When Assistant Professor of English Mari Christmas first took a creative writing class — her only one as an undergraduate — she said, laughing, that she “didn’t do so well in it.” Fast forward to December 2019, and those early explorations have evolved to a career in writing fiction and a place as the Allegheny English Department’s newest full-time faculty member.
“The Department of English couldn’t be happier, and we were just absolutely thrilled that she was willing to come join this community,” said Matthew Ferrence, department chair and associate professor of English.
Christmas said her path to joining that community began with reading Kurt Vonnegut, particularly “Cat’s Cradle,” and being inspired to try her hand at creative writing.
“I remember when I was reading (Vonnegut), it crossing my mind that he was having a lot of fun doing what he was doing,” Christmas said. “You could just tell in the language and in the story.”
For years after this early inspiration, Christmas did very little writing outside of her singular undergraduate course. It was not until a few years after graduation that she resumed writing and realized she wanted to pursue it as a full-time profession.
Reflecting on her nonlinear path from a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy at Haverford College to a formal education in creative writing, Christmas said she believes writers don’t have to come directly from an English or writing-only background.
“As a writer, every experience counts, and you find your way,” Christmas said. “If you want to be a writer, you’ll find your way.”
In fact, Christmas expressed her appreciation for her own background of unusual combinations.
“I think Philosophy was a really great major to have in terms of really devoting yourself to large questions about what it means to be human and to be alive,” Christmas said. “It was a good foundation for this other work that I would do later.”
Christmas graduated with her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Notre Dame and went on to receive her doctoral degree from the University of Albany, SUNY.
“That shows that level of accomplishment and attention, and she also has teaching experience along the way,” Ferrence said, referring to the teaching Christmas did while completing her doctoral degree.
Teaching, Christmas found, was yet another avenue for personal growth as she developed her teaching style without the “obvious foundation” of having taken multiple undergraduate creative writing courses. Without that foundation, Christmas decided to design the type of course she wished she had as an undergraduate student. She said it was an opportunity for her to learn alongside her students.
“It was a great way to sort of patch up those holes in my own academic career by teaching myself and teaching students these skills and really becoming reflective of my own process and being able to articulate what it was that I was doing to them,” Christmas said. “Writing takes a lot of effort and it’s not easy. Being a little bit more open with that healed a lot of the insecurities I had about my own writing.”
Christmas decided to apply that model of mutually beneficial learning to Allegheny when she submitted her dissertation and began seeking teaching positions. When she found a job listing for Allegheny, she was delighted to realize that the college’s community is very similar to the one she experienced at Haverford.
“Allegheny’s interest in social justice and ethics and the community and the environment — seeing that was really exciting to me,” Christmas said. “There was a moment that I thought this was sort of like a dream situation.”
The excitement was mutual, according to Ferrence. He said the hiring process began with a need for a permanent fiction writer as a result of the popularity of the fiction track. Ferrence estimates that the majority of senior projects in the English department are in fiction.
For the past five years, Ferrence said that the department has met this demand through adjunct professors, visiting professors and occasionally through his stepping in to teach fiction courses.
In addition to finding someone who was an “active writer of literary fiction” with a passion for teaching at the undergraduate level, the department was seeking someone who could contribute to other programs, Ferrence said. The English department is one of multiple departments hiring professors to also be part of Black Studies; Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies; and Community and Justice Studies.
Responses to the initial job posting were reviewed by a committee of three English faculty members and two non-English faculty members. After a round of Skype interviews, three candidates were then brought to Allegheny’s campus to demonstrate how they would teach a class. Ferrence describes this part of the hiring process as particularly challenging for those candidates.
“What’s so weird about it is that we’re sitting in this arc in the back of the room, and then there’s a class happening in the front of the room,” Ferrence said. “And then the candidate doesn’t know the students, and that’s a hard thing to do, too.”
It was a test that Hannah Adsit, ’23, one of the students who was asked to sit in on the mock class, said Christmas passed with flying colors.
“(Christmas) just came in, and she was very inviting,” Adsit said. “It was really interesting, the dynamic in the room. She already felt like a professor.”
Ferrence concurred, adding that responses like Adsit’s are a crucial part of the hiring process and that student response remains important to faculty as they make final decisions.
The visit also solidified Christmas’s desire to join the faculty. Officially hired in December 2019, Christmas is currently teaching two sections of English 205: Writing Fiction in her first semester at Allegheny.
Christmas said she looks forward to potentially teaching new courses in the English department. She hopes to teach a course in Post-Soul Satire, drawing on writers like Ishamel Reed, Percevel Everett and Paul Beaty and exploring themes of racism, as well as police and state-sanctioned violence. She also hopes to teach a course on women writing sex that would explore the language given to pleasure and trauma in a world influenced by movements like the #MeToo movement.
Christmas also expressed her eagerness to be a part of existing courses. Ferrence said he is confident that Christmas will excel in her courses and her career at Allegheny.
“I think it’s those interpersonal skills, her desire and ability to be a mentor to young fiction writers, I think sets her up really well for success here,” Ferrence said.
Adsit shares Ferrence’s feelings on Christmas’s readiness to join Allegheny’s community.
“It takes a special person, and I think she’s definitely right,” Adsit said.