Career Profile: English Professor

english professor lots of books
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Name: Dr. Ron Marken

Career/Title: Emeritus Professor of English.  

Education: B.A., M.A., Ph.D. (English) & A.B.D. (Almost Bachelor of Divinity)

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A pilot.

What was the first thing that you were ever paid to do?

I weeded my grandmother’s garden (1/2 the size of PEI) every Saturday, for 25 cents.

What was your favourite subject in high school?

I loved Science, particularly Chemistry, and Art.  My dad taught High school Chemistry, Physics, Biology, and Music.  My mother was a painter and a librarian.

Did you continue to study it in post-secondary school?

Yes, for 3 weeks.  I registered as a Chemistry major, but poetry and choral music captured my attention.  I dropped Chemistry in October of my freshman year.

Which post-secondary school did you attend? 

Concordia College, Moorhead, Minnesota.

What was the name of your program/degree? 

Honours in English; Minor in Math, Music, and Greek.

How many years did it take you to complete it?


Did you ever change (or consider changing) programs?

Yes.  I changed from Chemistry, to Classics, to English, to Music, and back to English.

When you think about your college/university experience, is there a particular memory that comes to mind?

I auditioned successfully for the Concert Choir and subsequently toured with them to Europe, 25 states in the U.S.  I had an 8-bar solo in Carnegie Hall. In three years with the choir, I learned more about geography, cooperation, politics, discipline, hard work, poetry, and (of course) music than I did in all my scheduled classes.

What was your favourite part about your post-secondary experience? Least favourite?

My favourites were the choir (see above), religious studies, music history, and Victorian Poetry, taught by Dr. W. Prausnitz, who changed my academic life.

My least favourite was psychology (dreadful professor) and biology (the prof confined the course to memorization – exclusively).  Our psychology professor would give us A’s on our papers if we cited one or more of his publications.

When you graduated, did you find a job right away? If not, what did you do instead?

With a degree in English, high school teaching was not an option, as I did not have an education certificate, so I spent two years, post-graduate, in religious studies.  Then I moved on to M.A. and Ph.D. in English (specializing in Victorian poetry) at the University of Alberta (my home province) in Edmonton.

Was your first job out of school related to your degree?

I was hired as an Instructor of Victorian Literature at the University of Saskatchewan.  It was not so much a matter of expectation as it was necessity and inevitability. Necessity, because I was married, with three children.  Inevitability, because a Ph.D. in English meant the path of least resistance led to university teaching. Along the way, I fell in love with Irish literature, so I read and read, teaching myself Irish literature and history.  Irish literature – particularly poetry – became my specialty. I have published and lectured internationally in that area. For six years I edited a scholarly journal: The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies.

How many jobs have you had since graduation?

One.  In addition, for the last 25 of my 40-year university career, I acted as a writing and communication consultant for Saskatchewan’s crown corporations.

Which of your skills do you find to be the most helpful in your line of work?

I love teaching and writing.  They are, indeed, skills, but, more important, they are craft, art, and vocation.  They give me great joy, too.

What is one skill that you wish you possessed?

Downhill ski racer or sculptor.

Does your job involve travel? How far would you travel/move for a job?

I have lectured and presented at conferences in the U.K., the USA, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, and every province in Canada.  I had no interest in moving from my position.

What advice would you give to students who are interested in pursuing similar opportunities?

Follow your nose, and remember: All the most valuable things are useless.

What do you see yourself doing ten years from now? 

I’m retired and I’m 73 years old.  Do the math.  

My wife and I have 5 children, all married, and 10 grandchildren.  Our children’s spouses come from Spain, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Scotland, and Canada.  My wife is Australian. I am Canadian. We travel a lot. Currently, I conduct creative writing programs with senior citizens and (about half my available time) I am Coordinator of the 3M National Teaching Fellowship.

If you could go back to the end of high school and do things over again, would you change anything?

I would master Latin, French, and German because, in retrospect, I wish I could have taken a Ph.D. in comparative literature.  

I would take writing VERY seriously.

What do you wish you had known in high school, before you began to pursue your education/career?

This comment is related to taking writing seriously.  All through high school and my first year in college, I got by because I had a natural writing talent.  But it was glib, untutored, even smug.

In my second year in college, Dr. Prausnitz (of Victorian poetry fame) returned my first essay, ungraded.  A paper on Ruskin, it was heavily marked, but not scored. Instead, he wrote one word in his comments: “Swinburne.”  At the time, my overall average in English was 71 (a B, and not promising for graduate study or scholarships). When I asked him about “Swinburne,” Dr. P. said, “He generates more heat than light, and so do you.”

He pushed me back to an arduous, self-taught study of writing basics: research methods, documentation, essay structure and design, sentence structure, re-writing, word choice, re-writing, punctuation, editing, re-writing, and wordiness.   For example, did you know you could make your documents between 5% and 10% tighter, brighter, and more succinct by following one simple practice: rewrite every sentence containing “that,” removing every “that.” “There are many men that never marry” becomes “Many men never marry.”  Let others quarrel about whether it should be “that,” “who,” or “which,” and get on with the next sentence. “What was the first thing that you were ever paid to do?” (12 words) becomes “What job were you first paid to do?” (8 words – and it’s more specific, to boot).

Thanks to Dr. P.  my average soon hit the mid-80’s.  Two papers I wrote in my third year – on Chaucer and on modern theatre – were published in a scholarly journal.  Each essay was drenched in sweat.