Feb 12, 2008

Inside the life and mind Dr. Karen Swallow Prior

by Kerah Kemmerer
English professor, home renovator and Maine native are just a few interesting titles of Dr. Karen Swallow Prior, a member of Liberty University’s faculty. She has two older brothers and grew up on what she referred to as a “gentleman’s farm,” riding horses and loving to read. Currently, she is writing about the life-changing impact of reading literature, a book which is tentatively titled “How Literature Helped Save My Soul.”

At the age of 16, Prior moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where she completed high school. She entered college with the intention of pursuing a career in social work. Prior focused on this career goal for three semesters until “realizing that English was a subject that could be studied seriously.”

Her study on the anti-Romantic novel “Madame Bovary” by the French author Gustave Flaubert greatly influenced her life by warning her of the dangers of Romanticism. She currently teaches a class at Liberty on Romanticism.

Prior’s original sense of style sets her apart. Her clothing reflects the confident woman that she presents in her classrooms, a confidence that is the result of various people in her life.

“I have people who have pushed me, seen gifts and invested in me to help me become who I am,” Prior said. Prior’s small corner of the English Department more closely resembles an inviting sitting room than a workspace. A soft glow of light envelopes the space, casting shadows upon the artwork rich walls while dancing off the blue and gold carpet spread on the floor. Here is a glimpse into the life and mind of Dr. Karen Swallow Prior.

Champion: Tell us more about your academic background.

Prior: The education I experienced in public school in New York was one of lowered expectations. Because I felt cheated in my own education, I set the bar high for my students. I don’t want to cheat my students out of what they are capable of achieving. Champion: Not many people know the definition of Romanticism. Could you explain it and why you consider it a danger?

Prior: Romanticism refers to a specific literary and philosophical movement. When I am talking about Romanticism, I am talking about a worldview that tends to deny the real in favor of the ideal and therefore views the world based on unrealistic expectations.

Champion: How do you enjoy spending your time outside the halls of DeMoss? Prior: The thing I enjoy most is spending time at home. My husband and I have an old farmhouse that we are renovating, and we share the farm with several dogs and horses. The place was uninhabitable when we first moved in. The house takes up all our time and money, but we enjoy it. I also like to spend a lot of my time outdoors. There is no place I’d rather be than sitting on my front porch or hiking out back with my dogs.

Champion: Where have you traveled, and where would you like to venture? Prior: Outside the United States I’ve traveled to Canada (of course), Puerto Rico, England and Morocco. I had one layover in Paris. We found some guy in a van that gave us a two-hour tour; it was fun. Except for the trip to Ireland, which was for summer study on scholarship, the other trips were mission-oriented. Although I did sightseeing, the focus of the trips was the mission.

Champion: What is your faith background? Prior: I was raised by Christian parents and accepted Christ as my Savior at a young age and was baptized then. But it wasn’t really until I was in graduate school that I learned the importance of not just living Christianly, but thinking Christianly too. That is when I really began to own my faith. It has made all the difference in the world. In my younger years, I did stray from the church and sow some wild oats.

Champion: What church do you now attend, and what has drawn you to that congregation? Prior: I attend Rivermont Avenue Baptist Church, which has a Celtic Christian worship service. The music is Celtic, but the service is also contemplative and reflective, so it includes reading from Celtic poetry and contemplations. The distinction of Celtic Christianity is that it seamlessly integrates aspects of everyday life into faith. That approach to Christian living is incorporated into the entire service.

Champion: You have a very original and unique sense of style. When did you begin to develop this style and where do you find your clothes? Prior: I buy a lot of my clothes on eBay. I think, probably, my love of dress began in college. Meeting and marrying my husband is what really made me into the confident woman I am today. We got married when I was 19. He has always expressed great confidence and support in me. Meeting him was a big turning point in my life.

I do shop a lot. I find it a relaxing break from the life of the mind. Maybe I am trying to justify it, but I do find it very relaxing to just think about fabric for awhile rather than ideas. I like to quote Oscar Wilde, who said, “One should either be a work of art or wear one.” I can’t paint, or draw, or sing, or dance, or play music, so I dress myself. This is how I express my creativity. Champion: What are some little-known facts about yourself that you would like to share with students?

Prior: Before coming to Liberty, I was very active in the pro-life movement. Although I’m currently more involved from the sidelines through education, this is still an issue about which I am very passionate.

Champion: I’ve heard that the English department plans to appoint you as the chair. When is this scheduled to take place, and what are your goals with this new position?

Prior: This begins in the next academic year. My biggest goal as chair will be to make the English department more visible and recognized in the Liberty University community and beyond. The English department is one of the best kept secrets at Liberty University. It is truly the best department here. I also hope to empower our faculty to be the best teachers they can be, so that our students can be the best that they can be.

Champion: Do you have any words of advice or encouragement for the student body? Prior: Yes. Christianity is a religion of the written word. In a culture of declining reading and literacy, I think it is the special call of the church to cultivate the ability and desire to read, and that’s what I’m trying to convey in my classes. Contact Kerah Kemmerer at kkemmerer@liberty.edu.
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