Using literature for social transformation

By

Kristen LaRue

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2017 commencement. See more graduates here.

Graduating Arizona State University student Alice Hays thinks literature can change lives. Specifically, the Mesa, Arizona resident believes that young adult literature — termed “YA lit” — has uses beyond just book reports.

Hays structured her doctoral research around the argument that YA lit has the power to positively influence youth into activism and social consciousness, largely because it promotes empathy in its young readers. She conducted ethnographic case studies to prove her hypothesis, and successfully defended her dissertation, “From Fact to Fiction to Action: Generating Prosocial Attitudes and Behaviors Using Young Adult Literature” on April 14.

Hays credits many mentors, especially English Professor James Blasingame — affectionately known to students as “Dr. B” —with inspiring both her field of study and ultimately, her completion of doctorate in English (English Education) at ASU.

Question: What was your "aha" moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? (Might be while you were at ASU or earlier.)

Answer: When I was teaching in the high school classroom, I was trying to identify a theme that I might center my dual credit English 101/102 class around, and decided to focus on activism ultimately. Through this course, I discovered how incredibly powerful and passionate my students can be about issues they care about. Then, when I took ENG 471/540 Teaching Young Adult Literature with Dr. Blasingame before I entered the program, I was completely enamored with this genre of books. I wanted to figure out a way to marry these two loves that I had … supporting students as they became actively engaged in their community and social justice issues they identified, while simultaneously exploring the powerful ways that young adult literature can affect readers. Ultimately, I want to use my research to demonstrate the validity of young adult literature in the secondary classroom as a means of leading to other significant learning activities.

Q: What's something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise - that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: Oh my goodness … I think learning how to be a student again was a significant shock to my system. After having been in the classroom as the teacher for 19 years, learning how to ask questions was incredibly difficult, while simultaneously incredibly rewarding. I have shifted my teaching approach as well, in terms of what I value from a student and what sorts of approaches I take with my students. I will also say that I really struggled to see myself as a writer, but the encouragement from people like Dr. B., [assistant professor of English] Dr. [E. Sybil] Durand, [assistant professor of English] Dr. [Christina] Saidy-Hannah and [professor of Education] Dr. [Audrey Amrein-] Beardsley really helped me to realize that I could grow into that definition. I also learned what revision really and truly is throughout this process!

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Honestly, I chose it because it was the school down the street. I have children and I have been a local all of my life. I wasn’t necessarily intending to pursue a PhD at all. Having student teachers from ASU gave me the opportunity to take 12 credit hours from ASU, so I took a couple of poetry classes with Dr. Cynthia Hogue, and I was reminded of how much I love learning. After I took a class with Dr. Blasingame, I was hooked. They wouldn’t let me keep taking classes without pursuing a degree, so I had to apply for the PhD program. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to have had the mentorship and leadership that I had in those early semesters, because it was only their belief in my abilities that kept me moving forward.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: This is a difficult question. This changed pretty constantly, because I feel like I was always trying to figure out the best place to work. I have realized that I need change pretty consistently. I think the one place that made me feel most like a student was the basement of the library. When I was in my third year of teaching, and working on my Master of Arts degree, I used to come to ASU's library to photocopy journal articles from microfiche, and walking into the basement the first time during my PhD program immediately transported me back to that time period. The basement made me feel like any sort of intellectual growth is possible! 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: To find a full time job! I am looking for full time work as a professor teaching English or English education, and I have irons in the fire at multiple places both locally and around the country. If that does not work, I will go back into the high school classroom. I miss the energy of the students, and I feel like I would have an opportunity to correct so many wrongs I’ve learned about over the last four years, and it would be a great opportunity to put my own best practices into use in the classroom.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I think that I would invest heavily in politics. I think there are so many problems in the world in terms of climate, women’s rights, and education “reform” (among many others) that my money would be best spent supporting thoughtful, intelligent individuals who could run for office and focus on people instead of profits. Not that $40 million would go all that far in this regard, but it would certainly be worth a shot.

The Department of English is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.