This is the first of a series of interviews by Annie Livingston and Amanda Reed. Our first subject is Trista Merrill, the head of the Honors Studies department at Finger Lakes Community College!
Interviewers: Annie Livingston and Amanda Reed
Why did you decide to teach? How did you come to teaching at FLCC?
I have always wanted to be a teacher. I remember playing school as a kid and I always wanted to be the teacher. One of the things that inspired me was the movie Dead Poet’s Society with Robin Williams. In that movie, the teacher’s ability to excite students to be that thrilled about something they normally would not be was such a huge inspiration for me, and I had a variety of college professors and high school teachers who were the same way. I was so passionate about the things I loved, like reading and writing, that I wanted to be able to excite others about them as well.
I came to FLCC because I had grown up in this area and when I came back through, I was looking at SUNY schools around to see who had opportunities. I realized that there was some really good community colleges around here, and I saw that FLCC was hiring. About a year after I finished my doctorate I ended up here teaching.
Have writing and literature always been a part of your life?
Yes. Growing up, I missed most cultural references to television because I was reading books and doing crossword puzzles. The librarian used to keep new books for me when I was coming into the library because she knew I would take them all out. I have always been a veracious reader and writer so it is kind of natural that I ended up teaching English.
Who are some of your biggest influences (in the field of writing/literature, or outside of that)
Tolkien is a big one, obviously. I want to say Harry Potter, but I came to Harry Potter fairly late in my life. I always liked stories about women who didn’t buy into any of the social criticisms, like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Jo in Little Women. They went against the grain of society, and that was sort of what I did as well. My brother read a lot of fantasy fiction growing up, and so that is how I ended up getting into Tolkien and all of this fantasy stuff—which doesn’t always have a lot of strong women in it, so that prompted me to want to write things with strong female characters.
What is one book that you think everyone should read? Why?
That’s tough, because not all books are designed for all people. I’m going to say The Hobbit, because it is a story of somebody who doesn’t think they can do it, and can. I think it is a good metaphor for the community college student, the person facing our current economic woes of the country, anybody facing any kind of major challenge. It is just one small person who has the opportunity to make a big difference for the people around them and make life better. It also has one of my favorite quotes in it, which is “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” and I think that’s pretty accurate for where we live.
What is something that you tend to see students struggle with in their writing and how do you help them to overcome it?
Confidence. One of the most interesting things I see is when I assign a two page essay to my students in the first week of school about their strengths and weaknesses, and they will spend two pages explaining how they can’t write—except they just spent two pages writing about how they can’t write. I try and show students that they are already very good communicators in their own worlds, within their jobs, church, family, friends, sports, etc, so now we are just bridging that and adding a new level of how to write and communicate in a college setting—which is just a different set of rules and language and communication skills.
Favorite spots to write/read?
Anywhere. It really doesn’t matter. I don’t read well in bed, because I end up going to sleep or staying up way too late. But other than that I can read anywhere because when I read, I am not there anymore anyways. If I am really into what I am reading or writing, then I am wherever I am in the book or in the writing.
If you could spend a day with a character from any book, who would it be and why? What would you do during that day?
It would be fun to do magic with Harry and his friends. It would also be fun to sit down and talk to Sam from The Lord of the Rings and learn how to garden. Tolkien didn’t really choose to focus on the interior part of characters in his works, so it would be fun to get into the heads of some of those characters and find out more about what they are thinking. I would love to have a conversation with Robert Frost, as I have always been fond of his works, and anyone from Neil Gaiman’s works would be fun—he writes such rich, complicated worlds that are so steeped in mythology and the modern world that it would be fun to spend the day with one of those characters to explore their world. We already do that when reading, but it would be fun to actually experience it.
What are some of your favorite words that you wish were used more frequently?
I have always liked “Loquacious,” meaning “tending to talk a great deal” because I have always been told that I am loquacious. “Eschew” is another one—there used to be a teacher who said “Eschew obfuscation”—which means “Stop making things more complicated than they really need to be.” There are so many cool big words out there that people just don’t use very much and anytime that we can widen our vocabulary and use words that are a bit unusual, it is always fun.
What are some of your favorite places to visit in the Finger Lakes region (shops, restaurants, etc.)
The Arboretum is one of my favorite places to go walk. I like walking along the lake, and I love wandering around Ontario Mall Antiques. My parents have a booth there and I love going and looking at all of the old things. There is so much cool history there to look at that it is like a museum, but you can also take things home with you if you want. I also love Wegmans—I hang out in the café, grade papers and get something to eat and drink. Canandaigua is an interesting mix of a wide variety of people, and there is always really good people watching there.
If you got abducted by aliens, what would you do?
Panic! Well…I guess I would probably try to communicate as best as I could, and learn as much as I could about whoever they were!