Q&A with writing professor Jennifer Sargent

by Abby Mihaly | 5/8/18 2:00am

Jennifer Sargent has her hands full. She is not only a professor for both the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric and the women’s, gender and sexuality studies department, but also a physical education and Zumba instructor, the mock trial team’s coach and the faculty advisor for Kappa Delta Epsilon and Alpha Xi Delta sororities. She also serves as legal content advisor for author Jodi Picoult and consults for television.

Sargent began teaching at the College in 2006 following her work as a public defender in criminal law, a special justice in the Littleton, Lancaster and Haverhill, New Hampshire District Courts and a law professor at Vermont Law School. Sargent earned a B.A. from Emory University and a J.D. from Suffolk University Law School.

When did you come to Dartmouth?

JS: I had started adjuncting in 2006 here at Dartmouth. I realized through those little bits of adjuncting that I really loved teaching undergraduate writing. Suddenly, the focus was not only on teaching writing correctly, but also really making intellectual curiosity important to students. The students at Dartmouth, I found, were extremely voracious learners. They wanted to learn how to think and they wanted to learn how to ask the right questions.

I think that a lot of times, writing is taught as this rote, unexciting way of communicating, and writing is just the opposite. It’s how we communicate; it’s a craft. We use it in all disciplines — everybody has to know how to write, and write well. I had also learned from my career that writing can make or break someone’s life. It can make or break a Nobel prize-winning idea; it can make or break the acceptance of a proposal or a grant to create a new vaccine that will cure a major disease. The way that new and great things happen is through writing, so why would I want to do anything else but help people with the great ideas learn how to make those great ideas into great things, great contributions for the world?

What inspired you initially to want to teach and what is it about teaching that draws you?

JS: I had a teacher in high school, Mr. Clemens, and he taught American history. This man made American history come alive for me. He made it so interesting and so real. He was a former college professor, so he was at once theoretical and practical and dynamic. He made it so fascinating that I didn’t ever want the class to end. It was my first taste of what a teacher could do to make you really want to be a lifelong learner, and my first taste of how teaching can change someone’s life. That’s what made me interested in teaching — my 10th grade experience in American history with Mr. Clemens — I’ll never forget him, ever.

What would you describe as your philosophy of teaching?

JS: Make your students want to do the work, make your students excited about everything they’re doing and make your students want to take what they learn — and have the confidence to take what they learn — and do something with it. It’s not enough to have the information, you have to use it for great things.

What was your own undergraduate experience like? What was your major?

JS: I was a little bit of a wreck in college. I partied hard in college. I definitely had a lot of fun. I spent far more time pursuing fun extracurricular things and drinking a lot of beer — a lot of beer.

I did not apply myself, as my father would say, in college, and that was a shame — looking back on it, I wish I had worked harder. I’m not sorry or unhappy about my experiences, but I wasn’t an engaged college student academically. I was a sociology and political science major and I really loved both those disciplines. I didn’t do enough work in those disciplines.

But I knew enough after those two disciplines to know that I wanted to do public service work and I wanted to go to law school, so that was good. I also had saved up enough energy in that respect to go to grad school right from college. I think if I had worked really, really hard and burnt myself out in college, I wouldn’t have had the mental strength to go right into grad school. I have to say, after college, I was pretty hungry to learn. I hadn’t lived up to my potential, clearly. I was ready to make law school my job, and I did.

You have so many different roles here at Dartmouth. Which is your favorite, or which is the most fun?

JS: I have fun no matter what I do, that’s sort of my rule for myself — whatever I do, it has to be fun. Asking that question is kind of like asking which is your favorite child, because they’re all my favorites and they’re all fun and I love them all. They’re all fun in different ways.

What has most surprised you about working here?

JS: I am surprised that writing as a discipline, outside of the English department, isn’t taken more seriously by the administration and by a lot of grown-ups in the institution. I think the students think of it as a discipline, and I don’t think that a lot of other people necessarily understand the rigor and the discipline of teaching writing. It isn’t remedial, it isn’t vocational, it is a discipline like any other discipline, and I would really like to see it supported with research dollars, and I would really like to see the writing faculty supported as equal faculty.

What is your favorite Dartmouth memory?

JS: I think that a favorite Dartmouth memory for me is when I gave the Class Day speech for the Class of 2010 the day before Commencement. I had present at that speech my husband, who is a Dartmouth grad; my husband’s father, who is a Dartmouth grad; my mother, whose father was a Dartmouth grad; I also have two step-children who are Dartmouth grads and my husband’s uncle was also a Dartmouth grad. I remember when I was speaking that I kind of looked out and saw the sea of Dartmouth, and then I looked over at my family and saw the legacy of Dartmouth, and I thought, “What a privilege to be able to be a part of the legacy.”

What are you most proud of?

JS: I’m most proud of the fact that I can still do more push-ups at age 51 than most 20-year-olds can do. I think I can still pop out about 40 in a row, but then I can’t use my arms for about a week.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.