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W.Va. 2020 Professor Of The Year Stresses Empathy In Post-COVID World

Steve Criniti.jpeg
West Liberty University
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Professor Criniti discusses Tim O’Brien’s book “The Things They Carried,” with students in his literature class.

Last month, English professor Steve Criniti of West Liberty University was recognized by the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission as the 2020 West Virginia Professor of the Year.

Criniti has been teaching at West Liberty since 2008. He’s been published in several scholarly and literary journals, and he serves as the primary coordinator and advisor for the English Education program at West Liberty.

Education reporter Liz McCormick sat down virtually with Criniti to talk about his career and discuss how the coronavirus pandemic has changed higher education – and in some ways, for the better.

The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity. 

McCormick: Tell us a little bit about yourself. Are you originally from West Virginia, and why did you end up becoming a college English professor? Why was this a field that interested you?

Criniti: I am not a native West Virginian, although I spent an awful lot of time here. I was born in Pittsburgh, but my family moved to the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia, here in Wheeling, when I was about 12 or 13. In fact, I [received] my undergraduate degree at what was then called Wheeling Jesuit University, and then I went out to southwest Ohio to University of Dayton for my master’s and the University of Cincinnati for my PhD, so I went out and got educated in the graduate degrees out in southwest Ohio.

My first teaching job was at a northern Ohio university called Ohio Northern University, and two years into that job, I saw a posting for the job at West Liberty, and I thought, ‘this is the homecoming.’ My wife and I really wanted to get back to the area. And so it was wonderful to get an opportunity to find a job back here.

McCormick: What inspired you to teach English?

Criniti: Well, honestly, you know, it took me a while to figure it out. I did an English major as an undergrad. Not right out of the gate though – it was my second or third try at a major – I wasn't really sure. Journalism was actually where I started. But, you know, once I got into the Literature major, I just felt sort of enriched by this activity of talking about books with smart people. There was something about sitting around a seminar table and doing the work of interpretation with other talented, smart readers.

And by the time I finished my undergraduate degree, I just decided I wasn't done. I wasn't done talking about books with smart people. And so I went on for a master’s, and even then I wasn't sure I would keep going, you know, after my master's degree. I thought about stopping and maybe going back into secondary education. But again, I just wasn't done. I hadn't gotten it out of my system. I wasn't done talking about books with smart people.

So I kept on going, and I guess I still am technically.

McCormick: When I think of the year 2020, which is the year that you're being recognized for this award, I think about the coronavirus pandemic, and specifically, I think about the challenges in education that year. Talk with us about your experience during that time as a professor. What did you learn? And how did that year change you and shape the way you teach?

Criniti: I think a couple things have come out of that. Higher education, education, in general, are not terribly nimble institutions. We're big and slow in terms of, you know, making shifts, and that 2020 year, it caused us to have to turn on a dime a little bit, you know. It caused us to have to shift much more quickly than higher education is comfortable doing traditionally speaking, and so it really kept us on our toes, and it had us learning new technologies. It had us learning new pedagogies. It had us learning new ways of delivering material; new ways of reaching students. And I think all of that can be put to good use going forward.

But I suppose that the second thing, maybe the most important thing that I pulled out of that is, I think, a greater need to just care, if that makes sense. For instance, once upon a time, I think there was a tradition in higher ed, that we were training people for the real world, and we've got to train them about deadlines, and we've got to train them about doing the work on time and staying awake in class and putting their phones away. And I think in a past generation, we had this sense that we were training students for this kind of lockstep corporate ladder situation, [but] the world’s different. The world is different now.

And so I think it requires us to spend a lot more time caring about our students, not as future professionals but as whole human beings. And I think that's a great, wonderful reminder for me, you know? A thing I can take out of this terrible year and say, I think I am a more empathetic teacher than I ever could have been now that I recognize all the variety of things that my students are dealing with and juggling at any given time.

McCormick: Looking at your fellow professors, and specifically your fellow West Virginia professors, what's some advice that you would share as the 2020 West Virginia Professor of the Year, in terms of going forward and producing that next generation of graduates?

Criniti: This award purports to reward innovation. So I think we are all gonna have to innovate, whether that's on a on a micro level in one's classroom, as I attempt to do and as the Faculty Merit Foundation has recognized me for doing, or whether that's on a macro level, whether we innovate in terms of the kind of programming that we're producing, and the kind of students we can draw.

So I think we're going to have to be innovators. We're going to have to start thinking about what we do a little bit differently. We're going to have to keep caring, you know, that the world around us and our students are changing. And if we're not willing to empathize with those changes, and be understanding of those changes and care about our students as they navigate this changing world, then we're not really going to be doing our job.

Webmaster/Eastern Panhandle Bureau Chief/Part-time Education Reporter/Producer, emccormick@wvpublic.org, 304-876-9313, @LizMcCormickWV

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