time I guess in New Jersey.

Stokes: Well, I was, we were certainly ahead of North Carolina.

Riggins: That could be, yes. Well, what did you think when you got here in 1973? What did you find here in Wilmington or at the University? What was it like?

Stokes: Well, the job market for English professors was still good and remained good until just recent years. So, I was able to be a generalist and teach the courses that met basic studies requirements, Freshman Composition, Introduction to Lit., at the time. Let's see, European Literature met requirement for education majors. And I enjoyed doing that. I enjoyed my students, that's why I enjoyed my classes.

Riggins: Right, because you enjoyed the students. I see. And the department was growing but still quite small when you arrived.

Stokes: Very small, yes. Maybe half a dozen professors.

Riggins: Full-time professors?

Stokes: Mm-hmm.

Riggins: Isabell Foushee, was she on the faculty?

Stokes: Isabell is a good friend of mine and she and Dan Plyler, and Dorothy Marshall, and I still get together for lunch three or four times a year. Sometimes more often. And we meet at retired faculty situations. So, yes. That's good.

Riggins: That's nice. They are all nice people that I've talked to. I'd like to talk to Dan Plyler again. And I don't know but we did get an interview but I think I have to check and make sure it was transcribed properly. If not, we'll have to redo it like we've done part of yours.

Stokes: I thoroughly enjoyed working as an assistant dean and I learned a lot working as an assistant dean under Dan. And I have told him and met it, and told his wife and met it. He probably is the best dean of arts and sciences that arts and sciences will ever see. Arts and sciences is growing smaller as branches of it like sociology, criminal justice and social work branch off, and as others branch off and become their own schools.

Riggins: Which will, might happen here.

Stokes: Yes. But I don't know how rapidly that kind of movement can actually take place with tight funding to support it. Approval may be but probably without funds.

Riggins: Right. But that is the trend. So, how was he a good administrator?

Stokes: He was perceptive. He knew when to be tough. And it wasn't often that he had to be. I think a good administrator, if you do your job well, you keep your department chairs well informed. You involve them as is appropriate in certain of the decision making policies. And then you don't have to be tough that often. But when he perceived that it was needed he could do it. And he was honest. And frankly, I'm old fashioned enough to think that you should be capable in any administrative position to be honest. Unfortunately, it is less a personality trait that, than you often get in upper level administration positions.

Riggins: People find other ways of communicating.

Stokes: And I'm not talking about any individual institution per se, I'm just saying based on some of my contacts with folks at other institutions who also had administrative positions, it becomes a problem for them. For me, if Dan Plyler told me, for example, that he needed money back from my budget for the fourth quarter, I would know he needed it. And I wouldn't have to question him about it because I would know that, that was the way it was. So, I had a great deal of respect for him. And I still do.

Riggins: I don't know if today, would that, as a department chair if you needed money back or as assistant dean?

Stokes: As an assistant dean. I was an assistant dean and the latter two-thirds of my career of working with Dan was also director of the general college advising program. And I enjoyed that because I still had contact with the students. And for the most part, I had faculty advisors who also cared about the students. So that made it still enjoyable. So, if Dan came to me in that capacity and told me he needed money back, I knew it was so.

Riggins: Were you there when they started the general college? Did you? You started the general college. So prior to that all of the advising was done in the departments by different faculty.

Stokes: Yes, all of the advising was done in individual department, much randomly. And so, some students may have been somewhat disgruntled at being advised by say, an English advisor when actually they wanted to go into business. See, there was no focus for advising for freshmen or undecided sophomores.

Riggins: I see, for Freshmen, right.

Stokes: No focus for freshmen.

Riggins: Did they try and give them advisee, advisors in their declared major?

Stokes: Sure but you can't be terribly accurate about that because national statistics show that 60% of freshmen will change their major at least once and before their sophomore year. And will change their major three to four times on the national average before they graduate. Amazing isn't it?

Riggins: That's changing it on paper, not just changing it in their minds.

Stokes: Changing it on paper.

Riggins: Well, when you start school you really have a different perception probably of what you want to do or you're influenced by what you think you should do and then it might not be the right fit. Well as Assistant Dean of College of Arts and Sciences, you've remained in that position for several years.

Stokes: Seventeen years.

Riggins: Seventeen years as Assistant Dean? Wow. Was Dean Plyler the Dean?

Stokes: No, he had sense enough to get out a little before that and so I continued in it, let's see, following Dan was . . .

Riggins: Dean Simmons?

Stokes: Yes, Dean Simmons and then, let's see, then Dan came in and picked it back up as an Interim Dean for one semester and then . . .

Riggins: I don't think I'd do that.

Stokes: . . .Joanne Siple. And so finally I just felt I was getting to teach one course a semester, sometimes I didn't even have time to get prepared for that. And so the time came and something inside me said, "Let's get back to the classroom full time.

Riggins: Did you do that before you retired then?

Stokes: Mm-hmm.

Riggins: Yeah, you went back into teaching and did you teach graduate students as well?

Stokes: No. I never had any desire to teach graduate students. I've not tried to analyze that, I just haven't.

Riggins: Well, they haven't always had grad students here and when the program started, I interviewed Dr. Dodson before he moved away and he said, "Oh, it was very interesting when we started that program. Talk about an unfunded mandate."

Stokes: Mm-hmm. Exactly.

Riggins: So what can you do? You've just got to do your best, summon your resources. And I guess as far as Department Chairs then, were you ever Department Chair in English?

Stokes: Less than one semester and then I had health problems and Joanne Siple who was an Associate Dean at the time had to step in, pick it up which she did very nicely, of course. And then she became Dean of Arts and Sciences.

Riggins: Dr. Dodson was there, Brooks Dodson, he was Chair for quite a number of years, wasn't he?

Stokes: And then he went back to the faculty full time. I've forgotten how many years and he did elect to teach one graduate course.

Riggins: Right. So you enjoyed the undergraduate courses. Did you like teaching all levels?

Stokes: Absolutely. It didn't matter whether I was in freshman composition or in say a 300 level course like psychology in lit or I developed a course and I learned from the History Department because they had some courses with some imaginative titles and I think that makes sense.

Riggins: Mm-hmm, it's a bit of marketing.

Stokes: And so I developed a course with the need a literate title of let's say Murder and Mayhem in Modern Fiction.

Riggins: Right. So it's a little bit of marketing maybe?

Stokes: Well, frankly, yeah, that seems to me that that makes sense.

Riggins: Right, sure. It's something that seems interesting, students might remember it.

Stokes: You've still got to do some of the same things in the classroom and I liked to be as creative as I could in finding ways to keep the student interest up as much as possible within whatever class I taught, whether it was freshman composition or a 300, 400 level course.

Riggins: Right. How was students' writing, did you feel like students . . .

Stokes: I get asked that question. "How do you feel about students today versus when you started teaching?" And I have to judge it from the ability of their writing in freshman composition. And I don't see much difference. In fact, I'll tell you, I don't see any difference. And I don't know that it serves any great purpose to elaborate on that. I know administrators like to mention in public how much higher our entering SAT average is and it's true. But I don't see that much difference in the ability to write.

Riggins: Interesting. Some students always struggle with writing and some students are well prepared.

Stokes: Sure.

Riggins: But you definitely would see some well prepared ones one would hope in English.

Stokes: Absolutely.

Riggins: But then you see them all in freshman comp. But that's interesting. Well, a lot of it goes back to high school and the years before and how well prepared they are. Now there's a writing component in SAT I think.

Stokes: There is. But I don't regard that as being a standard that accurately measures students' ability to write because it's in a timed framework.

Riggins: Right. That's interesting. And I think there's also in the North Carolina testing now for high school students end of grade there's a writing component too. I'm sure that's probably timed also.

Stokes: Yeah, undoubtedly.

Riggins: Right. And you're not going to get good at it unless you learn to take your time. You know, I think with practice you can get faster.

Stokes: Yes. A favorite example I liked to use in my first day of class when I was teaching freshman composition the last few years when I was electoral, I elected to teach in the fall semester two sections of freshman composition because that's where the need was, so I was going to serve the need. And if there were opportunity I would teach a 300 level course say in the spring in another section of freshman composition. But I would tell my freshman, "I do take progress into consideration. So for example if you start out with an F and then another F, don't get discouraged, make an appointment to see me and then I do have some ways to help you." And I told them about a student that I had back in the tougher old days when I had eight or nine papers that were required per semester. And a student wrote three papers that were really low Fs and the next paper came in and it was such a high A, I was immediately suspicious. And so I looked at the paper and I wrote in the margins some questions I had that I figured he wouldn't be able to answer. And so I started asking him and he knew the answers, one, two, three. So I quite asking questions and then I asked him, "How long did it take you to write this paper?" And he said, "Fifteen hours." And I said, "Well, gradually as we go through the semester you'll be able to apply these 15 hours of skills and write your paper in less and less time." And that indeed did happen and he still had all As after that. So I figured the first three papers were not an accurate indicator of who he was a writer. The last five or six were. So he earned an A for the semester. And so that's an example I like to use to my students in case they started out discouraged.

Riggins: Did that happen especially in freshman comp . . .

Stokes: Sure.

Riggins: . . .the first round of papers and almost everybody would have between a C and an F?

Stokes: Oh sure. I had one excellent student, a nice lady with a marvelous personality came to me and had failed her-- it was the first paper that was done in class. It was primarily a means for me to see, "Okay, let me see what you're bringing to class with you." And she had major problems in it and she came in a little teary. And I got three daughters so teary girls that gets to me still. And so we sat down and talked and so I gave her some suggestions. And she worked on every paper, she worked and she was self motivated to do it, which always fun to see. And she came in to see me with every paper. When they'd do a first draft then they'd turn in the final paper and they had a class, at least a class day if not a weekend before the next class. And so after the first draft was turned in she'd make an appointment, she'd bring it to me and then we'd talk about it. I don't show them what's wrong. I may say, "What do you see in this line?" And she was sharp, so she'd see it the first time. Somebody else, I might say, "What do you see in this line?" "Nothing." "What do you see in this line? Look again, read it more slowly."

Riggins: Read it out loud, yeah.

Stokes: Yeah. And read it out loud, indeed, indeed. You get not just this, but this involved.

Riggins: Yeah, you're used to seeing it, it makes sense to you but it might not make sense to the reader. Yeah. So it's true.

Stokes: And then I'll have the student read it and they'll say, "And he never, never went up to the store that day." And then they'll say, "What's wrong with that?" And then he'll say, "Oh."

Riggins: Repeated two words.

Stokes: Yeah.

Riggins: Right. Right. The students--when you started teaching here in the 1970s did you have them type their papers or was it long hand?

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: Yes, they always typed?

Stokes: The draft could be written. Now that we have computers and it's so easy to do, they'll do it almost all of them, over 95 percent of them will do it on the computer and then they've got it saved and then they can make adjustments much more easily than having to rewrite it again or even retype it again.

Riggins: Oh yeah. I think the computer has really helped with writing, it's less frustrating to make revisions. That's nice. You enjoy teaching writing, composition. Did all of the English faculty teach composition in general?

Stokes: For quite a number of years and then when the Master's program came along you needed to have some incentive for a faculty member to be willing to teach. Now mind you most of them, almost all of them wanted to teach in the graduate program and figured that was a distinction. What was the question now again?

Riggins: Oh, that was interesting, but I was asking about teaching composition, freshman composition.

Stokes: Yes, of course. For a good long while until the graduate program came along, yes, everybody taught freshman composition. Some only taught one section because of their involvement in research and publication. But then when the graduate program came along you had to recruit faculty into the graduate program, you had to give them something in exchange for that commitment. So the usual exchange was that they would no longer be teaching 100 level courses.

Riggins: I see. In order to keep them available and teaching in the graduate program.

Stokes: Mm-hmm.

Riggins: Right. But you like teaching in the composition--I think it is interesting, I'm sure that first paper you'd hand back, like you said, most everyone probably got between C and F like that first paper in composition?

Stokes: No, it was a mix of A, B--I don't know that there's every any pattern there. Those students who take it seriously, and I always tell them, "My recommendation before you come to class next time, since you know what the topic is," and I'll give them a general topic, we'll even discuss it during that first class, get them to tell me what they perceive to be the main points and then what they perceive they need under each main point to make it clear. And so I'll say, "I think you should write a draft, maybe two before you come to class. And when you come to class you may bring a 4 by 6 index card, one side only," so nobody writes the whole thing out, fine. But some do it and the majority don't. And I think it's not unusual with a number, and I'm not going to try to speculate on a percentage, with a number of folks who make the transition from high school to college who think high school study habits will still work in college and they find out, "Hm, don't."

Riggins: Right. No not the same thing at all.

Stokes: No, it isn't.

Riggins: Some high schools perhaps, especially senior year they might give you a pass, they know you're college bound, you kind of stand out and some small schools, "All right, we won't make her do too much." But in a college it's anonymous, nobody knows who you are, if your father had a bank or, you know, whatever.

Stokes: Indeed. Yeah, you grow up in small town U.S.A. and everybody knew everybody, no, not here. Twelve thousand students, doesn't happen.

Riggins: No one's better than the next. After you stepped down from administration, you said you went back to teaching.

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: Was that part time.

Stokes: No, that was full time.

Riggins: Yeah. And how did you like that going back in the classroom?

Stokes: It doesn't matter, even when I first started teaching and was learning how to do it because nobody in graduate school gave us a course in how to teach at the college level and that's typically true. So I was learning as I started out. But what made teaching enjoyable to me was the students and my desire to be as creative in the classroom for every individual group of students as I could.

Riggins: Well that's a great reason for teaching and of course being at a college, that's the main thing that needs to happen is teaching and learning, everything else is secondary. Could you talk a little bit about your colleagues? Who stands out? You mentioned some from all across the university, are there any in English that you remember well and were influential perhaps to you or that you worked with on committees? Did you work on some selection committees?

Stokes: I'm going to start and go back to Oklahoma City University which was the university whose sole aim was teaching and the administration supported that. And so I enjoyed my colleagues, all but one who did not have a good reputation among the students. But I would never tell another student that. If I want to do something, I would never give a negative recommendation about a faculty member. I will simply say, "Well maybe you might want to look around at some of the other sections and ask some of the students who have had this individual professor." I won't imply anything negative. But I enjoyed all but one of my colleagues there because we were involved in teaching, so teaching is what we discussed. And we learned from each other. Here, I've got to think because we have become so much larger as a department. Some of the quicker minds in the department, quick minds, John Clifford and Dick Veit think well on their feet. Brooks Dodson was one that I had a great deal of respect for. Oh gee, Carol Ellis who is now part time in the Provost Office and has been for a long time is much smarter and able to maintain her natural modesty than a number of faculty members choose to recognize, but she is. So it was not that hard a transition for her to go from teaching over into the Provost Office. Tom MacLennan and I have shared a great deal of mutual respect for one another. I go back to Isabell Foushee who was in the department, we had a great deal of mutual respect and still do. And I could go on about this, but some of the colleagues that I--Keith Newlin who is now Chair came in at a tough time with budget crunch. But Keith Newlin and I had and still have a great deal of respect for--and Keith and I have some of our better colleagues are in creative writing and that's always going to be the case.

Riggins: Right. Well that you were together at one point to.

Stokes: Yes.

Riggins: We're about to run out of time here so we'll take a little break here and turn off the machine.

UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database
Found in:
Randall Library | UNCW Archives and Special Collections | Online Database | Contact Us | Admin Login
Powered by Archon Version 3.21 rev-1
Copyright ©2012 The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign