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Hard work pays off for professor, PhD student

portrait of woman
December 09, 2013

“One month ago, I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to finish my dissertation,” said Shillanna Sanchez, a doctoral student and professor in the Department of English at Arizona State University.

Now in the early days of December, she has not only completed it, but Sanchez successfully defended the body of work, titled “Teachers, Texts, and Transactions: Towards a Pedagogy for Teaching Literature.” The journey to this accomplishment was a long one, filled with lessons, joys and surprises that have made her the person she is today.

Sanchez received her bachelor’s degree in literature and master’s degree in psychology from ASU after transferring from Glendale Community College. She jokingly says that she decided to return to the university as a doctoral student because she “needed a hobby.”

“I started as a non-degree seeking graduate student. I took a couple literature courses and absolutely loved it, but didn’t have any intention of teaching,” she said.

After receiving advice from a friend to try it out, Sanchez decided to go out on a limb and teach an English course. The experience changed her life. Nine years later, she is still teaching in the Department of English. Her courses range from beginning composition to British literature, her area of expertise.

Outside of teaching, Sanchez delicately balances being a student and a mom to three girls. She says that compartmentalizing the areas of her life is the only way she is able to keep the peace.

“When I’m with my girls, I can’t focus on what I’m teaching. When I’m teaching or studying, I can’t worry about my girls. I try to be present in the moment and deal with what is in front of me. It’s the only way to not become overwhelmed," she said.

As her defense approached, it became increasingly harder not to obsess about her dissertation. She had focused her research on the pedagogy of teaching literature, which she says is rarely discussed. Her goal was to move beyond the world of talking about themes and motifs, and examine how teachers actually teach literature.

“We assign students to read things and assume they know how to think critically. We overlook that we aren’t teaching these skills before asking students to do the work,” said Sanchez.

With her defense behind her, Sanchez can look forward to having her degree conferred on Dec. 17 in Wells Fargo Arena. She credits her family for helping her complete this journey.

“My friends, family and daughters played such a large part in this degree. They believed in me when I didn’t. They put blood, sweat and tears into this too,” she said.

The Department of English and Department of Psychology are academic units in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.