Interview with Barbara Harroun
By: Brittany Douglas
I had the privilege of interviewing one of the creative writing professors here at Western Illinois University, Barbara Harroun. Initially, Harroun’s educational path lead her down the road to social work. After a few years of working in that field she had realized that it was just a job. She expressed to me that all jobs she had such as social worker, employee at a woman’s center, and a dietary aid (a job she began at fifteen) weren’t fulfilling enough for her. Though she has no disrespect for the jobs she had, she wanted something else. She found her way into grad school to get her MFA through unexpected guidance from her former creative writing professor, David Stevenson. This professor also pointed out the potential he saw for her in a classroom teaching. All this led her to where she is now at Western.
Harroun’s life and educational decisions have greatly influenced her. She told me, “I grew up in a family with parents that made writing and stories so alive and relevant.” It isn’t a surprise that writing is so important in her life now. I asked Professor Harroun if writing was a struggle for her when she started writing creatively. She told me how writing isn’t just about the craft. Harroun went on to tell me how she felt writing was about people’s crazy lives, finding yourself, and understanding, in a sense, the messiness of it all. Furthermore, Harroun always had a desire to read and write. Her earliest first impression of sound was her father’s typewriter.
The early encouragement Harroun received from her parents was to read and to write what she wanted, and that still motivates her today. When we discussed her creative writing, she gave me an example of how she had realized that we all have those moments where we think we don’t need to put a lot of effort into our writing. She had an experience with a creative writing professor of hers, Tammy, that called her out on a piece of writing she had done and how she felt she spent more time looking over the piece than Harroun spent writing it. As I have taken two classes with Harroun I remember her saying “If you are not going to put effort into your writing then do not expect people to read it or take it seriously.”
These experiences Harroun had in her life have come back to be utilized in her own teaching. She told me that she is not a scholar; she loves poetry, non-fiction, and fiction writing. She said, “my scholarship is creative writing.” She expressed to me how she hopes that she never stops growing as a writer. She said, “I am still so aware of how much I do not know, and that’s not a weakness.” I really appreciated this sentiment as a writer myself. Just because you are a published author does not mean you can’t or don’t still have room to grow. Writing is a mystery that, as Harroun said, should be used as exploration.
“Art doesn’t serve my ego, it serves humanity”: Harroun discussed this with me when conversing about divorcing oneself from one’s writing. I struggled with separating myself from my writing when I started out writing in creative classes here at Western. I have grown and learned to detach myself, but I like how Harroun helped me to see why it is important. I can also see how I can still have writing that shows my growth and can be relatable and impactful for my readers. Having this mindset will help me to grow as a writer.
Harroun was delighted to speak on what teaching meant to her and how it has impacted her. The first class she taught was a composition class, and after her first class she was blown away at how excited she was. She also discussed how right it felt for her after having worked so many “crap” jobs, as she called them.
“My other jobs felt like a series of tasks, and when I could interact and work with these students that were so smart, I floated across campus. I was like, that was the best 50 minutes!” This is the type of passion I long for as a prospective teacher. I already feel like I have a passion for teaching, but with all the negative comments I receive about teaching it can be a struggle to block that out and not confuse myself with being naïve to what I am getting myself into. I hope for a reaction like Professor Harroun had when she first taught.
This passion of Harroun’s is something I will always hold with me. Seeing her get emotional when discussing what teaching and her students mean to her was beautiful. I know that to Harroun, every student really matters.
“I pinch myself every day that I am doing what I am doing. I still can’t believe that I am doing what I am doing. I love my work, it is meaningful work, it is purposeful work. I just feel so privileged and honored.” These words will forever stick with me and remind me of her for the rest of my life. That kind of passion for teaching is something I wish more teachers had; however, I will say I see more of it here at Western than I ever saw in my high school.
From the interview I did with Barbara Harroun I am able to take her experiences and her suggestions with me into my own teaching. I will also take what she had to say about writing and apply it into my own writing. I want my students to know that I care and that they matter to me. If I can show even half of Harroun’s passion, I think I will be able to reach my students. Learning that Harroun has taken her teaching career as a learning experience helps me see that even as teacher, I will be okay. I will learn along the way and I will grow if I am willing and eager to grow professionally. I will forever be inspired by Barbara Harroun and cherish that she took time out of her busy schedule to talk with me.