Practical magic: ASU grad revels in service to peers, community
Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for fall 2019 commencement.
Graduating Arizona State University student Meghan Nestel might study heavenly texts, but in everyday life her feet are firmly planted on Earth.
The Sandy, Utah, native is earning a PhD in English (literature) this December after defending her dissertation, “Revelations to Others in Medieval Hagiographical and Visionary Texts,” on Nov. 4. The defense was a culmination of years of research — research supported by the George and Collice Portnoff Endowed Fellowship in Comparative Literature and several grants from the Department of English, the Graduate and Professional Student Association, the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and the Graduate College — into mystical and spiritual experiences of medieval people. While those experiences were documented in various source texts, Nestel struggled to find information about a more immediate concern to her own life: her ASU teaching assistantship.
Nestel, who also earned her Master of Arts in English at ASU in 2015, had so many practical questions — "What should I ask students to call me? What do I wear to teach? How do I resolve classroom conflict?" — and no ideas where to find the answers. She surmised that others might need the same kind of help.
So, Nestel created Diary of a New TA, an online project housed at the ASU Graduate College that serves as a resource for students like her. The diary offers “practical advice, tips and techniques gathered from new and experienced TAs” in a chatty blog format. Nestel did most of the legwork but collaborated with a team to bring the project to fruition.
Described by mentors as “devoted to service to the community and to students,” Nestel was also a founding member of the ASU Graduate Women’s Association. Although the organization works on issues often faced by women, it believes that by fostering an ASU community “that supports equal academic and professional success for all sexes and genders,” everyone wins.
Nestel did learn what she needed to know — and then some — and that ultimately helped shape her research and teaching. “Knowledge comes from understanding,” as an entry in the Diary of a TA intones, “not from being told the answers.”
Just ahead of fall 2019 commencement, we spoke to Nestel about teaching, medievalism and why she’s done with grammar snobbery.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?
Answer: Middle school history classes are where I first thought about being a teacher. This goal developed with me: In middle school, I wanted to teach middle school classes; in high school, I wanted to teach high school history; and then as I took college courses, I realized I would most like to teach in a postsecondary setting. My first year of college is also when I found I couldn't give up studying literature in favor of history. For me, the two fields are deeply connected; I could not read historical texts without thinking about their use of language, about how they told their stories and conveyed information. I double majored in English and history for my BA and then choose literature as my field for graduate school.
My "aha" moment for medieval studies first struck in fourth grade. I wrote a history paper on Eleanor of Aquitaine, a 12th-century queen of France and England, and from that point on I wrote and read about the Middle Ages every chance I got. There was no question this would be my focus in graduate school. My "aha" moment for my graduate research came during a course called "Medieval Holy Women in Context" that I took my first semester at ASU. I was fascinated by a pair of revelations in the “Life of Christina of Markyate” in which men see Christina in spaces where she, as a woman, was not physically permitted. I remember commenting to [then] Professor Rosalynn Voaden that I could write an entire dissertation about these types of revelations … and I did!
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?
A: Grammar is overrated. Yes, I am saying this as I finish my doctorate in English. When I started at ASU, I was a stickler for grammar, both in my own work and that I graded. Then I went through an intensive teaching assistant training course and seminar in which we talked a lot about grammar, social privilege and cultural variance. I started teaching first-year writing courses, where I saw how my students benefited so much more from discussing audience awareness and rhetorical appeals than the correct usage of semicolons. I took a graduate seminar on queer theory, and I thought about the harm caused by insisting on the singular “him/her” rather than embracing the singular “they” as an inclusive pronoun. And I spent years immersed in the study of medieval texts whose meanings we still grasp despite scribal errors or grammatical flubs. Though all of this, I've come to the conclusion that I would much rather read intriguing, well-thought out, well-supported arguments that sport grammatical errors than texts that are grammatically precise but dull or unintelligible.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: During my campus visit, I was warmly welcomed by the medievalists in the Department of English and by the Writing Programs faculty and staff. I wanted to be part of these supportive communities. The variety of opportunities and resources ASU and the Department of English offered, from funding for travel and research to the chance to design and teach your own literature course, also appealed to me. By the end of my visit, I had signed my offer letter.
Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?
A: My chair, Professor Robert Sturges has, through his calm guidance and feedback, taught me to have patience with my research and myself.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: When you start school, you're given a timeline of the required steps for graduation. Your path through school may follow this exactly, or it may take a varied route. It may stop and start, accommodating for jobs and internships and children and caretaking and illnesses and changes in interests and goals. Alternative paths are not failures. They are just different. Your path is your own. Don't let concerns that it doesn't match the "ideal" keep you from enjoying the journey.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: Hayden Library. The cafe area in front was perfect for grabbing a coffee and reading a bit in between classes. There were various study areas, from private carrels to arm chairs next to large windows, for whatever type of study or writing mode I was in at the time. And whenever I needed some inspiration, I found it browsing the stacks. Plus it was open weekends and at 2 a.m.!
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Next semester I will be continuing to teach online composition courses for the Department of English at ASU. I am not sure where I will be headed next year overall, but I want to stay involved in teaching and education. I hope to remain in Salt Lake City, where we currently live, so our children can grow up around our families.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: I would invest the money into programs that help underprivileged persons access education. There are so many problems in this world and so many more to come. When people have access to education, they have access to the knowledge and resources to create solutions and work towards change.