English Alum Receives "Notable Achievement" Award

CLA recognizes BA grad Paul Eaton, higher education scholar
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This fall English alum Paul Eaton (BA 2002) received an unexpected letter from the College of Liberal Arts: notification that he had been named a 2021 “Alumni of Notable Achievement.” Reached later, Eaton noted, “I am truly honored, and very happy to be representing the excellent Department of English.” Warm congratulations from Pillsbury Hall!

Eaton is Associate Professor of Higher Education Administration in the Department of Educational Leadership at Sam Houston State University in Texas. He has an M.Ed at the University of Maryland and a PhD in Educational Research & Leadership (Curriculum Theory) at Louisiana State University, where his doctoral dissertation received the 2016 Outstanding Dissertation of the Year Award from the College of Human Sciences and Education. Nicknamed "Peaton," the professor also blogs about reading and leads the University of Minnesota's Houston Alumni Network. He generously consented to answer our questions.

When you graduated from the U with BAs in English and History, did you already have an interest in higher ed administration?

Having been actively involved in campus life while an undergraduate, I wanted to work with college students in some capacity, and I ultimately enrolled in the Counseling and Student Personnel Program at the University of Maryland College Park. I then worked for 10 years in higher education administration, mostly with new students and college transition programs like Orientation. This was a wonderful career, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, as a doctoral student at LSU, I decided that my future in higher education was academic, rather than administrative. I had and continue to have a lot of questions about higher education, and thoroughly enjoy teaching and mentoring graduate students.

Had you been involved in administration while you were a student at the U? What can liberal arts majors do while they’re in college to add value to their resumes?

I was a member of the Centennial Hall Council and eventually became President of the Residence Hall Association (RHA). In my junior year, I was very fortunate to be selected as an Orientation Leader. I also was actively involved with Housing & Residence Life through the National Residence Hall Honorary (NRHH) and was on the conference team for the 2002 National Association of College and University Residence Halls Conference, which we hosted at the University of Minnesota.

My advice to liberal arts majors is to find your passion and get involved. You can make an impact on the world.

Paul Eaton

In addition, I was active in the Honors Program and the Leadership Minor. My first two years I was a member of the Minnesota Marching Band. My advice to liberal arts majors is to find your passion and get involved. You can make an impact on the world. Being involved also builds lifelong networks and friendship circles. I still have monthly Zoom calls with my best friends from college and continue to be connected to people in various networks that I worked with while an undergraduate. You never know where these connections will lead long term.

What do you enjoy most about your work? What skills learned in English are helpful?

I get great satisfaction from teaching. I love working with scholars in the classroom, thinking through difficult theory, concepts, or ideas, and attempting to create a better, more socially just world. I see the classroom as a space of possibility—a place where we can come together with divergent viewpoints and better understand all the world has to offer.

I would not trade my English degree for anything. This degree taught me to be a careful reader, and it taught me how to write. You simply cannot understand how important reading and writing are to your life. I'm an academic now, so I read and write for a living, but the skills and knowledge I gained in my English degree have greatly impacted my entire professional career and my personal life as well.

What do you most appreciate about your time as an English major at the University of Minnesota?

I loved the full range of classes I took as an undergraduate. Toni McNaron was a phenomenal faculty member: I still remember the ways she brought Shakespeare to life for us. The class "Literacy and American Cultural Diversity" expanded my understanding of what types of texts can be considered "literary" and exposed me to a range of writers I had never read before, such as Gloria Anzaldúa. I took a stand-out course on Black Women Writers my senior year, my first introduction to many writers whose work I so value today, like Alice Walker and Edwidge Danticat.

What book(s) are you recommending these days?

I am part of a rich literary community in Houston. I participate actively in several book clubs in the area and have started my own reading podcast called The Rhizomatic Reader. You can follow the podcast on Instagram (@rhizoreader), online at www.rhizoreader.com, or subscribe on the usual platforms. I also frequently post what I'm reading on my personal IG @profpeaton.

My favorite author is James Baldwin. I taught an honors seminar a few years ago here at SHSU called "James Baldwin: Race, Queerness, and Social Critique." I highly recommend anything by Teju Cole: His books Open City and Known and Strange Things are incredible, he has just released this month a new book called Black Paper, and he has an absolutely masterful short story about the pandemic called "City of Pain" that should be required reading. Another phenomenal writer I am recommending right now is Marlon James. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a spellbinding novel/fantasy fiction/magical realism/folklore book. I am also very enamored of Richard Powers’ books The Overstory and The Time of our Singing, and he has recently released a new novel called Bewilderment that is shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Sigrid Nunez's What Are You Going Through and The Friend are really, really, important books. And, as if you have not had enough, I cannot recommend more highly Octavia Butler.

What are you working on right now?

I'm currently analyzing data from a study I conducted at the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, where I talked with college students across the country about how the pandemic was impacting their experience of college. I believe insights from the earliest days of the pandemic will help us to chart new policy and experiential paths through an uncertain future for higher education.

For several years now, I have used campus-based novels to explore topics with emerging scholars about campus life: T. Geronimo Johnson's Welcome to Braggsville, Brandon Taylor's Real Life, and Meg Wolitzer's The Female Persuasion. This term, I'm teaching a class called "Digitizing Higher Education," and we are using speculative fictions to imagine and grapple with the complexities of higher education futures. So, I am beginning work on a longer-term project that will likely become a book on the role of fiction, speculative fiction, and other forms of aesthetic/cultural writing for informing educational research about postsecondary institutions. I'm calling this project "The Novel University," and hope it will bridge discussions between the humanities and education.

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