Dr. Karen Prior is a writer and professor with street cred in the form of an FBI file. She has three dogs, one horse, six chickens, and she lives out of town, where, I imagine, people with FBI files naturally gravitate. A formerly freckle-faced pothead with a penchant for getting arrested, Prior admits she doesn’t hide emotions well and so to some, she can be a handful. But such feisty attributes come in handy when you’re the chairwoman of the English and Modern Language department at Liberty University, a school known for its extreme conservatism and loyalty to the evangelical traditions of its founder, Reverend Jerry Falwell. It’s no wonder she’s written a memoir.
It’s hot and sunny and we’re in the country near Amherst, Virginia on Karen’s front porch. She offers me iced tea, which I, for some reason, decline. As she heads to fetch her own, I navigate three German Shorthaired Pointers and sit down on a wooden rocker. The dogs are curious about my backpack but soon lose interest, circle around, and drop to their bellies, almost in unison. Karen returns and sits opposite me in her own rocker.
The Rumpus: Which is your favorite dog?
Karen Prior: [Pointing at the dog directly in front of her] This one. Because she loves me the most. They’re all great, really. But this one, she never leaves my side.
Rumpus: You have room for lots of animals out here in the country.
Prior: Sometimes more, sometimes less. I had to put down my twenty-five year old horse last fall. Now I have just one and board two more.
Rumpus: Can you draw a comparison between horse care and being a professor?
Karen Prior: There’s a lot of mucking out of stalls. You’ve got to put up with a lot of crap and then clean it out before you get to the stuff you really enjoy, the riding and the teaching.
Karen Prior: You know.
Rumpus: How did you end up teaching at Liberty University?
Prior: The truth is, most academics aren’t privileged enough to choose. It’s not like I could just pick a school and teach there. I had a Ph.D. in English. Ph.D.’s in English don’t have many options. That being said, my husband and I sat down and decided what areas of the country we wanted to live in, and Virginia is so beautiful it’s always been on our list. And then there was Liberty, looking for an English professor and its beliefs and mission match mine. It all went very quickly after that.
Rumpus: And the hiring body at Liberty didn’t mind your record of arrests or the FBI file?
Prior: No way! I was advocating for pro-life causes each time I was arrested. Trespassing, disorderly conduct, stuff like that. I put my arrests right down on my application, and they were a real career boost. I mean, at Liberty they were. Not at most schools.
Prior: Hate mail. Death threats. It was for my personal safety.
Rumpus: Can you share anything more specific?
Prior: When I was doing media interviews for pro-life protests, someone left a wire coat hanger in my mailbox.
Rumpus: Wow. How’s that for discourse.
Prior: It communicated very well.
Rumpus: Why Pro-Life? That’s not very academic of you.
Prior: For many people, abortion is a personal or religious or political issue, but for me it’s a rational issue. I simply believe that human fetuses are unborn children. That’s it. The logic of that position carries itself out. When I started really getting involved in the pro-life movement, heavily involved, I had to go to my mother and tell her that I’ve never had an abortion because she was probably thinking I did because my commitment to the cause seems so inexplicable. For many people there is that kind of personal or emotional motivation. It’s not like that for me. Pro-Life is a position I arrive at intellectually.
Rumpus: What is one stereotype about Christian education?
Prior: That the purpose of it is to shelter students from the outside world, when in fact its purpose is to equip students to engage and critique culture from a biblical point of view. There should be no sheltering in a quality, Christian education.
Rumpus: Then how would you respond to someone who says Liberty University shelters students by restricting them with curfews and rules banning rated “R” movies on campus.
Prior: For the most part, the rules are designed towards, but perhaps not always successfully communicated as rules for community living. Even though I disagree with a rule against rated “R” movies for an individual, I can understand, taking into account the many different backgrounds our conservative minded students come from, how it would be easier for a university to create one rule toward upholding biblical standards of living for an entire community of developing young people. The rules are certainly different than I expect individual Christians would make for themselves. The system isn’t perfect, but there is a good idea behind it.
Rumpus: Liberty University is large and loud in the political realm. Bachmann, McCain, Perry – swinging by to speak at Liberty University has become a pre-requisite for Republican presidential candidates. Mitt Romney was the commencement speaker. Liberty has also grown in size, from around six thousand residential students in 2002 to twelve thousand students in 2010. Public commentators and comedians and the like have a lot to say about Liberty. What’s one negative stereotype about Liberty University?
Prior: Let’s see. There are so many! One stereotype is that our professors don’t have the same academic backgrounds and qualifications as professors at other universities.
Rumpus: True or false?
Prior: It has to be false. We’re from the same state colleges and institutions everyone else is from. There simply aren’t a lot of evangelical schools that offer Ph.D. programs in many disciplines. So we come from and publish in the same sort of academic environments as everyone else. [Karen has her Ph.D. from State University of New York at Buffalo.]
Rumpus: Here’s my pageant question. So what does it mean to be an academic and a Christian in 2012?
Prior: I think the fragmentation that we have seen at the end of modernity—or in post-modernity as some would have it — means that Christianity is just one more of many niches in both academia and the world. In a sense, I think Christians in academia have an equal footing in being just one more niche, but on the other hand, because Christians believe in a meta narrative, in a unifying story, we also have the opportunity to integrate our story as Christians with other stories being told. That’s exciting.
Rumpus: Your memoir, Booked: How Literature Saved My Soul, is being published by T.S. Poetry Press this fall. Why should people care about it?
Prior: That’s a valid question because my life is a pretty boring life, despite the FBI file and all that. But really, the connections I draw between my ordinary life and the great books that shaped me, is where I hope to meet my reader. Books are the great common ground, regardless of religious or political beliefs. Most of us live ordinary lives, yet want to draw out meaning and make connections. My book shows some of those connections and how all of the stories we interact with affect our lives. It’s not just a memoir. It’s a memoir about how other people’s stories shaped my life.
Rumpus: Did you have any moments of self-discovery as you wrote? Did you discover that you were a worse person than you remember? Or better?
Prior: My editor said I sometimes came off like a jerk! And he’s probably right because at one point I was trying to figure out how I was going to tell stories about people who caused me pain. In doing that, I had to think through what I thought about those painful moments and how I feel about them now. In early drafts, I sounded bitter, more bitter than I felt.
Rumpus: Did you find a way to work around that?
Prior: It’s a matter of voices. I had to think through those situations in order to figure out how I feel now. After that, I could frame the narrative in a way that reflected both my opinions during the moment of pain and also now, as an older woman thinking back. In that respect, writing my own memoir further shaped my life.
Rumpus: I bet it was all of that Christian rock that led to your painful days.
Prior: No! No, I never listened to Christian Rock.
Rumpus: That’s too bad. Christian rock is the stuff of great memoir.
Prior: Well, I do remember one time when I was a teenager and a locally famous evangelical preacher came to my church and preached about the evils of rock. He preached against all rock, even Christian versions. And his argument had nothing to do with the lyrics. He was just really anti-drums. It was the beat. It was too sensual or something like that. It was ridiculous.
Rumpus: Drums lead to sex, right?
Prior: Exactly. Drums lead to sex. So after his message, sometime later, my youth pastor got all motivated and took all of us youth group kids to his attic…
Prior: It sounds creepy, but it wasn’t even a real attic, just a cubby hole built into the side of an upstairs bedroom. He brought us up there to show us where he used to keep all of his rock albums, which he’d burned in a fit of righteousness. You know, I’m sure he had a more sophisticated argument, but all I remember was that he then related rock to drums and then to rhythm and then to sex. And somehow he tied Africa into all of it.
Prior: It was about that time that I left the youth group to smoke more pot.
Rumpus: Good! I wanted to get around to this topic, because of your current employer. So here’s the question: how does your history of pot smoking influence your teaching pedagogy at Liberty University?
Prior: Well, to my great surprise, I ended up pursuing a profession in which having all of my brain cells working at maximum capacity would have been nice. So there’s that. But you know, really, my past affects my teaching now in the same way most choices affect anyone’s life. I was trying to enjoy myself then and have a good time. I’m trying to do the same thing now only I’ve found a better and more fulfilling way.