Section: Features

Department of English seeks next Richard L. Thomas Chair

Department of English seeks next Richard L. Thomas Chair

Katharine Weber currently holds the Richard L. Thomas Chair. | ERYN POWELL

Since poet and critic John Crowe Ransom accepted a professorship in 1937, Kenyon has been known as a writing school. This reputation is evident in Kenyon’s Richard L. Thomas Chair. Thomas, a Kenyon alumnus and former chairman of the First National Bank of Chicago, is the namesake of chairs in colleges across the country, most of them in economics and history. However, Kenyon’s Thomas Chair, founded in 1997 after his $1.5 million gift to the College, is the only position in his name reserved for a professor of creative writing. “He is very loyal to Kenyon,” said Richard L. Thomas Visiting Professor of Creative Writing Katharine Weber, “and my guess is he wanted to do something for [the College] because it was needed.”

Weber will be leaving her position as the Thomas Chair at the end of this spring semester. At the time of printing, the Department of English is searching for her succesor. For the past two weeks, the remaining four candidates  for the position have given talks and readings in Cheever Room and taught sample classes for select groups of students. “We are working to recruit a dedicated writer-teacher with national prominence,” Associate Professor and Department Chair of English Jené Schoenfeld said, “who might be interested in helping us to shape our creative writing curriculum for the future.” Names of the candidates are not included in this article to protect their job status at their home universities.

A posting for the position on Kenyon’s website states that preference will be given to prose writers, “especially in innovative subfields such as graphic, speculative, or young adult literary fiction.” The new chair will have the expectation of “enhancing, developing, diversifying, and supporting the department’s creative writing curriculum,” and will be given significant funds for organizing events and “promoting the College’s writing life.”

In the past, the Thomas Chair was held by two professors. The now-retired poet and essayist Lewis Hyde would teach every fall, and another writer would teach for the spring. Spring semester chairs have included authors such as Australian poet John Kinsella and memoirist Courtney Angela Brkic. According to Weber, this back-and-forth posed logistical problems, both for the writers and the department. “Sometimes they came here without a car,” she said. “You know, it’s false to say, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine, you don’t need a car.’ If you don’t need groceries, that’s true.”

To reduce the amount of time and resources dedicated to situating new hires, the Department of English appointed Weber for five consecutive spring semesters. Now, the department has extended the position to be full-time. “We would like to offer students a wider range of courses and even more consistency in terms of mentoring relationships,” said Schoenfeld, “so we decided to reimagine the Thomas chair as a year-round position.”

Weber believes that this decision is a “herald” for the expansion of the creative writing program. According to Weber, there was an outside study of the Department of English in 2016 that suggested that the department offer creative writing courses in more genres and grant every Kenyon student the opportunity to take one course in the concentration. She believes that the department will honor these proposals in the near future by expanding the current faculty.

“There have been, and are, a number of very strong, thoughtful, interesting, dedicated teachers,” Weber said, “but you can’t have an army of generals. You need a hierarchy, and I think the plan is that the new Thomas chair will play a very central role in the future of creative writing at Kenyon. And the future of creative writing at Kenyon is exciting.”

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