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Program of the Month Q&A: English Program Director Dr. Mary Louise Hillnext


Mary Louise Hill, Ph.D., is a professor in Medaille’s Department of Interdisciplinary Studies and director of the English program. The organizer of the College’s annual Write Thing Reading Series, Dr. Hill has experience writing fiction, presenting papers and teaching at schools like Syracuse University and New York University (NYU).

Here, Dr. Hill discusses her background, and how an English degree led her down a unique and unexpected path.

 

Dr. Hill, your career started in another field, medical management. However, your degree was in English. How did you first end up in the medical field?

Honestly, I had no intention to enter medical management when I first started my English degree. When I got into college, after trying hard to major in a number of fields and not doing terrifically well in my classes, I decided to do the major I really wanted to pursue: English. I did very well as an English major.

Right out of university, I wasn’t sure what I would do for a job. Quite by accident, a neighbor helped me get a job in a hospital, working on a floor as a unit secretary. I enjoyed the medical field; I learned the terminology quickly and found the interactions with people to be intriguing. My second shift position gave me time and inspiration to write fiction.

A cardiologist I knew recognized how quickly I learned and that I was a good organizer, and he hired me to be his office manager. I did that for a few years before I finally decided to go back to graduate school. 

 

How did your English degree help you in your previous field? What skills learned as an English major were essential to your job?

Well, the English degree was great preparation for managing a medical office. There are some key skills I developed as an English major that I used regularly.

First, the English degree helped me develop my writing skills. Doctors liked my fluency with language and asked me to help them with their writing. I wrote a manual on running the office I managed, which included explaining Medicare, Medicaid, and the various insurances and filing procedures. I was told that they used that manual for 15 years after I left. 

Second, the English degree helped me hone my ability to analyze and form quick conclusions. I was able to listen to symptoms, consider patient backgrounds, and make quick decisions about who the doctor should see stat, and who should go to the emergency room. I feel that I was actually applying the analytical skills I learned in my literature and theory courses, but using them with different “texts.” 

Third, the English degree developed my adaptability, flexibility and creativity in forming solutions. A cardiologist’s office is crazy busy — one has to be ready and willing to change plans on a dime, because heart attacks happen unexpectedly. I had to deal with changes in schedule, a temperamental doctor, emergency situations, very sick people and changes in medical insurance that produced anger and frustration, all at the same time. 

 

What drew you back to higher education, and specifically, teaching English?

Honestly, if you would have asked me during high school what I wanted to study in college, I would have said I wanted to be an architect. My second choice was writer. Third choice — rock star! Or painter. Teaching was not high on my list of career choices.

Because of financial and family issues, my options for college were very slim. I ultimately pursued my second career choice — writing — and stumbled my way through. I think that’s one of the reasons I pursued another career for a while after my first degree: I was sincerely afraid of trying to do graduate work in English. I wasn’t sure where it would take me. 

After a couple years at the doctor’s office, I decided to return for a graduate degree, an M.A. in creative writing. I was accepted into Syracuse’s program, and started as a teaching assistant. I was incredibly lucky, because I ended up learning a profession from some respected composition theorists, while studying fiction writing with some excellent writers. 

Once I started teaching, it became my profession. It earned me a teaching assistantship for my Ph.D. at NYU, and has helped me travel the world. I am grateful that I stumbled into a career where I can help people and continue to learn and grow.

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