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

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.”

May 05, 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.

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.

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