This month’s Student of the Month is Sheffield Spence. Sheffield is a senior English major with a Gender Studies minor from North Little Rock, Arkansas. Sheffield is currently an English intern under the direction of Dr. Jaime Harker, who recently opened a bookstore in Water Valley, where Sheffield spends most of her internship working.
Malerie: Tell me about the internship.
Sheffield Spence: I had worked with the Gender Studies department previously, so I had an internship with the Sarah Isom Center. I got close with Dr. Harker, Dr. Starkey, and Kevin Cozart, and the more I worked with them, we just really gelled together well. Then when Dr. Harker decided to open up the bookstore, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, let me get in on that!’ So we came up with a plan of letting me… [take it as] an English major internship. So this is counting as an English internship, and I am getting credit for it…which is kinda cool.
M: Talk to me a bit about your experience as an English major. What got you involved in English? What made you decide that this was the thing you wanted to pursue?
SS: As a kid you couldn’t get me out of a book. I constantly had my nose in a book, that was all I wanted to write about. I loved just taking literature and then finding something interesting about it that I can apply myself to. As I got into middle and high school, I started diving really deeply into feminist protagonists, feminist examples, ways that we can turn it so that we can find intersectionality in a lot of different things. So I got more interested in that, and I was like ‘There’s got to be a way for me to do this for the rest of my life.’ So I went to college I was like ‘I’m going to be an English major. This is what I’m good at. This is what I scored the best on tests.’ With my teachers in high school, you would catch me in the library with them just having a coffee and talking about the books we read, and I was like ‘I can make a career out of this.’ If I could do that and become a professor and be kind the person that gets to like teach this for the rest of their life, that sounds great.
M: Talk to me a little bit more about the bookstore — what’s your job there? What do you do? What is the bookstore known for?
SS: Violet Valley bookstore is a queer feminist bookstore in Water Valley, and so what I do is not only do I help with taking books in from donations, pricing them, putting them on the shelves and that kind of thing, my job also is to interact with our customers and really make them feel comfortable. The thought of having a queer feminist bookstore in Mississippi can kind of seem daunting to people, so in a lot of ways, I am the person that makes people feel like they can come in and read and get information and get a better understanding of queer feminism in the South. This [bookstore] wass something that a lot of Mississippians were not too pleased about. This was something that a lot of people were like ‘Oh, I’m not sure if this is okay or not.’ But what I do is obviously managing, helping with the bookstore, helping people find books — that’s one of my favorite things to do. People will come in and say ‘Okay I need a recommendation for some, like, feminist something, like an autobiography.’ So I can say ‘Okay we’ve got Toni Morrison. We have tons of different queer comic books. We have queer newsletters.’ We have a very very wide array of different books, articles, publications that you can come in, and it’s just a conglomeration. You can find anything there. We even have children’s books. There’s something for everybody in the bookstore. It’s just sometimes I think people are like ‘I don’t know if I can step through the threshold there’ but the people who work there, we kind of serve as the comforters almost like ‘You can come in. It’s okay. We don’t bite. We’re just accepting of everyone, and here’s books.’ It’s really fun. I really enjoy it.
M: So you mentioned your amazing relationship with all these professors who teach English and Gender Studies, can you tell me a little bit more about them?
SS: They are some of the most supportive people I have found at the university. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be president of the feminist majority foundation. They were the ones that believed in me that said ‘Shef, you can do this. You can really make a change on this campus. You can be a part of something bigger than yourself.’ They have a lot of faith in me, put a lot of projects on me… Sometimes it’s a little overwhelming, but at the same time it feels great knowing that they trust me so much and that they think of me in a way that I’ll get the job done… It just feels nice knowing that there is a place on campus where you can be understood and talk about these kind of ideas of gender and sexuality and how they relate. It’s just a great place for you to really open up your mind to ideas, and they’re just so knowledgeable about it. Taking classes with them has also been just a real joy. It’s just been crazy how intelligent they all are. They’re so supportive and really help you think deeper about concepts of gender and sexuality, and they’re your backbone. They are here for you.”
M: So after four years of being an English major here, you’ve definitely had a lot of different experiences with the classes being offered. Can you tell me your favorite English class you ever took and why?
SS: I would have to say Dr. Harker’s Queer Theory class. I took that last year, and that really solidified what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I knew I wanted to do something with literature, but what about literature? I mean you can say that you’re going to be a literature professor, but you’ve got to have some kind of niche or something that sets you apart from other people that are trying to get into graduate programs for the same thing. So, when I took [Dr. Harker’s] Queer Theory class, I found feminist theory, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this is really what I need to be doing.’ I’ve been a feminist since I was in utero and finding a way to use feminist theory in literature and finding a way to bring it into things that we’re reading has opened my mind to so many different possibilities when it comes to literature. You can find feminism everywhere. You just have to find the right theory, and you just have to apply it. Once I took her class, I really had a foundation for what I wanted to do for the rest of my life of being a professor and writing, teaching, thinking about theory and queer theory and the ways that it intersects with our everyday life and the literature that we read. I think that’s why it was probably my favorite, because it just opened me up to so many possibilities.”
M: Last question — if you could give a statement of inspiration or one piece of advice to an incoming freshman who wants to major in English, wants to take on literature seriously, what would you say? What do you wish someone had told freshman English major you?
SS: Develop close relationships with your professors. Everyone in the English department has just opened their arms to me in so many different ways. The professors want to see you succeed, so the more that you can get acquainted with these professors, I think the better you understand what they’re trying to teach you, their theories. I think it pans out better for you in the end. Also, take classes that you know you’ll be interested in because one of the things that I did was, for a little bit, I thought I was wanting to go into more of a marketing job. I was afraid that being an English major wouldn’t market me well, but by being an English major, I have gotten so many opportunities like working at the bookstore and working in the Sarah Isom Center. Don’t let those people that tell you ‘Oh well you’re an English major, what are you going to do with that?’ Don’t let that sway you from getting your passion. If English and literature is something that you’re passionate about, don’t let anybody tell you otherwise, because being an English major has been one of the best things I’ve ever done, and getting into this department and meeting all these professors has been one of the most influential things in my entire life. So don’t let anyone tell you not to do it!
Congratulations to Sheffield on her achievements!