Professor of English Mary Titus is more than just an instructor. Like the many students she has taught at St. Olaf, she is on a lifelong quest of learning and experience.
“Teaching at the college level follows the seasons. It has this beautiful cycle of beginning in the fall, then moving to the spring and ending, and always new young people are arriving with hope and excitement,” she said. “There is something special about this cycle for someone who lives to be curious.”
Titus was born into a family of five in Washington, D.C. Her father, who was a professor at Dartmouth, previously worked at Los Alamos in the 1950s on bombs. She spent her her early childhood in Vermont before moving to New York state when she was eight years old. She left high school in the 11th grade to attend Schenectady County Community College, where she received her high school diploma. She then went on to The State University of New York at Fredonia. Titus admitted she chose this school because “at the time I was sort of a hippie, and I was planning to learn to make clay pots and live in the mountains, and I could get admitted to this school without an art portfolio.” During that time, she happened to take a poetry class for a general education requirement, which “opened my eyes to the English major.”
Titus attended this school for a year and a half until one of her professors told her, “‘You are really smart, you should go to a better school.’ This was a bizarre thing thinking back on it, but I took it to heart and then during the fall of my sophomore year I transferred to Skidmore College.” There Titus received her English degree and then chose to study at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for graduate school.
Titus found her main focus of study in Southern women writers, writing a book on Katherine Anne Porter as well as a number of published articles on Southern women writers, African writers and many more.
“I used to be very involved in women’s studies at St. Olaf and directed it for a period of time,” she said.
Recently however, Titus has been expanding into the field of objects and materialism.
“As I evolved outward, I started moving to publishing on food, domestic space, and more recently on collecting,” she said. “I have become more interested in the nature of stuff, more so than literature as I have aged.”
If you have ever taken a class with Titus, it is clear where her passions lie: the desires to continue learning and bonding with her students.
“A lot of people love to research and I do especially. Teaching allows you to keep learning constantly and having conversations with new people,” she said.
Titus has been a professor at St. Olaf since 1989 and truly believes in the liberal arts model.
“Because it is a liberal arts college, and I think because it is a little bit bigger, there’s an opportunity for professors to follow their intellectual interests and move into different areas,” she said. “If I was at a university, I would have arrived as a specialist in American South and never moved in different fields. But here, I have gotten to teach all sorts of ways and follow the development of classes, taken students around the world, and this is because of how much the school supports me. The feeling that I can express a desire to teach something and knowing the school will support me has been a wonderful experience.”
Titus will be on sabbatical for the 2016-2017 year, but if you are looking for a professor who is passionate about learning and engaging with her students, you know whom to look for in the English department upon her return.