Tech-Savvy Prof Moves Poetry ‘off the Page,’ Into Students’ Lives

Teaching students to better understand, embrace and then write poetry is central to Liz Whiteacre’s teaching, but the 39-year-old firmly believes that the craft must move past simply being words on a piece of paper.

“It’s time to take poetry off the page and use technology to find new ways to reach audiences,” said Whiteacre. “Today we not only have to think about writing a poem but also consider why we are doing it and then what we should do with it.”

 Portrait of Liz WhiteacreIn other words, poetry is like every other craft—it’s changing to incorporate technology as well as meet the career needs of today’s college students.

Whiteacre, who taught at Ball State from 2012-15, used that concept as an assistant professor of English to redevelop a poetry writing class. The goal: heighten students’ literary citizenship through interaction with poets, public performance and video creation.

Senior English major Hannah Schneider, a Michigan native, said that among the students’ more tangible creations was a small book of poetry, called a chapbook.

“Not only did Ms. Whiteacre have a sincere and caring nature about students, but she really cultivated a richly creative environment in which many students, experienced poets or not, fostered new ideas, quality work and the ability to analyze and critique others.”

As a result of her work, Whiteacre was one of two winners of Ball State’s 2015 Excellence in Teaching (ExIT) Award.

MTV for poets

During the course, students met and listened to various poets—both in person and via Skype—and performed their own work before the public at the Helen B. and Martin D. Schwartz Special Collections and Digital Complex in Bracken Library.

“It used to be that you wrote a poem in private, sent it to an editor, who read it quietly, and then the poem would be placed in a book for people to read in a quiet place,” Whiteacre said. “With the advent of technology, which is married to social media, the students have many options for disseminating their work.

“All of the students created their own videos, which added another layer to the process and allowed them to discuss not only the process of writing their poems but why they wrote those words.”

That work helped students in many ways, said Schneider. “She made every student feel valued, heard and, more than anything, intensely capable of creating poetry.”

The faculty member’s dedication to her students and imaginative approach to education caught the attention of her peers, said Lyn Jones, an assistant professor of English.

“My teacher education students said they hoped they could emulate her teaching style and strategies someday in their own classrooms,” Jones said. “A student majoring in construction management said that she had never liked English until she took Liz’s course. Liz was accessible and genuinely interested in each student’s growth as writers.”

Embracing technology

Whiteacre admits that for some students, the thought of talking about the process of writing was challenging, but it’s necessary as they prepare to begin their careers in a few years. In short, the key word is adaptability.

“Video leaps into your life, personally and professionally,” said Whiteacre, who left Ball State in late 2015 to take a teaching position at the University of Indianapolis, nearer her home. “We should never be hesitant to use technology in any discipline or profession. If you would have told me 15 years ago that I would be creating videos to showcase my work, I wouldn’t have believed it. But we evolve.

“Students are facing that every year in school, and then when they enter the work force, adaptability is very important as careers evolve and as technology changes.”