Duke English:2020 in Review

2020 has been a year unlike any other in our lifetimes. This article will reflect how Duke English addressed the challenges and opportunities presented by this historic year. Learning at Duke spread far beyond East and West campuses, for all of us.   Faculty and students learned to take advantage of Duke resources beyond the classroom and Duke campus.

With our students dispersed worldwide during the pandemic, the Duke English experience expanded well beyond Durham with Zoom becoming a primary resource for helping hold everything together.  Our students, faculty, and staff have reacted to this year by finding ways to adapt to this new way of life.

Although the Spring semester of 2020 seemed typical, at first, it quickly became anything but by Spring Break.  This year has presented numerous challenges: a pandemic, social justice issues, the election, virtual learning, countless lives lost, masks, the increased need for hygiene and cleaning, and much more. Normalcy and traditions were delayed, postponed, or canceled in 2020.  Still, there were moments in which Duke English could capture to provide some solace in 2020 that allowed the educational experience to continue.

Student Honors and Awards

In April of 2020, the Duke English Department announced the Creative Writing Contests, Critical Essay Department Award Winners, and  Creative Writing Scholarships winners.

2020 English alum Valerie Muensterman was one of the recipients of a 2020 Benenson Award in the Arts for her one-actor play titled God’s Last Name, a piece written for one actor and a series of recorded voices. 

Environmental Science & Policy and English double major Kendall Jefferys received the honor of being selected as one of two Duke University students to win the prestigious 2020 Rhodes Scholarships to study at Oxford University.

English Major Caroline Petrow-Cohen served as digital media intern this year.  Caroline is also an Environmental Science & Policy minor and Policy Journalism and Media Studies certificate candidate.  She wrote several engaging articles including, Black Lives Matter: How an English Class Became a Hub for Conversations on Race and Progress which was also picked up by the Duke Daily.

Other articles by Caroline Petrow-Cohen include:

2020 English Ph.D. graduate, Hannah Rogers, was one of the 2020 Dean's Awards recipients, which recognizes outstanding efforts in mentoring, teaching, and creating an inclusive environment for graduate education at Duke.  Rogers was one of the three recipients of the 2020 Dean's Award for Excellence in Teaching.

English Ph.D. candidate Kathleen Burns was the recipient of the Stephen Horne Award for Excellence in Teaching.

In the New York Times article “I Watched My War Story Become a Movie,”  written by Stoney Portis, the Duke English Ph.D. candidate and an Army veteran, discusses the experience of watching the making of The Outpost, a recent film about his unit's camp in Afghanistan being overrun by 300 Taliban fighters.


After three decades as a valued member of the Duke English Department, Professor Melissa Malouf retired at the end of the summer of 2020.  Professor Malouf joined the department in 1986 and enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a beloved creative writing professor.

Duke English added to two new members to the department during 2020.  Akhil Sharma joined the English Department as a Professor of the Practice of English in January as an addition to the department’s growing Creative Writing program. Sharma will be teaching English 110S.03: Introduction to Creative Writing during the Spring 2021 semester.  Amin Ahmad joined the English Department as a Lecturing Fellow of English in August. Ahmad will be teaching English 221S.02: Introduction to the Writing of Fiction during the Spring 2021 semester.

Three English faculty members had new books published during 2020:

Charlotte Sussman - Peopling the World: Representing Human Mobility from Milton to Malthus
In her new work Professor Sussman
argues that a shift in thinking about population and mobility occurred in the third quarter of the eighteenth century.  Her book was released by University of Pennsylvania Press, April 24, 2020.

Thomas Ferraro - Transgression & Redemption in American Fiction
Ferraro conducted a critical study of classic American novels for this work.  He returns to Hawthorne's closet of secreted sin to reveal The Scarlet Letter as a deviously psychological turn on the ancient Mediterranean Catholic folk tales of female wanderlust, cuckolding priests, and demonic revenge. His book was released by Oxford University Press, September 15, 2020.

David Aers - Versions of Election: From Langland and Aquinas to Calvin and Milton
Professor Aers’ newest work deals with concepts of predestination and reprobation which were central issues in the Protestant Reformation, especially within Calvinist churches, and thus have often been studied primarily in the historical context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  His book was released by the University of Notre Dame Press, November 30, 2020.

2020 Faculty book covers
Faculty Awards and Honors

Professor Charlotte Sussman was one of the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Awards in Undergraduate Teaching, Leadership, and Diversity honorees.  Professor Sussman was the 2019-20 recipient of the Richard K. Lublin Teaching Award.

Professors Aarthi Vadde of Duke English and Melanie Micir, an Assistant Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, are the 2020 recipients of the Florence Howe Award in English for their essay “Obliterature.” Professor Vadde was appointed as one of the of the 2020-21 NHC M.H Abrams Fellow recipients.

Works-in-Progress Series

COVID-19 made it impossible to gather together in person during the Fall of 2020, so Duke English provided an opportunity for students, faculty, the Duke Community, and the world of academia to gather virtually to discuss recent faculty work on literature, per the Faculty Works-in-Progress Series. Featured faculty members provided participants with a short text to review beforehand, in some cases this was the focal point of the discussion.  The presenting English faculty provided some brief opening comments, and then the rest of the meeting was devoted to Q&A.  The Fall 2020 series featured: Thomas Ferraro, Corin Stan and Julianne Werlin. This series will continue during the Spring of 2021, with the first installment being on January 22, 2021, featuring Professor Joseph Winters.

Fall 2020 Fall Works-in-Progress Series

Duke English Sponsored Events
Pop-up English

On February 7, 2020 the English Department Ambassadors held “Pop-Up English” at the Bryan Center Landing.  Students dropped in to take part in a book swap.  This event also included an opportunity for students and the Duke community to take part in “Blind Date With a Book” and a chance to pick up copies of books for leisure reading that the English faculty recommended.

English Pop-up Event Line of Guests
Blackburn Writer-in-Residence

Yale professor, author, and playwright Caryl Phillips was the 2020 Blackburn Writer-in-Residence.  Phillips joined the department for a couple of weeks in February of 2020 as the featured guest for workshops, classroom visits, and talks.  Phillips joined Professor Akhil Sharma, a new member of the English Department at Duke, for a reading event during his Spring 2020 residency.  Caryl Phillips will be returning during the spring as the Spring 2021 Black Writer-in-Residence.

Photo of Caryl Phillips and Akhil Sharma
Third Thursday Sweets

During the Spring 2020 semester, Duke English sponsored the “Third Thursday Sweets.” These meetups allowed undergraduate and graduate students to enjoy some afternoon sweets while engaging with Duke English faculty and peers. This event was open to the entire Duke community.  Because of the pandemic, the March and April installments were canceled.  The department hopes to have a version of this event again in the future.

Slide from 2020 Third Thursday Sweets

Virtual Transition

Faculty transitioned from their norms and adapted to a new thinking and teaching method that took them out of their comfort zone, just as it did for many of our students—transition to a new form of learning, which included Zoom becoming a primary resource for everyone.

Professor Mesha Maren-Hogan's English 221S: Intro to the Writing of Fiction class took advantage of the virtual learning experience.  Her class publicly shared their writing projects during the Zoom meeting, "The Future of Fiction: An Evening of Duke Student Stories," which was broadcast to the general public on the Duke English Department Facebook page in April.

Quotes from Faculty

How has your teaching been different in online instruction since the onset of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

“I feel both closer to my co-teacher and students and farther away. Body language doesn’t count.  The fluidity of passing the imaginary “mike” around is a thing of the past.  On the other hand, we all welcome the company and prepare ahead of time what we are going to say.  It is intense and draining.  I don’t leave the Zoom screen invigorated as I do the classroom.” – Professor Nancy Armstrong

“One huge change that I made that ended up feeling very beneficial is how I run my creative writing “workshops.  I altered my workshop so that it took place on a Sakai forum where all of us attending the workshop typed up our responses and conversed through the forum over a 24-hours. I was pleasantly surprised to see just how well my students did.” – Professor Mesha Maren

Ph.D. Defenses by Zoom
GSD Professor Charlotte Sussman delivering champagne to 2020 PhD graduates


COVID-19 forced everyone to learn and adapt to doing things differently.  Ph.D. defenses were one of the many things that were transitioned to a virtual method.  Duke English had 11 Ph.D. candidates defend their dissertations in 2020; all were defended successfully and remotely by Zoom.  Our Ph.D. candidates have worked hard to get to the point of defending their dissertations.  Their committees worked with them to ensure that they could defend their dissertations with limited distractions and obstacles. 


"No Duke graduation, no hooding ceremony, so it was time to gown-up, mask-up, and deliver champagne to our new PhDs!" - Prof. Charlotte Sussman, Duke English, Director of Graduate Studies

“I found the experience pretty normal, considering the circumstances. At this point I'm fairly familiar with Zoom from job interviews, etc. so it didn't feel too out of the ordinary. If anything, I think the remote graduation process overall was more streamlined.” – Katya Gorecki, 2020 Duke English Ph.D., graduate

“The benefit of the remote defense is that everyone is on the same platform, and, in terms of posterity and future revision plans, the meeting will have been recorded. That’s really special documentation of what it’s been like to pass through this ritualized milestone during an unprecedented time.”  – Nora Nunn, 2020 Duke English Ph.D., graduate

English Senior Yearbook

One of the most challenging things to accept in 2020, was that the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the 2020 English senior class from celebrating their accomplishments with a traditional graduation ceremony in May of 2020.  With everyone’s safety and health as the focus, Duke University postponed the ceremony but honored the graduating class with a virtual presentation, Mark the Moment.  Duke English took it a step further in celebrating its graduating English majors with the English Senior Yearbook website.

David L. Platez Creative Writing Guest Series

Receiving one of the David L. Paletz  "Innovative Course Enhancement" grants afforded Professor Mesha Maren English 110S “Introduction to Creative Writing” class with the opportunity to have three visiting authors.  Creative writers Jaquira Diaz, Remica Bingham-Risher, and Ashleigh Bryant Phillips visited Professor Maren class during Fall 2020.


The COVID-19 pandemic presented new opportunities and ways of thinking that will live beyond this time of crisis.  The Spring semester started as usual but quickly caused everyone to veer from the norm and conferred real-life learning experiences on everyone.  Students, faculty, and staff alike accepted the challenge as everyone persevered through 2020.

Expert Insight

Professor Priscilla Wald has been in great demand throughout this pandemic to discuss the Coronavirus outbreak.  Professor Wald penned an article, “The Best Way to Prevent an Outbreak Like Coronavirus,” published in the Charlotte Observer early in the pandemic.

Shelter in Place Series

The English Ambassadors stepped forward to support each other with "Shelter in Poetry," a series dedicated to sharing some of their favorite poems. Though physically apart Shelter in Poetry and other measures brought us together emotionally.

Poem of the Day

With the Harts Leadership Program, Professor Faulkner Fox began the Poem of the Day series on Friday, March 20, 2020.  Professor Fox created this series of works that speak to the moment in hopes of helping us all cope with these difficult times.  To quote the professor, "I don't know anything about pandemics, though I'm trying to learn.  I do know that poetry helps in times of distress.  I hope it brings you some solace." 

Poem of the Day Series

Social Justice

Numerous social justice issues in the world became front and center in 2020.  Influenced by these events Professor Tsitsi Jaji  reimagined her English African Diaspora Literature: Black Lives Matter course this Fall.  Professor Tsitsi Jaji adapted her class so that everyone in enrolled in the coursed learned more about why and how Black Lives Matter through literature, poetry and film.   Duke English Digital Media Intern Caroline Petrow-Cohen wrote the article, Black Lives Matter: How an English Class Became a Hub for Conversations on Race and Progress.

Let’s all step into the Spring semester of 2021 anew. Please stay safe and look out for each other, from a social distance, until we can all be together again soon.