The UL English Department produces the most doctoral candidates on campus, and counts among its faculty some of the best-known academics in the University, several of whom have received prestigious national awards. ultoday.com spoke with Department Head James McDonald recently.

Tell us about yourself.

I was the oldest of 12 children, I grew up in small towns in Illinois. I got my bachelor's and master's at St. Louis University, where I enjoyed living the city life. I left there and taught at Winthrop for two years, and then three years at Northern Illinois.

At NIU I ran a writing program for special admission students. These were inner city kids and students from small towns who showed academic promise, but who lacked strong writing skills. By focusing on their individual writing processes, we turned around a program that had been passing only 20% of the students, to 80%. I left after two years, but I've kept up with my students, and they've been very successful fitting into the college environment.

Then I went to the University of Texas and got my PhD in Composition & Rhetoric. I came here right after the approval of the rhetoric option, I think we had two doctoral students and one master's.

I've been an administrator here at UL for 18 of my 21 years. I ran the Writing Center, I headed the freshman English program for five years, I was graduate coordinator for one year, and the Assistant Department Head for seven years. This is my first year as Department Head.

Why is writing important?

Several reasons. I think first, writers write to make a record of their lives for others; that's why people often keep diaries, to pass on to their children and grandchildren. They write to figure out what they are thinking and feeling. They write for the pleasure of having other people enjoy their writing.

And they write because they like to read, and that inspires them to produce writing for other readers. Isn't that what Ernie [Ernest Gaines] said, he started writing books that he wanted to read, that he couldn't find on the library shelves?

And writing is an art, there is craftsmanship in it. You cannot figure out how to do it and then put it out like a factory. Each thing you write is its own creation, and it involves craft and imagination. There is a satisfaction that you get, just as people who write music, paint paintings, and make movies.

Beyond that, there is always a need for writers. One of my professors at UT talked to employers in a lot of different positions that require a college degree and asked them, "How much of your time do you spend writing?" And it's about 40%. Even with engineers, it's about 40%.

That's even truer today. Before, you would have picked up a phone, but now you're using eMail, instant messaging, texting, and other types of electronic communication.

A lot of people, even if they don't think of themselves as writers, still write. They want to change the world... they want to influence people in their communities to vote certain ways, or to support certain actions. It may be someone's job, or it may be something that people do in their own town. They want to improve their communities, and their country. I see that even more now, people writing blogs, and using eMail and the Internet to maintain friendships.

One last thing that people in my field have studied, we think with our writing. It's not something that just goes on in your head. You put it on paper and think, "That's just not what I wanted to say." You can look at it from a distance, and get a perspective that you don't get from ruminating in your head, or talking it over with someone else.

Tell us about the UL English Program.

The program is unique in that it not only has a strong literature program but is also strong in rhetoric, folklore, linguistics and creative writing. Most English programs don't even have a folklore program, let alone a PhD program in creative writing. And I think that creates a kind of interdisciplinary mix that is unusual if you look at departments across the country.

We call ourselves a generalist program, which is one way of saying we are interdisciplinary, we like people who have their fingers in a lot of pies.  And they bring those multiple perspectives from these areas into their research, writing, and teaching.

Off the top of my head, I think of Jennifer Vaught who's a scholar of Renaissance literature, she recently published on Carnival and Mardi Gras influences. I'm guessing if she weren't in a program with a strong folklore aspect, she probably would have been less likely to do that.

We've had some very strong writers come through here. Ernest Gaines, John Kennedy Toole, and James Lee Burke. Rikki Ducornet replaced Ernie as our Writer In Residence, and she recently won an Academy Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She won the Award last Spring. They give out just six of them every year.

Did that appear in the local media?

We sent out a press release, it didn't get much attention. She has about 30 books. She was a visiting writer at the University of Alabama in the Fall semester. She's also an artist.

What other prizes has she won?

She was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for The Jade Cabinet. The Los Angeles Times named The Fan Maker's Inquisition the 1999 Book of the Year. In 1993 and 2004, she won the Lannan Foundation Literary Award for Fiction, and in 1998 she won the Charles Flint Kellogg Award in Arts and Letters. There are quite a few others.

I understand the English Department is also integrally involved in UL's Film Studies program.

We're one of the few creative writing programs in English that also teaches playwriting and screenwriting. Charles Richard has regularly written scripts for LPB documentaries, and he has won the duPont-Columbia Award, which is the the equivalent of the Pulitzer in documentary film making

Dayana Stetco is our playwright, and she has these imaginative, weird plays that she works on collaboratively with her students. She has formed the Milena Group which is the Department's theatrical company.

Skip Fox is a poet, and he has published a number of books of poetry. He has formed a group called Live Capture Remix. He has all this sound equipment that takes his voice and broadcasts it back to the audience so you get this mix of words and voices in a poetical composition.

Jerry McGuire is known for performance pieces that he does with musicians, visual artists and computer graphics artists, that bring together poetry and the other arts in a live performance, blending poetry, music and art.

Marcia Gaudet won the Chicago Folkore Prize in 2005 for her book Carville: Remembering Leprosy in America.

We currently have books coming out from our faculty on the order of two or three per year. I have a textbook coming out next year. It will be the first reading anthology for writing classes that will come out in magazine format.

Whose idea was that?

It was a collaborative thing. I've worked with several editors, and we kind of came together for a different concept of the "book."

Recently, Jennifer Vaught, Christine Devine, Joe Andriano, Joe Riehl, Jim Anderson and Mary Ann Wilson have all published books. Martha Reed and Denise Rogers both published books of poetry last year. Clancy Ratliff writes a blog called Culture Cat, which is one of the most popular blogs on rhetoric in the country, and which won the 2005-2006 John Lovas Memorial Academic Weblog Award. Keith Dorwick built AcadianaMOO, which is a electronic environment which uses a lot of the concepts that went into building Dungeons & Dragons, but it's a space where people around the country hold classes, and use for a lot of other scholarly functions.

What about the PhD program?

Our English doctoral program is one of the most successful in placing graduates in academic positions, of any in the country. It's a very tough job market, but we have a high percentage of students who get tenure-track jobs.

Often, it is also the largest producer of PhDs on the UL campus. In our best years we've produced around 15 candidates.