Professor Tom Winpenny

July 2009. I began emptying the boxes in my new office at Elizabethtown College. I had just moved my family to Elizabethtown and the first order of business was to put my office in order before the school year began. I found a pair of small powered speakers that I packed away with a web of Ethernet and audio cables. If this job was going to go any quicker, I would need some tunes.

I plugged the speakers into my iPhone and dialed up a Metallica playlist. With room now full of guitars and drums I turned my attention to sorting my library of books.

Somewhere between “Sad but True” and “Enter Sandman” I let myself escape for a moment. The door to my office was propped open and I could see the nameplate. It said, “Dr. Matt Skillen.” The ink on my dissertation defense ballot was hardly dry and there it was, in white print on a black piece of plastic. I began to think about how far I had come, how much I had accomplished. Six years earlier I was opening my first classroom at Maize South Middle School. Four years after that I moved to a residency PhD program in a new town and new school relatively close t0, but all together quite different from, my hometown and previous experiences. Then, in 2009 I moved 1,300 miles to a new state to continue my career as a college professor. I had made it.

My escape was disrupted by a subtle knock at the door. Surprised that someone else was in the building I fumbled with my iPhone and pushed pause in the middle of a screaming Kirk Hammett solo.

“Hi.” I said.

My visitor was a tall man with gray curly hair and a mythic mustache. He was wearing cotton athletic shorts, a polo and bright walking shoes. Hands in his pockets, he simply said, “You need to know there is an office above yours. Keep it down.”

And that is how I met Professor Tom Winpenny for the very first time.

I felt a little more than embarrassed, and that is when it hit me. I hadn’t made it anywhere, nor had I really accomplished anything yet.

Throughout my first year at the college I bumped into Tom quite often. I started calling him “Prof” to save time in our greeting becuase he was always off somewhere to do something that sounded refined and academic. I never knew how old Prof was, but I knew he had been at the college for a very long time. Many people I knew in Elizabethtown who had graduated from the college knew him. They had attended his classes and befriended him over the years.

Prof was always kind to me following our first meeting over Metallica. He gave me sound advice on how to talk about my own academic work, and he always encouraged me to think beyond what I know–to find new problems that need answers. When I went up for fourth year review Prof cornered me at the college snack bar and talked to me about my dossier. I tried to explain my most recent, and quite modest, publishing accomplishments as efficiently as possible. When I paused to take a breath he said, “Well, it sounds like you have nothing to worry about.” He was right, just as he was most of the time.

I was shocked, speechless to see an announcement that came out on campus email yesterday that said Tom Winpeeny had passed away. He had retired from the college a few years ago, but it hadn’t really been that long.

The last time I saw Prof was at the Lancaster City Central Market on a busy summer Saturday morning. I saw him there often. On this particular morning my hands were full with my two small children, and I couldn’t make it over to talk. Tom looked as though he was having a stimulating conversation with someone he knew, or someone he just met at market. He gave me a look and a nod from afar. I smiled and waved. That was it.

Though I only knew him for a very short period, my upstairs office neighbor, Professor Tom Winpenny, left a remarkable impression on my life, just as he did for hundreds of people he met and worked with throughout his life.

Rest In Peace, Prof. We miss you.

The Chair Life or #ChairProbs

I kissed my kids this morning as I left for another full day at the office. I love my job. In fact, I can’t tell you how long it has been since I have loved a job more than I love this one. It is a job that occupies my mind almost every minute of the business day, and sometimes beyond. But I love it. It is remarkable.

“Are you going to be at work all day and night today?” My six-year-old asks.

“No, I’ll be home for dinner. But I have a lot of meetings today, so I need to get going.” I said.

“Why do you have so many meetings?” He asked.

“That’s the life of a Department Chair.” I said.

“You’re a Department Chair? How can a person be a chair?” My three-year-old, and very observant, daughter asked.

What a great question.  How does one become a chair?

I know what she was asking, but the question posed in the voice of my three-year-old made me think, “How did I ever end up here?”

From Reluctance to Opporutity

I began my career as a college professor nearly 8 years ago. I was hired as an Assistant Professor of English at Elizabethtown College and six years later I was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure.  Seems straightforward enough. I had set out to become a college professor after a brief four-year stint as a middle school English teacher, followed by a 2-year residency Ph.D. program at the Kansas State University College of Education.

In my pursuit to be a college professor I had but a few goals:

  • develop great classes for students,
  • write things people actually want to read, and
  • contribute to my college community in a meaningful way

You will note that I never set out to be a department chair, hold leadership positions, or seek fame. I didn’t have time for these things I thought, so they weren’t even on my radar.

But shortly after I was awarded tenure and promoted to Associate Professor at Elizabethtown College the topic of when, not if, I were to serve as department chair became a conversation of some concern among me and my colleagues. There was a moment where I felt completely reluctant to even consider the idea. However, I quickly came around to realize this was a remarkable opportunity that I could not pass up.

There is No Training Like On-The-Job Training.

Larger colleges and universities probably send new department chair recruits to conferences and workshops on how to lead an academic department. Moderately-sized colleges might even host a series of meetings on campus to train new department leaders, but that is not part of my experience. And I believe this is the most important aspect of daughter’s question above. How did I become a chair, I just did–without much training or mentorship I assumed the role on July 1, 2016.

I did a fair amount of reading before taking over the department. I read over the most recent external review conducted right before I was hired in 2009. The extensive report written by outside reviewers provided important context. I saw the perceived areas of growth and read the criticisms as potential areas of developement.

I also found Jeff McClurken’s “Open Letter to 2010-2011’s New Department Chairs.” I think what I appreciate the most about Jeff’s letter is that he gives the new department chair a moment to reconnect with her/his/their humanity. At the end of the day, every department chair is only human, and humans make mistakes. Almost nothing that I set out to do will be perfect, though I have committed to do my work in this capacity with pride and keen sense of quality. There is, after all, nothing easy about this job. They take away nearly half of what you love–teaching, and they give you double of what you loathe–meetings. But I have found that I love this work. It is challenging, it is engaging, and it is important.

As the journey continues throughout the year I may look back on this post and think, “Look at that starry-eyed idiot waxing on and on about how his work is engaging and important…” But until I reach that point I’ll simply say this: I have found one becomes a chair when he or she finds (or develops) a passion (or love) for his or her discipline, his or her colleagues, all students involved and the collective work of the entire unit. This has become the fuel that burns every day that I wake up to do my job, and it is the guiding principle behind every decision I make–even the difficult decisions that often keep me up late at night.

Paulo Freire once examined education as “an act of love.”  I believe this is something I need to examine in a future post about becoming a department chair.


Football Trivia

Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders. 

This used to be the answer to my favorite sports trivia question. The question is simply:

Name the two teams in the National Football League who have a football helmet in their logo.

However, I just noticed earlier today that the Miami logo has seen some changes recently.  The new logo keeps the dolphin and the sunburst, but the helmet has been left out. 

Sure, it looks nice, but a great sports trivia question is the casualty in the logo revision. 

Mid-week Writing Prompt: My oldest email

Nearly every Wednesday I invite you to write with me. I’ll post a prompt online and I guarantee I will post 30 minutes of uninterrupted, unedited writing below. Please write with me. If you like, you can even post your response to the prompt in the comments section below.

Prompt: What is the oldest email in your inbox?  What is the story behind it?

The oldest email in my inbox is dated January 7, 2008.  This must have been the year I decided to stop cleaning out my inbox every week. There was a time when I thought that if an email did not warrant a response, it didn’t need to be kept. I have nearly 20,000 emails saved in my gmail inbox now and this email, the very oldest one in the inbox appears boring at first, but it represents the beginning of a completely new way of looking at things for me.

The email in question is quite simple. It is a message sent to me by Dr. Todd Goodson, my major advisor during my doctoral program at Kansas State University. The email has no content. Its subject is simply “proposal.” And the contents is a draft of a presentation proposal he submitted to NCTE in 2007. I was sitting in Todd’s office on January 7, 2008 with the task of writing my own proposal to appear in the 2008 NCTE Annual Convention in San Antonio, TX. And I imagine Todd called me in to show me how to craft a successful proposal.

It was somewhat important for me to at least propose a session at the 2008 annual convention. I had committed to a full residency PhD program at the Kansas State University College of Education. While I had presented a state conferences in the past, I had not yet presented at the national level.  Heck, I had just attended my first national conference two months prior to this meeting in Todd’s office, so the whole scene was still relatively new to me. But in his own way Dr. Goodson knew how to pull the very best out of his students, and with his guidance I submitted what would ultimately be an accepted proposal.

I don’t remember much about the presentation I made in San Antonio in November 2008. I know I brought together a number of panelists who all talked about visual responses to literature. Our presentation went well–at least that was my interpretation. But years later I am beginning to see how important it was for me to be in San Antonio that year for the convention.

While attending and presenting at the San Antonio convention I interviewed for a job at Elizabethtown College. Becky Olson, a member of the English faculty, and a member of the search committee for a position that had just opened up in English: Secondary Education, met me in a hotel board room to talk about the college and its programming. I enjoyed our conversation very much, but I left thinking “this is too good to be true.” I never thought I would hear back from Elizabethtown. But, as it turns out, about one year after the oldest email in my inbox was sent I was on a plane heading to PA on a chilly day in January to hold my on-campus interview. To this day I still think it is wild that I wound up in Central PA, but I absolutely love it.

In San Antonio I also had a moment where I knew I may be completely over my head. One well-known event at the NCTE annual convention is the Ramon Veal Research Roundtable forum where emerging academics bring their research for review and commentary by more seasoned academics. In preparation for my appearance at the forum, I submitted a brief summary of my intended dissertation questions and a project outline. I felt pretty good about my trajectory at this point, but I had several questions on how to get to the types of questions that could lead to a better final product. It didn’t go well. For the rest of the story you are welcome to contact Dr. Chris Goering c/o Arkansas State University. When you do, ask him to tell you how my veal was cooked in 2008.

After this nearly successful venture into the NCTE scene in 2008 I have gone on to serve in a couple of leadership roles with NCTE, and I have become far more connected to this organization and its operations. I have served on the Executive Committee and I have led the Middle Level Section. I have appeared in two NCTE journals and I have advocated on NCTE’s behalf on Capitol Hill. It all started with an invitation (demand) from my major advisor to submit a proposal to speak at a convention, and an email he sent with a sample proposal for me to reference when writing one for the very first time.

That is what I see in the oldest email in my inbox.

Mid-week Writing Prompt: Atlantic City

The mid-week writing prompt series invites readers to infuse writing in their daily/weekly routines. On each writing prompt post I share a photo and promise to write for 30 minutes straight. My unedited response to the prompt is posted below. I invite you to share your response in the comments section that follows. Enjoy!

Atlantic City

When I look at this photo I try to avoid the words and only look at the image. It is difficult to do so, because even as I look at the image now to write this response I am drawn to the washed out yellow letters. “Atlantic City” it says. “America’s Great All Year Resort.”

I have never been to Atlantic City; I ever been to Las Vegas. The appeal is there for a mid-thirties male. I can imagine me taking either city by storm for about 12 hours straight. Crashing hard on a hotel bed, waking up the next day and leaving just as quickly as I arrived. I don’t have the stamina for either city, but I can see myself potentially enjoying the excitement of a resort city for a short burst of time.

This photo attempts to communicate a sense of elegance in Atlantic City. Perhaps it is an elegant place. There is an attraction to run to its hotels and casinos and simply escape for bit. To be someone else somewhere else where no one knows you. In the small town that I live in I feel like I can’t ever go into a grocery store without being noticed by someone from church or work. There is a comfort and annoyance in this fact. Comfort in the absence of loneliness. Annoyance in that sometimes you just want to be a tourist–away from everyone familiar.

When I relocated in to PA in 2009 there was a period of about six to eight months where absolutely no one knew who I was. It was magical. My wife and I could go out to eat, go out for a movie, visit the grocery store and we were the only ones who knew we were there. Everyone was a stranger; no one was familiar. Seven years later this is no longer the case, but that is OK too. We have found a comfort in our new hometown and we are happy to be connected once again.

I visited Wichita in June. This is a city that I grew up in. I lived there for many, many years. I still know hundreds of people who live there. But this last trip in June felt very different. We moved away from Wichita nearly ten years ago. The scenery has changed. The city has changed too.

I can remember walking down the aisles of a local grocery store filling up a cart with food for my family in June. I walked right by someone I used to know when I lived in Wichita. I made eye contact, gave him a passing nod. He looked right past me and kept walking. In that moment I knew that I was no longer from this place. I had become a tourist in my own home city and all of the sudden the vacation home felt a little exhilarating.

The picture above shows a man and a woman dressed in formal gear looking over a city of possibilities and excitement. I didn’t have a tuxedo on that night at the grocery store, though I should have. This was a remarkable milestone in my life that probably deserved a little celebration. I had finally broke free from who I once was. I am now someone different; so different that an old acquaintance didn’t even recognize me.  This is how I have chosen think about it anyway.

Mid-week Writing Prompt #3

Another Wednesday, another prompt.

In a writing prompt series on my blog I am inviting readers and followers to write with me. I’ll post a new visual prompt in each post and I guarantee to write about the picture or video for 30 minutes in this post. These are my unedited responses to the prompt.

Woman with Flowers

I haven’t sent my wife roses in a long time. I don’t know why. She deserves flowers–a symbolic gesture that says,”Thank you for all you do.”

Ordering a bouquet is a petty simple affair these days. With a point and click of the mouse, or a touch and swipe on an iPhone, I can have a dozen, relatively fresh cut, roses sent to anyone in the world. The question isn’t whether I can do it or not. What I wonder now as I look at this photo is why I haven’t. So, while I ponder that very uncomfortable question, I’ll return to the photo.

I am struck by how the female figure in this photo holds the flowers. These aren’t flowers she has received, they are flowers she wants to be consumed and surrounded by. She is clutching them close to her body, like she may hold a small child. For the longest time I have looked at this image in my stack of postcards and thought, “love.” As I look closer at this image, however, I think I see something more. Love + what? Mourning? Longing? Loneliness?


The color in her face might suggest that it is Love and Happiness. The soft pink glow that resonates from her cheeks is calming to some degree, and her posture is relaxed. Yes, there is something more here than just love, and what a portrait of the human experience, right? We are not monolithic beings. Our emotions overlap and our experience is richer because of it. We see, experience, feel, taste and listen in layers. And I think we owe it to ourselves to own this aspect of life. We can be transformed by a bouquet of roses, a song on the radio, a movie. Our simple feelings become complex in these instances and we may, at first, feel vulnerable and overwhelmed all at once. We may not know how we feel or why we feel this way. We are lost, for a moment, in our emotions as we attempt to sort ourselves out. In this moment of free fall and confusion–this is where we are swept away to an ultimately lasting and potentially life changing experience. Knowing this is one thing. Seeing it happen to others is another thing. Recognizing it about ourselves can be transformational.

This reminds me of an experience I had last week when I saw The Blackeyed Peas’ revision of #wheresthelove. I should devote a series of posts to this revision because seeing this slowed down and repurposed version of what used to be a feel-good party tune absolutely stopped me dead in my tracks. It forced me to look seriously at myself.

Sometimes flowers are just flowers. Other times, however, they can mean so much more.

Mid-week Writing Prompt #2

Here we are once again, dear reader–looking at another opportunity to write. This week’s writing prompt, like last week’s, is based on an image–a postcard from the large stack in my office.

I promise to write for 30 minutes. I challenge you to do the same. For those so brave, you are invited to add your thoughts to the comments section below. Good luck!

Old Typewriter

I looked through a box of old high school writing projects I have kept with me since leaving Maize High School. The folders include a journal project that I completed in the voice of Atticus Finch while reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a short story that I wrote my sophomore year about a confused professional athlete, and a collection of poems that transcribed my freshman year. I was fourteen, maybe fifteen at the time and I remember my English teacher, Mrs. Reynolds–a dear woman, awarded extra credit on final drafts of major projects if they were typed. I asked my mom if we had a typewriter. She found an old Brother electric typewriter in the attic and fired it up.

Half of the poems in my 9th grade poetry project were transcribed from the books of poetry I could find around the house: T.S. Elliott’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and a comprehensive collection of Robert Frost. I remember distinctly the sounds the typewriter made when I wrote my own poetry compared to the sounds it made when I was transcribing the work of these literary giants. Upon typing one of my poems the clap and strike of the keys would be tentative, slow and exhaustive. As if the words were running through my empty consciousness trying to get out. Lost, with little direction, they ultimately made it on to the page. As I read these poems, I know I wrote them, but I do not recognize the voice behind them. That person was a little lost himself, angry at times, searching for an anchor to hold onto in the wet, windy storm of high school.

When re-typing the lines from Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer the clap and click of the keys resonated from desk and down the vacant hallway:

Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians,
Tight-rope walkers and acrobats
They had an extensive reputation.

The words, as I read them now jump of the page, and bounce off the boundaries of my soul.

I once read that Hunter S. Thompson would retype the pages of Hemingway or Fitzgerald. He said that retyping these books was similar to a concert pianist sitting down to play Bach or Beethoven. These books were complete symphonies that deserved to be typed again and again. Retyping these words gave him a sense of what it felt like to write a true masterpiece. I tried doing this once with my laptop computer and a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. It was a riveting experience, but I imagine it would have been ethereal to have attempted this on a manual typewriter as Thompson would have done it.

Two years ago I tried to use a typewriter again. I noticed that I still loved the sound an old electronic typewriter makes, but I also observed after only 30 minutes of writing that my hands had grown accustomed to the new, softer keyboards. The physical activity of typing on a typewriter is far more involved than that of this computer I am writing on right now. And for all of the advancements of speed and comfort the modern computer offers, nothing, and I mean nothing, compares to hearing words physically resonate off of empty walls as they are plunked and clunked into existence.

Mid-week Writing Prompt 1

Need some help getting started with your daily writing? This is your invitation to write with me today. Use the image below to inspire you tell a story, write a poem, a letter, a journal entry.

During the Mid-week Writing Prompt Series I will commit to writing for 30 minutes on each visual prompt. I challenge you to write as long as you can. If you are so inclined, comment on the mid-week writing prompt posts and share your writing with our small community on this blog. I hope there is no pressure to post, though. I only aim to inspire you to write.

Couple at Fireplace

This picture has a lot going on. Certainly we see the couple and their loving embrace. You can see how much the woman in this picture is leaning in for the kiss. This kiss certainly means a lot to her. The man has his arm firmly around her neck and back. Their relationship is clear to read. We have seen similar illustrations of love and affection. Perhaps some of us have been lucky enough to experience this kind of love and connectedness.

Framing the couple is this warm and vibrant fireplace and mantel. There is, indeed, a bright, warm feeling about this photo. What stands out to me every time I read this picture is the clock on the mantel. It reads approximately 12:25. Now, for the sake of my own imagination I am going to assume the clock reads 12:25 AM, because this makes the story in this photo far more interesting doesn’t it?  All of the sudden the intrigue behind this embrace, this kiss, is amplified when we put it in the context of a late night embrace, an after-midnight kiss.

In the dawn of my relationship with Rebekah, now my wife of nearly 15 years, I can clearly remember the exhilaration that absolutely consumed us while we were, perhaps recreating the scene in this photo. Each kiss lasting a millisecond and an eternity all at once. We began dating when Rebekah was still a senior in high school. She came from a family that imposed a strict curfew of midnight on the weekends, and I can remember many Friday and Saturday nights where I wished I could stop time for just one minute more before saying goodnight for good. When I look at this picture, and I assume it is the middle of the night, it is clear to me that time is irrelevant. The couple are suspended in eachother’s arms. No worries, no cares. And isn’t that an amazing thing about love? When we are in love time doesn’t matter. Everything moves quickly, often without us taking notice. When we fall out of love time stands still, we are stuck, immovable for a while.

It has been fifteen years since my wife and I were married and truly set out to forge a life together. That doesn’t seem that long ago, but it seems like a lifetime ago. We were young, immature. But we were madly in love (and we still are). Our inexperience matched with our tenacity helped us blaze a path on an amazing journey that has, to date, led us 1,300 miles from our first home to a new life and new home in Central PA. Did I know 15 years ago that we would be here today? No. And that is what makes every day so exciting.

Repurposed Books


I was in a meeting at the library the other day. This particular meeting was held in a boardroom setting and one participant was joing us via WebEX. A laptop was set up at the end of the long boardroom table so that she could see everyone else seated around the table in the room. To get a good angle from the webcam on the laptop the meeting facilitator used a large, outdated reference book as a computer stand to prop the laptop up to the appropriate height. 
I didn’t take a picture of the setup, but I wish I had. As I left the meeting, it struck me that this would make an excellent book idea. I would love to bring together a book of photographs that illustrate how books are repurposed in libraries. You see, on one level there is the sanctity of books that all libraries should promote. Libraries are our storehouses of knowledge. And that knowledge is kept in books. I once heard Gary Paulsen, the renowned author, once say of libraries that “Humans are the first species in the history of the world to store their knowledge and share it with the next generation.” So, each book is a contribution to that knowledge base and each book should be revered as such in a library, right? 

Well, that may be the view of a non-librarian, but on another level I imagine in the heat of a moment when one needs a doorstop, a paperweight, a tire chock, or a laptop stand, he or she might begin to look for the most readily available resource in his or her surroundings. In a library, that might be outdated books.

Now, I am one of those types of people who can not help but stop and rummage through a box of books dumped in the hallway of an academic building with a “free” sign posted above. I will comb through and look for a gem that I will later add to my own library in my office. I am a book addict. I can’t imagine a book of any sort ever loosing its value or utility. But I also know that when I need a quick reference I am automatically searching for information first online. So what do we do with books when they no longer serve as a relevant resource?

How should books be repurposed?

The Agent Teacher

Kara Newhouse posted a story this morning on with the headline “District Attorney: Refugee students aren’t getting academic help because they ‘aren’t asking for it'”

The article brings readers up to speed on a lawsuit that has been filed by six refugee students in the Lancaster (PA) School District that claims the school district has unnecessarily denied the platiffs a “meaningful and equal education” each is entitled to under the law.

All six students are enrolled at the Phoenix Academy. I don’t know anything about this school, but I am going to do some research on this matter. Newhouse’s article states that the platiffs’ spokesperson claims the Phoenix Academy is an alternative school for students between 17 and 21 years of age who have not succeeded in the traditional high school in the district. In short, the refugee students a were admitted to an alternative school without first attending the “regular high school” that has a fully funded linguistic and cultural support program.  Why? I don’t know, but I am going to find out.

This leads me to something very important I need to share with all of those new teachers opening their classrooms for the first time this year. Please do not forget that you are an agent for your students. Yes, you are an employee of a school district, but you are also charged with the care of the greatest resource your community has–its children. 

As this latest case out of Lancaster shows, school districts are not always going to be quick to provide support for its students. Support is expensive, and school administrators often complicate things when they see numbers instead of individuals. Teaching is a humane profession that deals directly with human beings. Never lose sight of this. 

If a district is going to require students to ask for support before they can receive it, teach your students how to ask. Tell them and their parents who they need to speak to. And, if necessary, speak on their behalf.