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English grad picked as top recruit for doctoral coursework

May 10, 2010

The letter came to Linda Zygutis’ mailbox on University of Washington stationary, informing her of her acceptance into doctoral coursework in the Department of English.  But, it wasn’t just any notice of acceptance from the Seattle-based institution.  It read, in part, “You have been chosen, after a long and rigorous review process, as our very top recruit out of a pool of more than five-hundred applicants…You were our unanimous number one choice.”

Zygutis is an alumna of Arizona State University’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences where she received her B.A. in English in 2007.  She is also an alum of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, earning her M.A. in English literature a year ago this month.

In her two degree stops she has impressed.

“Linda is an insightful reader, a terrific writer, and generally a very hardworking student,” says Patrick Bixby, a New College assistant professor in the Division of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies who directed her Barrett, The Honors College thesis and co-directed her master’s thesis.  “She was an exemplary New College student – a very bright, talented local kid who came here and found what she needed in an education; she drew effectively on the collective resources of both New College and the honors college.

“Other students at New College can learn from that example and turn it toward their own success.”

For Cynthia Hogue, the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry and a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of English, original thinking and cutting-edge scholarship sets Zygutis apart from most others.

“Her scholarship is characterized by a refusal to accept any received critical narrative.  Linda arrives at a reading inductively, creatively.

“There was so little scholarship on modernism and celebrity (the topic of Zygutis’ thesis), I wondered if she could find enough material to write her thesis.  She used cultural theory deftly, she researched ‘celebrity’ – mainly Hollywood – and reconceptualized modernism’s relationship to popular culture.  Such an accomplishment is noteworthy.”

Her thesis, “Odd Business: Literary Portraits, Lectures in America and the Celebrity of Gertrude Stein,” focused on the modernist American writer and Zygutis’ argument against the false binary between Stein’s “popular” and high-brow texts.  Stein, who insisted her 20th-century literary portraits capture the “essence” of a subject rather than simply provide a descriptive narrative of celebrity identity, resisted the “chatty par” celebrity gossip culture that allowed outside control over a star’s “genuine” identity.  Zygutis effectively explored the differences in such writings.

The summa cum laude graduate of Paradise Valley (Ariz.) High School enrolled in New College at ASU’s West campus in 2003 because of its “small-college” feel.

“New College and the West campus offered a smaller, more personalized academic experience,” she says, adding, “I was able to get a degree from a major university, while benefitting from the closeness of a small college.  New College offered me the chance to develop my own interests beyond just what was available in the classroom.

“Not just at West, but during my time as a graduate student on the Tempe campus, teachers have gone above and beyond their jobs as professors to mentor me over the last six years.”

While Zygutis is excited to get her doctoral pursuit under way, Brian Reed, director of graduate studies in UW’s Department of English is ecstatic to get the ASU plum.

“One of our areas of strength is the study of Anglo-American modernism,” says Reed.  “Linda is already an expert in the field, and we look forward not only to having her in our graduate seminars, but also eventually to having her teach in the classroom, where she can share her knowledge and talents with a new generation of students.

“She is simply a superb writer, a first-rate literary critic.”

Reed points to the writing sample Zygutis submitted to UW, a modified version of her M.A. thesis.

“Linda’s work is both highly complex and eminently readable,” says Reed.  “She has a strong sense of voice and is not writing for a small in-group of scholars: she is writing both for specialists and a broader audience.”

In addition to her #1 ranking in UW’s incoming English doctoral class, Zygutis will receive a one-year university fellowship and three years of teaching support.

Zygutis, who says she will miss the relationships she fostered with ASU faculty, mentors and fellow students, picked Washington based on the strength of its 20th-century American literature program.  She says the university and eventually her Ph.D. in English literature will help her continue to track a career in higher education.

“Ultimately, I’d like to take my degree and become a professor, a goal that became clear for me while I was studying in New College.  The first time I considered graduate school as a possibility was in a class with Dr. (Eric) Wertheimer,” she says, referring to the New College professor who taught her as both an undergraduate and graduate student.

“He was the first to encourage the idea and, for that I owe quite a bit to New College and the West campus for helping me to define my aspirations and help me to achieve them.”