Master’s Motivation: Tanya Woodward marries topics of writing, teaching and literature


UNK Communications

KEARNEY – Tanya Woodward had a hard time narrowing down her thesis topic.

“I still have lists and drafts of notes tabs on my phone and computer of possible research ideas. My sister and I joke that for every 10 ideas, maybe one or two are worth doing,” she says.

“Ultimately, I wanted to marry the topics of writing, teaching and a bit of literature because I am an English teacher. I felt like when I first came to UNK, I had to pack away my experiences as an international teacher and some other pieces of my identity. I was so wrong.”

Woodward, who graduated from UNK in 2022 with a master’s degree in English rhetoric and composition studies, is the winner of the university’s 2022 Most Outstanding Thesis for Humanities/Fine Arts.

Working under UNK associate professor of English Amanda Sladek, her thesis addresses how Haitian author Edwidge Danticat expresses joy and sorrow in her writing, and how she can serve as a model text for students as they write.

“With lots of encouragement from my instructors and adviser, Dr. Sladek, I realized that who we are and what we bring is what makes our research and our ideas unique,” Woodward says of her research experience at UNK. “I put this needless pressure on myself. I was motivated to put these topics together to process my experiences teaching in East Africa and reconcile it with what I learned and where I am now.”

Prior to graduating from UNK, Woodward taught in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. She also taught in Washington state and worked at a study center and church in the United Kingdom before returning to Nebraska. She currently is a secondary English teacher in the Czech Republic.

“I would like to return to university teaching. I’d love to host a student teacher, especially overseas at an international school. And someday I’d like to teach pre-service teachers,” Woodward says of her career goals. “I loved working with those students at UNK. I feel grateful for all my advisers and mentors have done for me, and I want to be that for some other up-and-coming teacher.”

Woodward also wants to teach students how to write about their research.

“It’s exciting when a student feels passionate about their idea and their writing progresses. Hearing from former students about how you helped them be a better writer or express themselves better. Wow. As a teacher, you live for that. I’d also love to return to East Africa with my husband and work there together.”

What stands out about your experience at UNK?
I think UNK’s graduate program, and especially the English Department, is its best-kept secret. I was under the false impression of UNK as an undergraduate suitcase college. What stands out to me is the encouragement of the English Department – their acceptance and support of students. I’m so grateful to Dr. Sladek for her support. I hope I can support and encourage students at least as much, and hopefully more, as I have received at UNK.

Talk about your upbringing? What role did education and your family play in leading you down your career path?
I grew up on a ranch about an hour from Broken Bow. I was really lucky because both of my parents went to college as the first in their generation, and it was a given that my siblings and I would go. They are both lifelong learners. I remember my mom studying for an exam that was way above her head and outside of her profession, but it helped change her career path and opened the door to travel across the world. My dad reads everything he can get his hands on about his job. He subscribes to so many ranching and agricultural magazines. I respect his insatiable desire to read.

My brother and twin sister are some of the smartest and hardest-working people I know. A relationship with God was important to my family and now to us, and my parents encouraged us to be willing to wrestle with hard questions and unpopular ideas instead of accepting the status quo. I think this comes out in my thesis and shapes my writing style. Between them both, a love for learning and a desire to push and challenge yourself, this has shaped my siblings and me.

What are the qualities of a good student researcher?
I think curiosity and maybe resilience, because both push you to go further and deeper into your research for the love of it. I don’t think being the smartest person is that helpful. Maybe it’s a bit Nebraska, but never underestimate the value of working hard.

What are your biggest strengths as a researcher?
Enthusiasm. And it’s not very exciting, but probably discipline. I mostly remember the last year, making time every Saturday morning to hammer out a certain number of pages even if they were completely rubbish. Perhaps also, seeing the connections between things and people and being willing to draw on a wide network across the world.

How do you measure success as a researcher?
I think research is all very nice for its own sake, but without a practical application, it’s just facts and statistics. I like to know that the thing I’m researching matters for someone and that my work would touch or move them in a very real aspect of their life. If a theory can meet a practical application, then it has found success.

Describe a perfect day “in the field” researching?
I am a teacher first, so for me “in the field” is every day. It’s not necessarily looking for something, but keeping your eyes, ears and heart open to what you could discover. A bit of listening with your ear on the ground while your eyes are looking. Asking the questions.

What do you want people to take away from your research?
I think for people to come as they are, and I hope that a student (or instructor) could see that their ideas matter. My thesis does have a religious perspective, and the work is shaped by my experiences and upbringing. I would like for people of all faiths or none to still feel like they could be heard or that there is some takeaway for them, even if it’s just to understand someone else a bit more.

What’s the most enjoyable part of research? The positive aspects of life as a graduate student?
I loved the opportunity to teach while getting my master’s. I think it made class more relatable for my students because I could empathize with their hard work and offer strategies for how I was coping with it. I find it challenging but rewarding to show students my writing so that hopefully they see that they can do it too.

I also loved the opportunities professors gave to publish or present. I never considered the possibility of doing that. I didn’t think my ideas or writing would merit being published. But at the suggestion of Dr. Annarose Steinke, I published two book reviews in the Journal of Religion and the Arts and presented at least five conferences outside of UNK. I loved the opportunity to be mentored and pour into others what was being given to me.

And the least enjoyable part?
Writing a thesis is not a small accomplishment! I really bemoaned being ineligible for the comprehensive exams. I think feeling like you’ve reached a dead end for what you want to say or having information but not being sure how to organize it. Feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the project. That is the worst part.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in English education, Northwestern College, 2013; Master of Arts in English rhetoric and composition studies, University of Nebraska at Kearney, 2022.
Current Employment: Secondary English teacher, Riverside International School, Prague, Czech Republic.
Recognition: Winner of UNK’s 2022 Most Outstanding Thesis for Humanities/Fine Arts
Areas of Research/Specialization: Writing, Composition, International education, Belief and religion in writing
Thesis: “My Soul Cries Out: Reimagining Lament for Research and Language Practice With Edwidge Danticat.” The thesis addresses how Haitian author Edwidge Danticat expresses joy and sorrow in her writing, and how she can serve as a model text for students as they write. The thesis also considers what Danticat’s use of language means for the writing classroom, language policies and the Conference on College Composition and Communication’s “Student’s Right to Their Own Language” position statement.
Recent Published Articles & Presentations: “Charitable Writing: Cultivating Virtue Through Our Words,” book review in Journal of Religion and the Arts, 2023. “Situating Lament” in “Hope That Has Lost its Bearings: Making Space for Lament in Writing, Teaching and Professional Life,” Conference of College Composition and Communication, 2023. “We, Too: Identity Formation of Caribbean Women Convergences,” Southeastern Association of Cultural Studies Peer Reviewed Journal, 2022.