Retiring professor discusses his 22 years at FMU
April 14, 2011
Dr. Ken Autrey will be retiring at the end of the current spring semester after 22 years of teaching English at Francis Marion University.
“I’ve been lucky to have been able to teach in a variety of situations, but this has been the best professional experience of my life,” Autrey said.
However, Autrey said that he never thought he would stay at FMU as long as he has.
“When I interviewed for the job, I was impressed with what I saw and learned here,” Autrey said. “Still, I thought I would stay until my daughters graduated then go somewhere else.”
He said that one year turned into the next and that one turned into yet another year.
“I loved it here, so why would I want to leave?” Autrey said.
Autrey teaches poetry at introductory and advanced levels, as well as advanced composition for students on the education track and literary nonfiction. He said poetry is one of his favorite classes to teach and his favorite thing to write.
This year Autrey had a book of his own poetry published called “Pilgrims.” He has also had poetry published in “Atlanta Review,” “Chattahoochee Review,” “Cimarron Review,” “Poetry Northwest,” “South Carolina Review” and “Southern Poetry Review” among several other media outlets.
Autrey has also contributed articles and chapters in books about how to teach writing and how to use journals as a teaching tool. He also offered advice for writers trying to get their work published.
“Write something that’s really good,” Autrey said.
Despite all of his success in writing and educating, teaching was the last thing Autrey wanted to do.
“When I majored in English, I didn’t know what I wanted to, but I knew I didn’t want to teach,” Autrey said.
After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina, Autrey joined the Peace Corps. He said since he majored in English, they thought that meant he could teach it. So, for two years Autrey taught high school English in Ghana, Africa, and that is when he discovered teaching was something he really enjoyed doing. He moved to Syracuse, N.Y. where he taught seventh grade for two years.
“It was in a troubled community,” Autrey said. “There was a lot of tension and interpersonal challenges to face in the school.”
He said that his second year was easier but still very stressful. Autrey decided to move back to Auburn and work towards his Master of Arts degree in English at Auburn University. After he received his master’s, Autrey moved back to New York where he taught middle school close to Rochester. However, after only five years, he was headed back down south to Jackson, Miss.
“Looking back it was either crazy or gutsy,” Autrey said. “I had no job and two kids to support.”
Luckily, it was not long before he got a job teaching at Tugaloo College, an instituation smaller than FMU. Here, Autrey said that he developed an interest in teaching people how to write.
“I wanted to help people communicate,” Autrey said.
This realization took him to the University of South Carolina to get his Ph.D. in writing. There he was able to seize the opportunity to study with James Dickie, an internationally respected poet.
“This got me started writing poetry,” Autrey said.
He stayed at USC for a few years where he got interested in how computers would play a role in writing and everyday life.
“Most students would come in never having used a computer,” Autrey said.
Autrey managed the computer room at USC and taught several courses, and he was also the director of the Center for Computers and Writing.
USC was the last step before Autrey ended up at FMU in 1989. He did take a one year hiatus from 1996 to 1997 to take a visiting professor job teaching English in Hiroshima, Japan.
“It was a good time in my life as a teacher to take time off and do something different,” Autrey said. “It was one of the most interesting and fulfilling teaching experiences I ever had.”
Autrey said it is good to “try things and take chances that you haven’t thought about taking.”
He gives this same kind of advice to his students at FMU, and he said he will miss them as well as his colleagues and the campus itself. He has plenty of people who will miss him as well.
Josh Knight, a senior and dual English and French major at FMU, noticed what most of Autrey’s students noticed about him.
“Dr. Autrey is an excellent professor,” Knight said. “He truly cares about his students inside and outside of class.”
Caroline Jowers, a senior majoring in elementary education, had only praise for Autrey as well.
“Dr. Autrey has always been a huge resource for me as I progressed through the elementary education program,” Jowers said. “I know if I ever had a question or concern about any class outside of Advanced Composition for Teachers and English 112, he would help me out. I’m glad that I have had him as a professor because I developed stronger writing skills as a result of his class. He will definitely be missed at Francis Marion.”
Dr. Christopher Johnson, Professor of English and Chair of the English Department, thinks as highly of Autrey as his students do.
“For more than 20 years, Professor Autrey has had a shaping influence on the English program,” Johnson said. “He is a gifted teacher, a tremendous poet and scholar, and a great friend to all who know him. Ken brings to every aspect of his work tireless enthusiasm and curiosity. He is the perfect model of a life-long learner, someone who reminds students and colleagues alike that each day provides new opportunities for discovery and adventure.”
Despite the goodbyes, Autrey is looking forward to moving back to his hometown of Auburn, Ala. and having more free time to spend traveling and writing.
“My wife and I have a lot of plans, and now we both have the flexibility to pursue them,” Autrey said.
Autrey’s wife retired at the beginning of January this year, and they plan to take a trip to Spain in the fall to celebrate both retirements. He will also have more time to visit his two daughters and six grandchildren.
When asked what type of legacy he hoped to leave behind, Autrey had yet another sensible answer of a well-educated man.
“You never know what your legacy is going to be,” Autrey said. “That’s for other people to decide.”
“Any teacher always hopes that their legacy will be that in some way they have positively influenced students they have taught and helped them in some way to discover the aspects of themselves that they didn’t know about,” Autrey said.
“I hope I’ve made a positive difference at this university,” Autrey said. “It has certainly made a positive difference to me.”