English Matters. College of Arts and Sciences, Washington State University.

English in the News

Todd Butler Permanently Appointed Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences: An Interview with Dean Butler

Todd Butler.
Todd Butler

Todd Butler has been difficult to catch up with: after chairing the English department from 2012 to 2018, he became associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) in 2018 and then dean of CAS in 2021. We sat down with him on a recent sunny afternoon to talk about English, leading, and teaching. Professor Butler arrived at WSU in 2003 as a specialist in English literature and has taught and published widely on Bacon, Milton, Shakespeare, and 17th-century English law and politics. A committed and thoughtful academic leader, he has been recognized with the English department’s Best Seminar Award, Most Supportive Faculty Member Award, and the Lewis G. and Stella E. Buchanan Award.

We began by asking Butler about the most rewarding and challenging aspects of his new job as dean. “Many of today’s most challenging problems are multi-disciplinary, multi-dimensional,” he said. “Whether it’s our students or faculty, when they go out, they don’t encounter a history problem or an anthropology problem, they just encounter challenges. And I think only our college—and this is the thing I’ve been really impressed with—has the depth and breadth of knowledge to comprehensively address those challenges. We’re attentive to not only science and society and policy but also history and language and culture. And that’s pretty limitless.” At the same time, he noted, that range requires a different sort of leadership. When he was serving as department chair, for example, he had an “intimate understanding of how the department works, having been in it for 15 or more years.” But at the level of the college, “you really have to rely on other people’s expertise…. We have an amazing group of people in the college, and you have to be able to lead without being the smartest person in the room.”

In the past year, of course, the challenges posed by COVID-19 have complicated matters considerably. As Butler put it, “The diversity and size of the college means that when we confront any of the issues around COVID, for example, there are so many different ways that plays out. Let’s take social distancing. How many people can we put in a classroom? How many people can we put in a tutorial? What about research labs? How are they operating? And all of those have almost bespoke applications of really generalized principles.” COVID-19 has also hit the college’s resources, both human and financial. “COVID and the budget consequences to COVID have been significant,” Butler said. In particular, “the enrollment declines that we and other colleges are seeing—especially in the incoming freshman class—will hit the College of Arts and Sciences more directly than any other college because we’re the first place that a student has most of their experiences, classroom or otherwise.” In such an environment, Butler said, it’s immensely rewarding “to see and recognize not only the amazing range of things that people do in the college but also the commitment that people bring to that work day after day after day, particularly in really difficult times.”

In difficult times, teaching can be one of the things that gets faculty through. Butler described one of his favorite teaching moments, gesturing at the clear late spring sky for the exaggerated contrast: “It was one of those December afternoons in Pullman when it starts to get dark by, you know, 2:30 or so. And it’s right at the tail end of the semester. And one of the seniors in my Shakespeare class is slumped down in one of my office chairs. This is very a smart student, and I’m waiting for the question I know is coming: ‘I don’t know what to write my paper on. What should I write my paper on?'” Butler nodded and smiled, acknowledging the seemingly perennial end-of-the-semester question, and continued. “So we got on the topic of what she was going to do after graduation, and she was kind of embarrassed. She said, ‘My parents are going to support me for six months while I go to Nashville and try to become a country singer.’ Now that was interesting. And she was a little sheepish: she said, ‘Well, I’ve got some videos on YouTube.'” He paused his narration and gave the professor-considering-a-question face. “And I said, ‘You know that scene in Henry IV where Mortimer marries a Welsh princess, and there’s a scene where the princess is with her new husband, and the stage direction just says she sings a song in Welsh? Write that song for me.'” He paused for effect. “And she looked at me and she said, Really? Yeah. And then she says, almost to herself, Now I really need to understand that play. And I thought, ‘That’s exactly what I want. As a teacher, as an educator, that’s what I want. Not a perfectly competent but unremarkable paper on Shakespeare—I want you to understand and think about the song she wrote.’ That moment has always stuck with me. I want to think about how we can move beyond simple interdisciplinarity to integrated learning that challenges all of us to bring together the range of disciplines that we have into something more than the sum of its parts.”

For those reasons, Butler suggested, the Bundy Reading Room is for him “a favorite space, because of the people and the events. That’s something that’s joyful—people get to see each other, they get to see their students.” Certainly, he admitted, “I don’t think this past year is how we ever wanted to teach, even if we have done it effectively and have done it right.” Like many, he said, “My favorite space is still the classroom because of what happens in it. The classroom still holds a really compelling kind of feeling because of who’s in it, because of what goes on.”

Making news

Find out more about the English department’s wide range of news-making people, projects, and activities.

Anna Plemons, a Coug Graduate, Appointed Assistant Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs at WSU Tri-Cities

Anna Plemons.
Anna Plemmons

Anna Plemons, recognized as one of WSU’s Women of Distinction in 2019, accepted the position of assistant vice chancellor of Academic Affairs at the Tri-Cities campus in spring 2020. An undergraduate and graduate of WSU Pullman (as well as a WSU team rower—fun fact!), Plemons followed a career path that shaped her interest in education, student success, and rhetoric.

She came to WSU Pullman in 1995, where she studied speech and hearing science. She was interested, as she described it, in the “mechanics of language.” In 2001, she pursued a one-year master’s degree program in secondary education at Kansas State University, where she gained knowledge in the role of language and learning.

Plemons returned to WSU Pullman and worked as an advisor in athletics until 2008. With college students needing speech and hearing services, she began thinking more about the structures of higher education and issues of access. With motivation and support from English Professor Robert Eddy, she decided to pursue her doctorate in rhetoric and composition. She became a graduate intern for the Critical Literacies Achievement and Success (CLASP) program, which was a perfect fit with her interests. Plemons remained with the CLASP program after graduating in 2014. When she relocated to the Tri-Cities in fall 2019, she thought about how she could implement CLASP principles, such as strengthening teacher-student relationships, demystifying the university for students, welcoming students who are less familiar with university culture, and offering the same sort of support that professor Eddy offered her.

A 2015 Blackburn Fellow, Anna says her most inspiring research came from her volunteer work for Arts and Corrections, a non-credit-bearing fine arts instruction program in California, which was unfortunately eliminated in 2009. Her 2019 book, Beyond Progress in the Prison Classroom, examines issues of access, education, and justice in prison arts programs while seeking answers to questions of human dignity: “How do we talk about things that are hard to think about and how do we do that work? And how do we make sure that whatever it is we’re doing is respectful?”

Today, Plemons continues to find ways to connect the classroom with the University structures and community. Most notable is her work in DTC 476: Digital Strategies, in which students think about audience, cultural responsiveness, and content creation by building tutorials for immigrant business owners. After the course, one student secured a paid internship with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The student created a video campaign to help people understand the COVID-19 vaccine.

Plemons is excited to be at WSU Tri-Cities: “Here, the things that I care about came together. Tri-Cities is at the forefront of trying to support students and, at the same time, help them stay connected with their community.”