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From Student- to Professor-Athlete: A Brief Interview with Liz Drogin

– interviewed by Blake Sanz

[Note: Blake Sanz is interviewing all writing program faculty. Prior to each interview, Blake asks his colleague to select one of 25 items from a list of artifacts and talk about how they'd use it in teaching. –ed.]

From the list, Liz Drogin chose a collection of high school yearbooks, 1966-2011.

9:30 on a Wednesday morning at Kaladi's Coffee, Liz Drogin sits down with me prior to a meeting about a new publication she's helped create called WRITLarge. Her involvement in that endeavor, which features writing and research from DU students, speaks to the kinds of activities she often gets excited about. "I'm a pretty gregarious person and pretty action-oriented," she says. It's not that more isolating research pursuits don't interest her (more later on a project she's begun), but that projects involving interaction bring her the most joy. She's more animated by teaching and community engagement than anything else. "My hope is that I can bring some of those elements to this job," she said.

In addition to WRITLarge, Liz is also designing two DU service learning classes. Students in those courses will work with a local nonprofit organization called America Scores Denver, an education program dedicated to promoting good decision-making, discipline, and positive self-expression in local youth by combining activities involving soccer and creative writing.

A sign of her personality: she'd begun looking for that kind of community engagement even before she arrived in Denver. "When I knew I was moving out here," she says, "I started looking at nonprofit websites. And then I saw this one that involved soccer and literacy. It's this cool combination of a number of my interests." And so, on arriving, even before she took the job at DU, she began working with them. Now, it's become a starting point for a new teaching project.

Since early in her academic career, a passion for teaching has driven her choices. In fact, discovering that passion helped her navigate a grad school trajectory that involved some indecision early on. After finishing her undergrad degree, she went immediately for a Masters in Sociology at Berkeley, where, after one year, she applied to a public policy law program. While she deferred that acceptance for a year, she taught at a high school in San Francisco. "It was a really rewarding experience," she says. So much so, in fact, that she considered staying with it. "But a lot of what we talked about in class were social issues, and so I thought I should go back and take on the policy program, because then I could enact change on the macro level."

So, she enrolled in the law and policy program. She enjoyed the courses, but then she signed on as a TA for a healthcare policy class. In that role, her true passion was reiterated. "I found that what I enjoyed most was teaching that quarter. I was trying to imagine my future behind the desk as a policy analyst or a lawyer, and I just couldn't do it." And so she re-enrolled in the sociology program at Berkeley.

Eventually, she and Jason, her husband, moved to North Carolina. There, Liz got a chance to teach in the Sociology Department at Duke. While there, she procured a post-doc as a Thompson Writing Fellow. Then, two years ago, she and Jason moved to Denver, where she began her local nonprofit work and taught at DU part time before landing a lecturer position in 2011.

Through all those moves, there have been two constants for Liz: one has been soccer. She played at Harvard, and since then has continued to play on teams in every place she's lived since. That includes Denver, where she's currently in a league. "It's great," she says. "Every Thursday night I have a game at 9:30, 10 at night. And I'm so tired, and I'm thinking, 'Am I really going to go out and do this?' But then I come home and I feel like me. It's a way to tap things that have been important to me."

Sometimes, she still sees things through the eyes of a player, and I ask her about connections between sports and teaching. "I'm fairly intense, but I also hope that I'm encouraging. When I played basketball I was a point guard. In soccer I'm a midfielder, and so I really like to distribute and pass. That's my favorite part of the game. I hope that, in the classroom, I bring that same sort of vision and focus on collaboration. But I also have high expectations of my students and my teammates, too. Hopefully, that manifests itself in a positive way. But I think sometimes some students aren't up for that. Teammates have always responded well, but sometimes in the classroom it feels too rigorous."

Regarding the oft-maligned teacher-as-coach metaphor, Liz has her own take. "I think it's useful. In one sense, I feel like I've learned so much from coaches over the years, and been inspired by them. They've set high standards, and some of them have shown a personal interest in me, and so that combination of challenging students but also being invested and at times trying to play along side them by putting yourself on the same level can be really helpful."

Aside from soccer, the other constant in Liz's life has been her family. She met Jason in college, and they've been together now for fifteen years, married for seven. "It's been fun. We have a lot of similar interests." They both play soccer, are both into hiking and camping. And within the last few years, they've had two daughters: Sophie, who just turned three, and Elise, who's now eight months. "It's interesting, because Sophie is pretty different from me and my husband in the sense that she's a pretty cautious kid, pretty introverted." And Liz has watched, too, as Sophie's adjusted to the role of big sister. "She and [Elise] are just starting to interact more, which is nice. It's a tough transition for Sophie because she got a lot of attention. She was the fist grandchild on both sides, so it's nice to see them playing a little more."

With motherhood, perhaps, has come a new perspective on her stance in the classroom. At this point in her career, Liz explains, she sometimes feels caught between the young, energetic teacher she was when she first started, and the older, wiser stereotype of a professor. "It's just odd. I don't know how to be because I think I'm still young and cool, and I know I'm not, but I also don't have the authority of an older woman." It's a position she hasn't quite figured out yet, one that likely sounds familiar to other lecturers in the program.

The List

From The List, Liz chose a collection of high school yearbooks from 1966-2011. It stood out to her. "It's something students could relate to, and I like entering a course with something that everyone feels comfortable with." She was interested in the opportunities students would be afforded to imagine different ways of presenting themselves. "I was thinking specifically of the blurb that students write" beneath their pictures, she says, though she'd also be interested in comparisons. "For 1133, I was thinking about content analysis, and comparisons across time. You could do historical comparisons, but within a time period you could have something to talk about, depending on the range of populations in the yearbook. That could be interesting."

In her own research, Liz is interested in pursuing a writing project involving an exploration of issues around miscarriage and infertility. "I've known a lot of friends and acquaintances who have had struggles around childrearing, and so I'm interested in doing some sort of qualitative research project that would be more sociological." She's currently trying to decide whether the project would be more academic in nature, or a take on the subject meant for a popular audience.

That she's thinking both ways is a sign of her action-oriented approach to things—and more broadly, of the divide she often faces in deciding what projects to choose. She wants to research, yes, but she wants to make a broader impact, too. Throughout her life, Liz has often found herself shifting between those two selves, the one that's firmly associated with academia, and the other that's equally interested in concerns and ideas outside of it. Life as a student-athlete once demanded that dichotomy of attention, and in the many different kinds of projects Liz has so far taken on, you can see her still walking that line. There's more than a little bit of soccer's competitive spirit in her, and yet she also evinces a carefully considered approach to the demands of academic life, too.

Chances are, though, if there's a competitively charged, interactive way for her to confront an issue, she's going to approach it that way. Distributing the ball's the nature of her game, and given how long she's been at it, you can guess she'll usually find a way to bring something useful and good to those around her, no matter the project at hand.