KBC English professor earns PhD

  • Assistant Professor of English Lia Calhoun poses in her office in Bayview Hall on Wednesday, April 4, 2018 at Kachemak Bay Campus in Homer, Alaska. (Photo by Delcenia Cosman)

After years of dedication and hard work, Lia Calhoun, assistant professor of English and communications at Kachemak Bay Campus, earned her doctorate on March 23 when she successfully defended her dissertation in front of a committee from the Boston University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in Boston, Massachusetts.

Receiving her doctorate caps off Calhoun’s educational journey, which began with her growing up and attending school in Homer and continued with her establishing a career as an English professor at KBC. Calhoun, 34, is the daughter of Eric and Stephanie Sloth. She graduated from Homer High School in 2001 before temporarily moving away to finish her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Calhoun earned a bachelor of arts degree in English with a double emphasis in literature and creative writing from Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. She then earned her masters degree in English literature from Boston University, which led into the doctorate program where she recently received her degree.

Calhoun began working towards her doctorate in 2008 and chose to attend Boston University both for the academic setting and for the opportunities it would provide to advance her teaching career.

“I had done my undergrad on the West Coast and I really wanted to experience the East Coast,” Calhoun said. “Boston is a center of learning, and there’s an invigorating atmosphere in terms of education out there. I chose Boston because it had a focus on teaching.”

Calhoun spent eight years working toward her doctorate, five of which saw her teaching in her own classroom and working as a teaching assistant. She and her husband, Bo, travelled back and forth between Homer and Boston, fishing on her husband’s boat in Alaska every summer and then flying back to Boston for the winters to continue her studies. Calhoun and her husband spent seven winters in Boston before returning to live in Homer in the spring of 2015.

Becoming an English professor at KBC had been Calhoun’s dream job since she first interviewed Beth Graber, former professor of English and communications at KBC, in 2007. Over the years as she went through graduate school, Calhoun worked with Graber to ensure she was fulfilling any necessary requirements to eventually be eligible for the position. When Graber decided to retire from teaching at KBC full-time in the spring of 2016, Calhoun was still working on her dissertation, but took the long-anticipated opportunity presented to her and stepped in as the new assistant professor of English and communications.

Calhoun’s dissertation, “Bad Housing: Spatial Justice and the Home in Twentieth-century American Literature,” focuses on the representation of subpar housing in 20th century American literature. Having been born and raised in Homer, she found that coming from Alaska and being defined by “place” herself gave her a predisposition to attend to setting in literature and the effects of setting on the individual.

“As I was studying for my oral exams, I was reading the canon of American literature from the 20th century and I found this ubiquitous representation of bad housing. I had a specialty in multiethnic literature, so generally it was writers coming from minority positions who were detailing life as it was,” Calhoun said.

In her research, she found that the canon — the important works of 20th century American literature — itself discussed the setting of substandard housing, but it was not being investigated in literary studies. Thus, in her dissertation she sought to answer the question of why this theme was so prevalent in the literature she was reading. Calhoun applied historical research, social science and spatial theory to describe how areas like 1910s-era tenements on New York’s Lower East Side or present-day Native Amercian reservations have been created and perpetuated by social, economic and legislative factors.

“I wanted to do … case studies that span the geographical map, so I have a Jewish-American writer from (the early 20th century) in New York City’s Lower East Side; I have an African American writer from southside Chicago; and then, going to the West Coast, I have M. Scott Momaday talking about relocation (of Native Americans) to Los Angeles,” Calhoun said. “Because I was seeing this phenomenon, this representation in all of the literature I was reading, I wanted to show in my dissertation that it spans the geographical space and also spans the time of the 20th century (in America).”

Calhoun spent five years completing her dissertation, working alongside two primary advisers before flying out to Boston to defend her thesis on March 23 in front of a committee consisting of those advisers and three other faculty from Boston University’s English department.

Now that she has successfully defended her dissertation and earned her doctorate, Calhoun said she looks forward to regaining a work/life balance and spending more time with friends and family. She also is excited to continue researching pedagogical techniques that will enhance her classroom performance and better equip her students in their own academic pursuits.

“I’m so thankful to my friends and family for being supportive … even when I wasn’t able to give as much, so I am excited about doing my work well and doing relationships better,” Calhoun said.

Calhoun said she is grateful for the experience and insight that obtaining her doctorate has awarded her. Opportunities are now open for her to teach courses at the 300 — third year of college — level and above and to eventually obtain tenure and full professorship. She also is glad to have the skills and knowledge that she has gleaned from spending the better part of a decade researching and evaluating sources in preparation for her dissertation and looks forward to passing on the wisdom she has gained to her students.

“More than anything, it was something that I did for myself …. There were times when I definitely didn’t see an end; I couldn’t see myself finishing. So I think it helps me really be able to sympathize with my students … if nothing else, it helps me understand what my students are going through in the day-to-day process of writing papers on a deadline,” Calhoun said. “And then the skills of research and evaluating sources, the things that I teach on a day-to-day level, I think I had to go through the whole five-year dissertation to really be able to teach it better.”

For Calhoun, earning her doctorate is both a great accomplishment and a stepping stone to the next phase of her teaching career.

“I’m just joining the ranks of the rest of the faculty here now. I feel privileged to be at KBC … with very successful fellow educators,” Calhoun said. “I feel privileged to be where I am for many, many reasons, and the students are a pleasure to work with.”

For anyone who is interested in gaining higher education and working toward their own doctoral degree, Calhoun said, “You can do it. Set your sights on the goal, and you can accomplish it.”

Delcenia Cosman is a freelance writer living in Anchor Point who attends Kachemak Bay Campus.

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