EGO Alumni Interviews: Dr. Andrew Calis

by Robert Sherron (current Ph.D. student)

Dr. Calis, first, of all, could you describe the topic of your dissertation?

My dissertation tackled epistemology in the poetry of Countee Cullen, which necessarily meant tackling epistemology in the Harlem Renaissance. I stumbled on the topic while TAing for Dr. Johnson. I wanted to focus on evasive knowledge in Robert Frost's poetry, and I thought Cullen would make a good comparison, but unfortunately for Frost, Cullen ended up edging him out all together. That meant the dissertation was much more focused - I close read a number of Cullen's most interesting poems, and I emphasized how Cullen explicitly rejects being locked into any sort of stable identity in both his poems and in his writing.

Could you describe your process?

The process probably depends on a number of variables, but I think the only constant is that it is a doozy. I'll talk about my personal process, and then I'll offer some advice - things I wish someone had told me first.

My process was to write a chapter as it came to me, even if I didn't see the full direction of the project yet. I wrote the first body chapter while studying for comps, and as I was writing it, I realized I'd need more background. So I wrote the another chapter (which became the new first body chapter, bumping the other to Chapter Two). This new Chapter One was a history of the Harlem Renaissance, a six-month process, a formidable 60 pages of causes, effects, important figures, major works - essentially all my research notes compiled into a chapter. I ended up keeping five pages of it. The rest was summary rather than argument. But what was really important was I was writing: I'd rather write something that gets chopped but clarifies my thoughts than stall out and not make any progress, either on paper or in my head.

As I wrote each chapter, my overall argument became clearer, because I could contrast the claims in Chapter Three with those in Chapter Five, and I couldn't have done that if I hadn't written Chapter Three already. That being the case, I would send along each chapter as I finished it, but it was almost pointless, because I knew it wasn't my finished product - it had hints of my argument, but only in bits and pieces. All that is to say, the process of dissertating is really cumbersome and disheartening, since it's mostly directionless and with each insight comes the need to rewrite the entire argument.

My advice:
  • Save rewriting the entire argument until the whole dissertation is fully drafted. That might mean not sending along each chapter, but rather emailing regular updates about your argument and your process to your supervisor.
  • Emphasize topic sentences, for the sake of your readers as well as for your Intro chapter. This was impossible to do during the rough draft, but once I had all my ideas down, I could more easily connect each paragraph to its section, each section to its chapter's thesis, and each chapter to the entire dissertation.
  • Before writing the Intro and Conclusion chapters, find dissertations (in Proquest Dissertations) that have passed under your supervisor, and note themes, trends, or anything you think fits your approach. Don't be exhaustive but be smart: Which dissertation was most like yours? What tricks did they use? Was any intro too overwhelming? Model yours after something more feasible.
  • Keep writing, even if you know you might have to chop it. Use it as a free-write. Most of my best clarifications came when I could tell I was sort of using filler. In the free-write form, I called myself out and forced myself to explain what I meant and why it mattered.
  • Once you have a full draft, be ruthless with your edits. Cutting down the paragraphs that aren't a perfect fit makes the chapter intro, the dissertation intro, and the topic sentences much easier to write.
  • Ignore the temptation to research forever. At a certain point, stop researching and just use the notes you have. You've passed comps. You know your stuff. Make a footnote to "find the one person who said that thing about black churches and Harlem" and move on. If you find it, great. If not, it's not the end of the world - only three people will ever read your dissertation and they'll probably be skimming most of it. (Which is why your topic sentences are so darn important.)

Thank you! I'm sure many students will find that helpful!

Dr. Andrew Calis

Now, you've taken an alternative career path-- teaching high school rather than going on the MLA-grind. Could you describe your experience so far? What do you think current students who might be interested in such a path should know?

Teaching at a Catholic prep school (Archbishop Spaulding High School) is absolutely fantastic. With a Ph.D. in hand, prep school teachers are offered better pay than that at many liberal arts colleges. Plus, there are no research expectations, so summers are actually free - and that's allowed me to pursue hobbies like publishing poetry and writing short articles for journals and magazines. My quality of life is much higher not having to worry about tenure and the publish-or-perish mentality, and I cannot emphasize enough how nice it is to write for myself and not because I need to. Depending on the school and the level taught - they offered me Honors seniors and Honors sophomores - the quality of writing is comparable to the classes I've taught at the college level, and the students are much more energetic, having been friends with each other for at least a year.

The downsides:

  • I teach five classes every day for 43 minutes each. But there's no stigma to having "in class work days" pretty regularly, which ameliorates the lesson planning load a bit, and after a tough first week, it feels pretty normal.
  • At the college level, we don't have much supervision besides the occasional observation, but at the high school level, every curriculum decision runs through the supervisor and the teaching team, which means there isn't as much flexibility the first year. With time, I've heard, it becomes freer; but for now, I have to be very careful to teach the same material and hold my students to the same rubric as other teachers. 
For those considering prep schools:
  • Talk to me! I definitely went about it in the wrong way before a friend pointed me to a site that aggregates prep school positions around DC and MD.
  • Pare down your cover letter - they have hundreds of applications, and a PhD stands out only if they read your letter. Call within three or four days.
  • Have a good explanation why, with a PhD, you're choosing a high school. (The lack of research expectations and the ability to focus on teaching exclusively?)
Good luck!

Thank you so much, Andrew! 

If you are an alumnus/a of the Catholic University English Department's graduate programs and are open to being interviewed by the English Graduate Organization for The Annex, please contact Robert Sherron at