Q&A with new Department Chair Professor Anja Wanner

Professor Anja Wanner (left) and Chris Logterman (right)

Q: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

A: I am one of the linguists in the department, a syntactician by training. I study the structure of the English language and how language changes over time. I am also interested in people’s perception of language. For example, many people think that the internet is the ruin of the English language, when actually electronic media are enriching our vocabulary and grammar. (If that’s a topic you’re interested in, check out my recommendation on our holiday book list.) On the other hand, some rather drastic changes are not really felt by most speakers. For example, over the course of the past 30 years, the use of the modal verb ‘must’ has receded by over 30%. For all practical purposes, ‘must’ is on the way of being replaced by the more complex form ‘have to.’ Why is this happening?

Q: What makes you excited about being chair of the English Department?

A: The English Department is an incredibly exciting hub for studying language and literature and is, in effect, the university’s center for teaching writing and the engagement with texts. Not only do we teach classes on Shakespeare, Whitman, and Woolf, we offer classes in which students examine how writing and rhetoric can be used for the public good, or classes in which students can explore literature as a way to reflect about health and illness. Students inclined to seek employment in the health sciences can also learn how to design experiments on language acquisition. We are the campus’s main partner in offering “FIGs”, small classes for first-year students, which are a crucial tool in making new students feel welcome. And let’s not forget the Writing Center, which serves all corners of campus with workshops on designing effective writing assignments, and the English as a Second Language program, which serves the international campus community. However, I wouldn’t get excited about these numbers if they weren’t paired with superbly talented and committed faculty, staff, and students. Our faculty and staff win research and teaching awards, are sought after mentors, take on leadership positions across campus and in the profession, and constantly seek to offer the best learning environment for our students, including new digital programs. And our students start successful careers as writers, educators, policy makers, community organizers, and engaged citizens across the world.

Q: What are your priorities as chair?

A: Our main goal is to maintain excellence, which is inextricably linked to providing a welcoming and inclusive environment for students, staff, and faculty from different backgrounds. I am very grateful to our new advisor, Chris Logterman, who is continuing our efforts to establish peer mentoring groups for first generation students, students of color, and students from other underrepresented minorities. A second goal is to continue building strong partnerships across campus and beyond to ensure our that English is a major player for providing a learning environment that emphasizes “intellectual confidence, relentless curiosity, empathy and humility, and purposeful action,” also known as the  Wisconsin Experience. We’re highlighting some of these initiatives in our newsletter.

Q: Do you have a message for alumni?

A: We are thrilled and grateful to have so many engaged alumni! Alumni have provided internships for our students or have taken on individual mentoring. Sometimes, all it takes is looking over a student’s resume from the perspective of an outside person or having a candid conversation about career opportunities for English majors. Our alumni have successful careers as writers, editors, teachers, headhunters, lawyers, policy analysts, event planners, community organizers – they tell us that the ability to articulate different points of view, to see a story where other see just data, and to communicate clearly and persuasively is something that makes a degree in English very valuable in a world that relies on words and texts to connect us all. Alumni are providing funding for faculty and student travel, for student clubs, and for fellowships and writing awards. Gifts of all sizes contribute to our success.  This past spring, many alumni supported us on the Day of the Badger. Look for a gift match initiative next year! Our Board of Visitors continues to be an important partner in strategic hiring and faculty and staff development. You can read more about the Board’s work in our profile of Board Member Emily Brix in our newsletter. We have recently redesigned our platform on the professional networking site LinkedIn. We now have a Department page, which you can follow for department news, and a group page, where current students, alumni, and potential employers can network.

Q: On the lighter side, as a linguist and English professor, do you have a favorite English word?

A: Many! One of them is ‘serendipity’. Not only does the word express a beautiful concept, a happy and unexpected discovery, it also has an interesting etymology. 18th century author Horace Walpole formed the noun after the title of a fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (a Persian word for Sri Lanka), who were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of”. I look forward to making many such discoveries in my position as chair!