Fulbright College Dean Don Bobbitt has named Associate Professor Davis McCombs and Professor Keith Booker as the first two occupants of the James E. and Ellen Wadley Roper Chairs. Established in the will of 1945 U of A graduate Ellen Roper, who died in January 2004, the $1.5 million Roper Endowment was designed to “promote excellence in written expression of the English Language by providing support for the English department and the Creative Writing Program.” The new two Roper professors will occupy the chairs for a five-year term, receiving hefty financial supplements that can be used for research and program expenses or summer salaries.
Says Dean Donald Bobbitt, "I am so thankful to Ms. Ellen Roper for providing the resources to create these two distinguished professorships. It is wonderful that we can honor such outstanding colleagues as Davis McCombs and Keith Booker by appointing them to these eminent positions. Both are wonderful teachers and exceptionally productive scholars. The Roper Professors are appointed for five years and in the future these professorships will allow us to support the teaching and research of other exceptional colleagues at key junctures in their careers."
For both the new Roper chairs, who have distinguished themselves as tireless workers in terms of service as well as with their exemplary publication records, such flexibility will allow them to make time for writing without cutting back on their commitment to the Department. Keith Booker, in particular, is looking forward to the first summer in his 17 years with the Department when he will not be teaching summer school. Says Booker, who has authored or edited nearly 30 books on modern and postmodern literature, literary theory, and popular culture, “When you have as many research projects in the fire as I do, it really will be pleasant to have that time in the summer.”
Booker’s latest projects include a just-completed book on postmodern film, a science fiction textbook, and a book he calls May Contain Graphic Material, “which is actually not quite what it sounds. It’s a book about films that are adapted from graphic novels and comic books.” He’ll also be editing the cultural theory volume of Blackwell’s planned encyclopedia of literary and cultural theory. With so many things going on at once, says Booker, “I have to be very efficient with my time,” and being named Roper Chair will allow him to so more effectively. Says Booker, “it was a great surprise and a very pleasant one. As a professor, getting that sort of endowed chair is about the best thing that can happen to you. I asked the Dean specifically what their expectation was, and he said that they expected me to keep doing what I was already doing, so that’s pretty perfect. It’s a win-win situation.”
Booker has served for eight of the past 16 years as Director of Graduate Studies, and provided much of the impetus for the current design of the graduate program; he’s known for his particular efforts to assist Ph.D. students by offering extra readings courses and professional guidance. But he has visions of moving departmental culture toward a more general embrace of such efforts, visions that the extra time the Roper endowment will allow him may help him put into practice: “One of the things that I’d really like to do is get graduate students, especially advanced doctoral students, to feel like they’re more a part of the professional life of the Department, to feel like they’re more semi-faculty rather than just students. I think we could do a lot more to help doctoral students feel more like professionals before they graduate.”
Poet Davis McCombs, who came to the Department in 2002, received the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, Ultima Thule (2000); his second, Dismal Rock, which won the Tupelo Press Dorset Prize, will be published this fall. McCombs was awarded tenure just this spring, but he is already in his second year as Director of the Creative Writing Programs; he sees the Roper appointment as a way of continuing to put his efforts into that position while still reserving time for poetry. McCombs is currently readying himself to begin his third project, which he describes as “a long, maybe book-length, ghost story in verse” dealing with ecological destruction: “I’ve become such a conservationist in my life,” he says, “that although I never set out to write overtly political poems, I find that I can’t not write about that. It just comes into the work; it’s something that I care so deeply about.”
“One of the great things about the Roper Chair for me,” says McCombs, “is that it’s going to allow me to pay myself a bit during the summer. I don’t want a twelve-month appointment, since the summer has turned into the only writing time that I really have. So I can do the job of being Director during the summer and I can also write without wondering how we’re going to make it financially through those months.” But McCombs is also looking to ways that the Roper Chair can improve the Creative Writing Programs themselves; he plans to plow some of the income from the Roper Endowment back into CWP projects, paying a summer salary to the Programs’ graduate assistant, buying new computers for the Writers in the Schools Program, and supplementing funding for his pet project, the Arkansas Festival of Writers. Right after he was awarded the Roper Chair, he says, “I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited by all of the possibilities, not only for my own work and the ways it would help me there, but for what I could do to help the program. I ended up in my head spending three times what I actually had because I have so many things that I want to do and I want to do them immediately.”
Says Department Chair Robert Brinkmeyer, “The Roper Chairs are a wonderful resource both for the holders of the Chairs and for the Department as a whole. Two of our most productive and committed professors now have generous resources to do devote themselves to their professional growth, which in turn benefits our students and the Department’s stature.”