Published alumni find inspiration in liberal arts background

The following feature article appears in the Spring/Summer 2019 issue of Third + Broadway magazine.

Billy Reed’s path seemed clear right out of high school. The future Hall of Fame sports writer already was covering games for two daily newspapers, and he had a journalism scholarship in hand to the University of Kentucky.

Reed instead chose Transylvania University, which didn’t even offer a journalism class at the time. The reason was pretty trivial: It would have been a hassle for him to drive across town from work to UK, not to mention find a place to park. But the impact of his broad-based Transy education was anything but trivial.

Being so busy, Reed wasn’t exactly a great student. But the breadth of what he learned helped him become a great writer. “I did learn a little bit about a lot of things,” says the 1966 graduate.

That’s the result of Transylvania being steeped in the liberal arts tradition, which forces students out of well-worn ruts, helping them make unexpected connections between far-flung subjects. It also develops the whole person through a range of enriching activities — from mentorships to cultivation of self-expression and discovery.

“I became a big believer in the liberal arts,” Reed says. In fact, one of this courtside scribe’s favorite classes at Transy was Philosophy, Religion and Life.

“If you read good sports writers, they will have various allusions — literary allusions, historical allusions,” he says. “It’s because they’ve had that kind of an education too. You can pull something out that you’ve learned and apply it to a current situation.”

He also found a mentor in coaching legend C.M. Newton, who imparted lessons that reverberated throughout Reed’s life and career. “I’ll always remember him saying: ‘Billy, winning is not important unless it’s done the right way.’ That is a mantra that I’ve used in my writing over and over again. He helped me set my standards for journalism.”

Reed recognizes the late coach in his book “Last of a BReed,” a celebration of the golden era of sports journalism published this past November. He hopes the readers will take away “the importance of people along the way who will give you a hand up when you need it, who will mentor you and believe in you if you’re willing to work hard and have a good attitude. We all need those kinds of people. I found a lot of them at Transy.”

Another alum, New York Times bestselling author David Gillham ’79, found inspiration at Transy in political science and history professors such as Don Dugi and Joe Binford. “They not only permitted me to blend my creative work with history, but they encouraged me to do so, and in the process deepened my understanding of my writing and the world’s historical and political pageants,” he says. “I have been writing fiction that blends history and politics ever since.”

Published in January, his novel “Annelies” tells a fictional story of Anne Frank, had she survived the concentration camps. “On a personal level, I suppose, I simply hoped to provide one of my greatest literary heroines with a life that she was cheated of,” Gillham says. “But in a larger sense, I wanted to underscore what Annelies Marie Frank and her work have come to represent to me and to millions of others: hope.”

Writing about Anne Frank was a calling for Gillham, who believes “a liberal education is vital to anyone who dreams of pursuing a writer’s life. It opens your creative process to worlds of thought and experience that expand your heart and soul. A writer can find subject matter to exploit in any of those worlds — not just history, literature and the social sciences, but math and the natural sciences as well.”

Professor of English Maurice Manning, who was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in poetry, incorporates this interdisciplinary approach into his teaching. Recently, themes as diverse as popular culture, psychology, history, creativity and poetic technique came up in a single class period, because they were in the range of thought and inquiry in his students’ poems, he says. “This is what I always find exciting about a liberal arts education. We attempt to write a poem, and upon reflection and analysis, we find the poem is connected to the world we live in and the vast array of intellectual disciplines that capture human curiosity. I like to think that the liberal arts approach inspires curiosity and gives our students the hands-on skills and the outlook necessary to follow that spark and see where it goes.”

Colene Elridge ’05, author of “Monday Morning Pep Talks: Inspiration to Make Your Week Thrive,” also finds inspiration in diverse, real-life experiences — thanks in part to her anthropology major, which forced her to look at things in a new way. “I find inspiration from everything, because I was taught how to observe the world,” she says.

Elridge is a coach and motivational speaker who sends inspirational emails to subscribers every Monday morning. These messages are included in her book, which came out this past October.

“I’m always taking notes about things that have happened during the week — random things I see,” Elridge says. “Sometimes it’s a song lyric or a verse that I’ve read somewhere. I can be at a coffee shop and see something and think: Ooh how can I apply that in a bigger way? Being able to look at the world through this lens gives me an endless amount of material to write the pep talks every week.”

Two other Transy alumnae, Beth Silvers and Sarah Stewart Holland, also help readers discover their better selves.

The 2003 graduates — who hail from different sides of the political spectrum — recently published a book titled “I Think You’re Wrong (But I’m Listening): A Guide to Grace-Filled Political Conversations.” The book is based on their Pantsuit Politics podcasts, which encourage civil, nuanced conservations — as opposed to shouting and insults. They’ve recently made multiple appearances on MSNBC’s Morning Joe and were featured on Bloomberg Radio and in The Atlantic magazine.

Their liberal arts background helps them foster dialogue that is enriched by many viewpoints. “We really try to look at each issue holistically and from a variety of perspectives,” Silvers says. “That to me was the essence of what my education at Transy was about.” Transylvania taught her to “approach everything from an interdisciplinary perspective and understand that everything builds on itself and that you can’t really understand sciences without the arts and vice versa. I feel like that’s the foundation of what Sarah and I do — this kind of blending of things.”

Additionally, Holland sees the liberal arts values of engagement and openness as ways to incorporate politics into our lives. “We hope that people first and foremost see the book as a better way to understand and grow, and through that growing and self-awareness begin to engage with their fellow citizens, their fellow family members, their fellow community members about politics again — not just with people who agree with them,” Holland says. “We really think that the ability to talk politics with one another is essential to the health of our democracy, so we really hope this opens the door to people who have sort of cut politics and political conversations out of their lives.”

Not demonizing others, seeing them as complex human beings, is also a goal of Alice Connor ’99.

Her upcoming book, “How to Human: An Incomplete Manual for Living in a Messed-Up World,” arose from her work as a campus minister at the University of Cincinnati. She hopes readers will take away “a sense of the complexity of human experience and a willingness to engage difficult questions for themselves more.”

To do so requires opening your mind. “We get stuck in boxes a lot — emotional, spiritual or vocational, or sometimes physical even — we don’t see what’s outside of them,” Connor says. Not coincidentally, escaping mental constraints is a main goal of the liberal arts. “My experience at Transy opened up the idea of possibilities for me.”

Despite her book being called a manual, what it asks of us isn’t easy. “Much of the book is about vulnerability and a need to not just be taken seriously ourselves as valuable people, but to take other people seriously.

“To do what I’m asking people to do requires a lot of engagement ourselves. And that’s really hard and unpleasant. It’s also deeply delightful when you give yourself over to something like this. You’re attempting to look at yourself more clearly, and you’re attempting to look at your own patterns and the other people around you and see them as complete and beautiful and beloved human beings.”

Cory Collins ’13 — a senior writer for Teaching Tolerance, an advocacy organization started by the Southern Poverty Law Center — also draws on the complexity of being human in his recently published piece, “The Book of Matthew.” The article and poem is about Matthew Shepard, whose life was taken in an anti-gay hate crime 20 years ago.

Over the years Shepard has become a symbol. Collins, however wanted to portray him not as that, but as a person. “I wanted people to realize he had faults, that his parents recognized he had very human dreams and missteps. I also wanted to tie him into this larger narrative of people who came before and after him. His story was not the first and not the last instance of horrific violence or hate crimes, and I wanted people to reflect on what we could learn from his story and how we should be responding when and if this happens again.”

At Transy, Collins learned that in writing there are always interdisciplinary connections to be drawn. “I could take a class like Sports in Latin America and see how that related to an anthropology class I was taking, and how that related to an English literature course that I was taking. Those interconnected threads are a big part of writing well, because if you don’t have that nuance, your story is missing something. Stories aren’t singular — they don’t come out of nowhere, and there are multiple angles from which to view them.”

Martha Gehringer, professor emeritus of writing, rhetoric and communication, facilitated this cross-fertilization of ideas across academic subjects in part by helping develop a May term art and writing course in Ireland. She also encourages all students — regardless of their area of concentration — to think of themselves as writers.

“You’re really denied something in life if you think you can only write in response to an assignment,” Gehringer says. “There’s just something to be had for the rest of your life from learning to know the role of writing — and not just to work out feelings. It’s an art form, and it’s something that you should know that you can do. You don’t have to be good at it — it’s just part of how you can be human. In my own life it’s been that way.”

Professor Richard Taylor, a former Kentucky poet laureate, says Transylvania graduates tend generally to write well academically. Additionally, the creative writing program flexes their imaginations in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction.

“Courses in these areas give students the chance to draw on the creative intelligence all of us possess but not all of us exercise,” Taylor says. “These experiences are empowering. These students leave with a sense that creativity is not just the stuff of anthologies or bookshelves, but with the confidence that ‘this is something I can do.’ It’s no surprise to me that, in fact, they find their creative imagination and publish.”