Chosen for the task: ASU student defies odds, spotty internet to complete doctorate

May 5, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

The road to a PhD was not a paved one for Robert Lively. That's appropriate, as Lively is a scholar of medieval studies. Indeed, this Arizona State University student’s academic journey was rather an arduous quest, complete with adventures, ordeals, tests, allies and rewards. Graduating ASU student Robert Lively poses for an era-appropriate photo before attending a December 2019 “Victorian Christmas” event. He joked that his “severe” expression was “in keeping with Victorian traditions.” Robert Lively poses for an era-appropriate photo before attending a December 2019 “Victorian Christmas” event. He joked that his severe expression was “in keeping with Victorian traditions.” Download Full Image

Lively was already teaching community college full time as he began his doctoral work at ASU, after having the clock run out to complete the degree at another university.

“Balancing full-time teaching with a graduate program is not easy. It takes a long time to finish things,” he said. “I tried to work a lot on writing and research projects over winter break and during the summer. I knew during the semester, my scholarly research would be very limited. Time management was a huge factor in what I could do, and when.”

Partway through his studies at ASU, Lively moved to Nevada to take a position at Truckee Meadows Community College in Reno. He continued meeting with his committee remotely, determined to stay on track. He planned to travel back to Tempe for his defense this spring.

Then, a global pandemic derailed his careful plans.

In the midst of social distancing and transitioning to online the five in-person classes he was teaching, Lively committed to a virtual defense of his dissertation – all with spotty internet. “I was so worried my internet would cut out during my defense,” he said. “But it made it for an uninterrupted 2 hours.”

On April 1, Lively successfully defended his dissertation, “The Rhetoric of Reasonableness: ‘Hóf’ in Civic and Legal Rhetoric of the Medieval Scandinavians” toward a PhD in English (writing, rhetorics and literacies). His project was an unusual hybrid of medieval studies and legal rhetoric — unusual because in the humanities, the subject area is often cornered into literary analyses.

“My dissertation topic was born out of taking a history of rhetoric class and reading a (medieval Scandinavian) saga,” he explained. “I began noticing connections between the legal case in the saga and the rhetorical devices we were learning in the history of rhetoric class. So I began looking at civic and legal rhetoric in the sagas. Besides reading a lot of cool and interesting texts and sagas, I had the opportunity to travel to Scandinavia several times, (which) really helped me bring the topic alive.”

“Rob Lively is the rarest of grad students,” said Lively’s committee chair Kathleen Lamp, an associate professor of English and director of the program in writing, rhetorics and literacies at ASU. “His true passion for Nordic culture and expanding rhetorical studies motivated him to complete his doctorate.”

Quest goals realized.

We spoke with Lively about his academic journey at ASU and talked about the other heroes he met along the way.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: I think I first realized I wanted to study rhetoric when I took my first rhetoric class and learned about the amazing life of Cicero.

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

A: I think one of the most interesting things I learned was when I took (Professor of English) Shirley Rose’s archival research class. We curated a collection in the library, and it changed my perspective on research because as we worked through the collection, it became intensely personal. We learned so much about the man whose papers we were looking at. It really brought research alive for me.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I’m not sure if I chose ASU, or if ASU chose me. I was in another PhD program, and I was writing my dissertation there, but I moved to take a teaching job at Mesa Community College. I applied for an extension because I had been working full time during the process, but I was denied. I was basically kicked out of my program because of the time limit. I was kind of in a dark place for a while. Then a friend asked me to take a class with him at ASU, so I did. We took (Professor of English) Doris Warriner’s research methods course.

In that class, I told her my story, and she said, “You need to finish here. Apply to the PhD program, and I will write you a letter.” So I applied and got in. I can’t tell you how thankful I am to her kindness. Doris made a huge impact in my life. I basically started over at ASU. Arizona State supports its graduate students a lot. Having experienced two places, I can tell you that ASU really cares about its students. I always felt supported by my instructors and especially by my graduate committee: (English faculty) Kathleen Lamp — my chair, Robert E. Bjork and Peter Goggin.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice I’d give to those still in school is to listen to your instructors. When I was writing my dissertation, I sent many drafts to my chair, Kathleen Lamp. She always gave me great advice. Writing a diss can be lonely, and it would be easy to get frustrated if you get revisions back, but I found the process to be really important to my development. Dr. Lamp would give me revision ideas, challenge my points, and also point me in the right directions I needed to take my research. I really think that listening to her helped my dissertation take shape.

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

A: One of my favorite places to hang out on campus was Hayden Library. I just liked it there. I spent many hours in that place.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: For the near future, I plan on remaining at my college, but I would like to explore teaching at the university level. I've taught literally hundreds of undergraduate sections, mostly in composition, and I would love to teach a graduate class for a new experience.

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Manager, marketing + communications, Department of English


Persistence pays off for ASU School of Music graduating student

May 5, 2020

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Annie Villalobos Vincent has been waiting 20 years to achieve her dream and receive her college degree. Annie Vincent Annie Villalobos Vincent Download Full Image

Vincent’s academic journey began after high school when she attended a few classes each semester at several community colleges beginning in 2000. She first attended Arizona State University in the summer of 2006, balancing her academic schedule and family life for one year as a music audition major. During that time, she also taught in the School of Music’s String Project.

With growing family responsibilities and personal hurdles along the way, Vincent decided to take a break from her studies for several years to care for her two young children and help support her family while her husband attended law school. When she was able to go back to school, she started taking classes again at community colleges, with the aim to transfer back to ASU to complete her degree. Now she is graduating from ASU summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Music in music education and with a Music Education Teacher Certification.

“I always wanted to go back to school, so when my son was in kindergarten, I began to put things in motion to do just that,” Vincent said. “It had then been more than 10 years since I had been in school, and getting back into playing instruments and coursework was rough.”

When Vincent graduates in May it will be exactly 20 years since she finished high school, but she will be doing exactly what she has always wanted to do — teaching and making music.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: In 2004 upon being recommended, I received a phone call asking if I would be willing to take over as a long-term substitute for middle school orchestra while the teacher was on maternity leave. Since I did not have a bachelor’s degree, I was granted an emergency substitute certificate and suddenly I was there at the open house greeting parents and running a classroom for the entire semester. This experience showed me that I loved teaching music in a group setting and from then on, I planned to get my degree in music education someday.

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

A: I learned that I am too stubborn to quit, and that it is ok to fail at things! I had so many goals for myself when I made the decision to return to school and finish my degree, but sometimes life makes a different plan for you. I had something major happen in my life, either personally or within my close family, every single semester. I experienced challenges from my daughter being diagnosed with a rare cancer, to chronic pain and inflammation in my left hand that kept me from playing the violin, to a loved one’s suicide attempt. Any one of those events could have derailed my studies, but I continued to persevere. Graduating summa cum laude has taken a lot of work, and balancing it with my family life has been really hard at times, but I am really proud of myself for achieving this goal.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: ASU has a wonderful music school with faculty from whom I was excited to learn. It was also important to me as a wife and mother to young children to be able to be there for my family while attending school, so proximity was also a factor.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: I had so many incredible professors while at ASU! Dr. Sandra Stauffer’s class on Children’s Music was the highlight of my week for the semester that I was enrolled. I learned that there is a cultural responsibility to be fulfilled through music and that music is natural and should be accessible to all, regardless of their background, demographic or socioeconomic status. I also learned that children are inherently creative beings. We did so many activities each class that were designed to help us identify with our future students but in the end, I learned so much about myself! By the end of the semester, I understood myself better as a person and in my roles as both a teacher and parent.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you would give to those still in school?

A: Take a class for fun outside of your major map! Take this time to grow and learn more about yourself as a person. Don’t overschedule yourself, and learn to say no. Relationships with your friends, colleagues and faculty are important.

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

A: My favorite place is the School of Music courtyard. This “courtyard community” is so special. I loved sitting there eating lunch, chatting with friends on the way to class, or just people watching. A close second are these raised carpeted areas on the second floor of the music building connecting the west and east wings, I loved to catch up with friends or just sit and look out over the city.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I would love to go on a trip with my husband and kids to celebrate this milestone as they all worked so hard to help me succeed! I would really love to work in public school teaching elementary band or strings.

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

A: I really have no idea how far that amount of money could go in helping out our world, but I would love to use that money to help with access to clean water and sanitation around the world. We are so blessed here in our country, and I would love to see that kind of life-changing opportunity be spread around the globe.

Lynne MacDonald

communications specialist, School of Music