English chair teaches with personal touch

Rolling Palouse hills remind her of Ireland; creative writing lets her process life events

Donna+Potts%2C+chair+of+WSU%27s+English+Department%2C+discusses+how+she+can%27t+help+but+treat+her+students+like+family+on+Friday+afternoon+at+Avery+Hall.

OLIVIA WOLF

Donna Potts, chair of WSU’s English Department, discusses how she can’t help but treat her students like family on Friday afternoon at Avery Hall.

Bookshelves line the room in Donna Potts’s office in Avery Hall. Mementos from former students are within an arm’s reach, and photos from a research project-in-progress sit stacked on a filing cabinet.

Potts is a professor and the chair of the English department, yet she still finds time to dive into her own creative projects, her favorite of which is a book of poetry she wrote called “Waking Dreams.”

“I think through the process of writing it, I was coming to terms with my dad’s suicide,” Potts said. “I think that kind of creative writing allowed me to process it in a way that none of my scholarly writing has.”

Potts focuses on Irish literature and poetry in her scholarly writing, sometimes with an environmental emphasis, she said.

Her love of Ireland developed when she read William Butler Yeats as an undergraduate, Potts said. She lived in Ireland once as a research fellow and a second time as a visiting lecturer.  

“I love the Palouse,” Potts said. “I’m reminded of Ireland when I look out on the hills.”

Potts and her husband were professors at Kansas State University for 23 years before they moved their family to Washington state in 2013. Her husband is also a department chair at WSU, but of the department of mathematics and statistics.

When it comes to her role as chair, Potts said her favorite thing is advocating for her faculty and staff.

Potts said she thinks she brings a personal touch to teaching.

“I can’t help but do this,” she said. “I do tend to think of [my students] as my children. I find myself sharing stories that they can relate to.”

Sara Quenzer, a WSU senior double-majoring in English creative writing and journalism and media production, said she has taken three classes with Potts and works with her at WSU’s literary journal, LandEscapes.

Quenzer said Potts’s teaching style reminds her of professors in old movies: jumping right in and usually not using any visual aids. Even though it took getting used to, she said Potts is an involved and caring professor.

“She’s been super helpful in terms of being a professor who actually cares about their students’ mental health and well-being,” Quenzer said. “She’s always been willing to share her own experiences so I feel comfortable sharing my own.”

Potts said failure is a test of greatness and she remembers students more for their positive contributions to her class than what grade they had.

“That part doesn’t matter,” she said, “it’s if they have passion about learning.”