An interview with Marjorie Allison

allisonBy: Kimberly Ackers

Every English Major’s journey is different, and Dr. Marjorie Allison was no exception. I was excited to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Allison for this publication and learn exactly how Dr. Allison found her way to the wonderful discipline that is English. Despite Dr. Allison being a well-known member of the English and Journalism faculty, there was so much I didn’t know about her. As a future English teacher myself, I was ready to learn as much as I could.

Dr. Allison is from Monmouth, Illinois, where her father was a Biology professor at Monmouth College. At eighteen, Dr. Allison went off to college with no expectations of returning to the area (little did young Marjorie know she’d end up settled just over 30 miles from her home in years to come). She attended St. Olaf in Northfield, Minnesota, a small private college just south of the twin cities and went on to receive her Masters in Minneapolis.

As someone from Macomb, whose choice in college was strongly influenced by her location, I was curious what led Dr. Allison to move so far for her studies. I asked her how she decided on these schools.

She said, “Well, I was refusing to pick anything. A lot of my friends were going to go to University of Illinois and I thought, ‘That’s too big. I’m not going to do that.’ I went and visited a college in Wisconsin and stayed overnight with some people, and I was horrified because they went out drinking with some of their professors and I thought, ‘This is bizarre. This is not for me.’ So I went in the other direction, because St. Olaf is a dry campus. So I thought, I won’t be asked to drink with my professors. My next oldest brother was at Macalester, which is in St. Paul so he was forty miles north of Northfield. I thought it would be nice to have somebody close but not on the same campus. And I love winter. I went up and visited in the winter and it was gorgeous. So that’s why I went there.”

I went on to ask what led her to study English in college. For me, it was a choice I had made in high school. I loved reading and writing and my English teachers were some of the most influential people in my life. I wondered if Dr. Allison had had a similar relationship to English during her high school years. Her reason for studying English certainly threw me off guard.

“It was easy,” She said. “I went to college thinking I was going to do biology or economics because my father was a biologist and my oldest brother is a biologist. He now teaches at Knox. He’s weird. So I thought, I’ll do biology or I’ll do economics because then I can work in banking and I can travel the world. At the end of my freshman year, I was in my first English class and I thought, how stupid is this? This is easy. Why am I picking the things that are really hard? It took me awhile to realize that it wasn’t easy for everybody, but I finally thought, why am I fighting this? I’m good at this.”

I’m sure the look of surprise was obvious on my face. I told Dr. Allison that most of my English friends had chosen English because they loved reading or their high school English teachers were their favorites. She definitely did not have that experience in her high school. In fact, her English teachers nearly turned her away from English.

“They all had the magic decoder rings,” She said, “and they all believed this is the way you read this passage and this is what you should do and I hated that. So I just didn’t take English seriously.” Reading was a huge part of her childhood, but she did not get along with those English teachers. She reassured me that she had great faith in me as a future teacher, but after her experiences and the stories she has heard, she understands how school can kill that passion for English in students.

When I asked what her favorite thing about being an English professor was, she initially responded with “the lifestyle”. As the child of a faculty family, she had grown accustomed to summers off and family time in the afternoon. “So that’s part of it,” She said, “But it’s also that I can’t think of a better thing to do with my time than sit around and talk about ideas. So sitting around and talking about literature is talking about ideas.”

Dr. Allison received her PhD studying the 19th century British novel, but her emphasis reaches well beyond this limited scope. Dr. Allison has always been interested in women’s, ethnic, world, and graphic studies, even while studying British Literature. This semester, she is teaching both Senior Seminar, which contains literature from around the world, as well as Women in Literature.

As we began discussing her professional career, I asked her what she believes her teaching philosophy is. She said I could probably describe it better than she could, considering my education background. As she thought about it though, she said, “I guess my philosophy is, students know more than they think they know and if you let them, if you push them, it will come out. So I guess that goes along with, I think I demand a lot because I think you guys can do a lot. But my philosophy in general is I think everyone has something that they can bring to the table.”

This philosophy is evident in our Senior Seminar class. Our discussions are lead not only by Dr. Allison, but each students’ personal experience and expertise. Each class that I have had with Dr. Allison has been organized in a similar way and has allowed each student to share their different perspectives.

Dr. Allison’s role in the department will be changing soon. She has agreed to step up into the position of Director of Graduate Studies next fall. She informed me that in a way, she also feels responsible for holding the knowledge of the past in our department. Besides Dr. Iwanicki and Young, Dr. Allison is one of the longest standing professors in the English department.

Dr. Allison has recently published an article in Mosaic entitled, “(Not) Lost in the Margins: Gender Identity in Graphic Texts”. “It’s [about] Persepolis, Fun Home, and Exit Wounds, and I’m looking at what these three women writers are doing that’s interesting and ground breaking in ways that perhaps male graphic writers aren’t doing,” she explained.

I first met Dr. Allison my sophomore year in her Non-Western Literature course. Still a timid college student unsure of my major and expectations, I was very grateful to have taken this class with her. Dr. Allison’s teaching style and passion for the subject material really helped to bring me out of my shell. Now I am in senior seminar with Dr. Allison and it has been a wonderful experience. It has been a pleasure to get to know her over the years.