Last semester, the Ball State English Department began a short series to celebrate and profile our newest faculty members. This week, the department continues the series of new faculty profiles by featuring Dr. Susanna Benko. Continue reading below to see Dr. Benko’s interview conducted by English intern Nakkia Patrick and don’t forget to see past profiles featuring Dr. Miranda Nesler, Dr. Maria Windell, Prof. Liz Whiteacre, Prof. John King, and Dr. Andrea Wolfe.
Tell me a little bit about how you got involved in English Education.
I’ve always been a teacher. I started teaching 7th and 9th grade, then high school, then I taught middle school again. But I’ve always wanted to be a better teacher – I’ve always been interested in how I could do things better. I did all sorts of professional development when I was still teaching. Then I decided to pursue my masters to figure out how to teach even better. I think that’s the hardest part of teaching, even for me now: as a teacher, I never feel like I’m doing well enough. I just feel like if I know more, then I can do better. So that eventually, that whole process of wanting to learn more and grow more, led me to pursue my masters and then my PhD, and then to work in English education. Even though I’m at a university now, I still think of myself as a middle and secondary teacher. I care very much about what teachers are doing in schools. I still see myself in this role as trying to be a better teacher here at Ball State. I never thought, “I really want to study writing instruction.” I was really thinking, “I want to figure out how to teach writing better. I want to figure out how I can do a better job as a teacher by helping kids with writing.” Now, I want to figure out how I can do a better job to teach my students to help their own students become better writers.
The hardest part for me was making the decision to leave the classroom; to decide to not teach middle school and high school and go to graduate school. I taught in Indianapolis and southern Indiana, and then we moved to Pittsburgh. When we were in Southern Indiana, I loved that school, and I loved those kids. I probably would have never left if we hadn’t physically picked up and moved. Then I taught in Pittsburgh for half of a year before I decided to return to pursue my doctorate. I always wrestled with this decision because, when I was as a middle or high school teacher, I could see my immediate impact on the students in my classroom. But when I went to into teacher education, it was one step removed. My impact now feels less direct. As a teacher-educator, I don’t feel like I necessarily have a direct influence on a seventh-grade student in his classroom. But I feel like I have a wider net – so when I teach teachers, those teachers can go out and teach students. So I feel like it is less of a direct impact in some ways, but that I can cover more ground.
As I get used to Indiana again and get to know the schools around here, it’s important for me to be in classrooms and for me to be with teachers and kids. For me to feel fulfilled, I need to be with those kids to feel like I’m doing work that matters to them.
So how do you plan on doing that as a college professor?
I would like to get more involved with teachers in the area. I have expressed interest in The Writing Project in hopes of getting more involved and meeting more teachers so that I can hopefully work with them and get into classrooms. I see my ENG 350 methods class as an opportunity at a really small level to start getting into the classroom. And for me, it is important for my students to have interactions with middle-school and high-school students before they start their practicum.
One of the things that I like about Ball State and about Muncie is that Ball State was started as a teachers college and that it is a place that is known for education. There’s this understanding between the college and the community that we can work together, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity to be more involved in schools both in the Muncie community and closer to my home in Fishers, IN.
I learned that you got your doctorate in Language, Literacy, and Culture. How does that differ from your Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees?
When I started my doctoral program, I began in the English Education program. After my first year, they had rolled out the new Language, Literacy, and Culture program as a way of combining English Education, Reading Education, Foreign Language Education, and Social Studies Education into one larger program. The unique thing is that the umbrella of the program provided a broader view about issues of language and issues of literacy. It wasn’t just specific to teaching English. But within that, my focus and all of my research was in English Education. “Language, Literacy, and Culture” was a big program, and it forced me to think more about “What is Literacy?” in a broader sense.
Tell me a little bit about the research you’re currently working on.
When I was at the University of Pittsburgh, I did a lot of work specifically with tasks and task design. I was influenced by the work of Walter Doyle; his work focused on academic tasks and argued that you can understand the subject/content of the discipline by the task and/or work that students are doing and that’s the way students can understand the discipline as well. For example, if students are in an English class and all they are doing is writing five paragraph essays, they start to think that the discipline of English is five-paragraph essays. Furthermore, Doyle argues that a task can exist on three levels: the task as it exists in a curriculum, the task as presented by teachers to students, and the task as taken up by students and accepted by the teacher. When reviewing the scholarship on tasks, I found that this middle level – how a teacher presents the task to students – seemed under-researched. So my dissertation focused on how pre-service teachers provided writing instruction for cognitively demanding writing tasks. I wanted to understand how they taught for different types of challenging tasks. So I would observe four teachers from the time that they gave the task to the student, through all of the writing instruction, and then until the students turned in the task. Then I would try to make sense of all the things they were doing. How much writing instruction were they actually providing? How much of the writing instruction was actually specific to the task, or could it be generally in use for any task?
I’m currently working on turning that dissertation into a manuscript for a journal. I would like to do a similar kind of study with teachers just to examine writing instruction. I think it’s hard to really understand and see what kind of writing instruction is happening, and I hope my research will shed light on that.
– Interview conducted by Nakkia Patrick