Profile: Donald Shaffer
When Donald Shaffer was 10 years old, his mother gave him two books. A collection of stories by Mark Twain and another by Edgar Allen Poe were his first introductions to long works of literature.
The assistant professor who has a joint appointment in the English department and the interdisciplinary African American studies program still keeps the Mark Twain book on his office shelf. But the works of literature he has pored over since are countless.
Dark themes can be found throughout much of the Southern and African American literature he has studied, but so too are the underlying themes of optimism, he said.
Shaffer said he came to appreciate the messages of social justice and the cultural critiques which literature often conveys. While his love of literature ignited during childhood, it wasn't until college that he approached literature critically.
Shaffer, who considered law school, enrolled in the English program at Jackson State University. During his sophomore year, he had an opportunity to participate in a summer fellowship at the University of Chicago with well-known English scholar and cultural critic Gerald Graff. The experience solidified his love for the scholarly pursuit of literature, and he developed a mentoring relationship with Graff. Upon graduating with honors from JSU, Shaffer went to the University of Illinois at Chicago for his master's degree before he earned his doctoral degree from the University of Chicago.
"I learned very quickly that graduate studies and the discipline of literary studies is a contentious field in which you enter into a dialogue. You have to locate yourself within that conversation and find your own critical voice and perspective," Shaffer explained.
"When you establish your voice, it is liberating. You find that you can make a contribution to the field of study, and hopefully as a scholar that's something that never stops. You're also continually changing your perspective, revising your previous positions and pursuing truth," he said.
Critical thinking and writing to convey a sound argument are skills he loves to encourage in his own students at MSU.
"I never try to program students to think in a certain way. What I want to do is empower them to think for themselves," Shaffer said.Writer: Allison Matthews | Photo: Beth Wynn
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