Around the world with Lisa Eck

It is a long way from Lisa Eck’s birthplace of Rock Island, Illinois to the Indian Himalayas.  

Before and during teaching at FSU, Eck has embarked on multiple continent-charting journeys. 

This cosmopolitan focus has permeated her teaching philosophy throughout her career. 

From the time she could walk, Eck was immersed in an educational environment, as her father was the treasurer of Augustana College in Illinois. He would take her by the hand all over campus “from the theater department to the art studios, from the cafe to the mailroom,” sparking a love of education that would follow her to the present day.

“I have always had an idealism about what kind of community a campus should be,” Eck said. 

It comes as no surprise her father knew each person on campus by name because the same could be said about her at FSU.

Along with a lifelong love of education, Eck knew from a young age that teaching English was one of her true passions.

“The family joke is that I wanted to be an English teacher since I was a zygote. There’s actually some truth to this. My mom decided to go back to school for a B.A. in English when she was pregnant with me,” said Eck.

“This means that before they knew that coffee was bad for pregnant women, she stayed up drinking coffee and typing English essays late into the night,” Eck added. 

Eck would later return to Augustana College, majoring in English and taking many of the exact same courses her mother took while carrying her 20 years earlier.

“I was sitting in the back row by the heater, fighting off sleep, and suddenly I recognized the professor’s voice coming to me, as if underwater and I had the distinct sensation I’d been there before!

“It’s absolutely possible that I started my studies in utero.”

Eck couldn’t recall a time when she didn’t want to be an English major. 

Eck added, “At Marblehead High School, we were encouraged to declare a major, so I have been a card-carrying English major since age 14.”

At Augustana College, Eck quickly added a second major in philosophy.

“I fell in love with the high-stakes issues in philosophy – those big questions that in my estimate help you see what’s at stake in rich literary texts as well,” said Eck.

Although a small school, consisting of only 2,200 students at the time, Augustana presented opportunities for Eck to expand her world beyond the Midwest. 

Because the college was founded by Swedes in the 1860s, Eck was able to take Swedish for her language requirement.

“I took two years of the language my grandparents spoke, was crowned Sankta Lucia one year, and then spent an amazing summer on the west coast of Sweden in a little fishing village called Grebbestad, where I immersed myself in the language and then used my new confidence to travel around and visit my grandparents’ brothers and sisters, many of whom did not speak English,” said Eck.

The crowning of Sankta Lucia is a tradition commonly practiced by Swedes on Dec. 13 which celebrates the Christian Saint Lucy of Syracuse. 

Eck was then given the opportunity to take her new-found confidence in foreign travel, by participating in the Asian Quarter program in 1986. 

Eck described the program as an 11-week study abroad program in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China in which students took their “gen-ed courses on the road” –  performing Arts of Japan, Japanese economics, urban sociology, politics of modern China, and Chinese philosophy.

She spent her time there studying, traveling, and immersing herself in different cultures which helped her become the person she is today.

“Asia made the world round for me and inspired my commitment to traveling to places so different, my sense of human possibilities were expanded in glorious ways, and my sense of what’s normal, de-centered for good. There are many versions of the normal,” said Eck.

“What I learned about myself in Asia is that I love the intensity of Asian cities: the press of humanity which you feel in megacities like Beijing or Hong Kong. What I love is the amount of life that happens on the outside of houses – on balconies and doorsteps, in night markets, in parks full of kites.”

Out of all the places she visited, Wuhan left the greatest impact. 

“Wuhan is not a tourist destination per se,” said Eck. “After Beijing and Shanghai, it has the most universities in China. When I lived there, it was a river city full of universities, steel factories, and fancy cruise ships which you could board to take a trip up the Yangtze River through the Three Gorges, like floating in a Chinese painting.”

Eck and others from Augustana met with another English class at Central China Normal University. 

“We got to walk the streets and the markets. During one such walk, I went down to the banks of the Yangtze and promised myself that I would remember the certainty I felt at that moment. 

“In pure Arnold Schwarzenegger style, I said out loud, ‘I’ll be back!’”

And sure enough, she was – three times, to be exact. 

A year after graduating from Augustana College, Eck started her M.A./Ph.D. program at Washington University in St. Louis. 

“Dave, my partner, and I call it ‘our decade of learning.’ We both took 10 years to finish our degrees,” added Eck, one reason being her participation in an all-women’s contemporary dance theater – Gash/Voigt Dance Theater.

“I was a touring member for 10 years, including tours to Russia, Costa Rica, Hungary and Greece,” said Eck. 

Eck taught at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina before coming to FSU. She taught writing and introductory literature courses and earned a postdoc research grant to be in residence one summer at Isak Dinesen’s home and museum in Rungsted, Denmark.

“I started teaching at FSU – then Framingham State College – in September of 2003, with 10-month-old twins! I was hired to teach contemporary world literature courses – affectionately known as group E – which included both European literature and non-western literature,” said Eck.

Eck helped develop new 300-level courses for the English department’s curriculum – Postcolonial Literature, the Novel and the World, Contemporary Literature of the Islamic World, and a new version of Contemporary European Literature. 

She also played a role in establishing FSU’s new English graduate programs – the M.Ed. for initial licensure in English, and the 4+1 B.A./M.A. in English.

The reason Eck has stayed at FSU for 17 years?

“By far the students,” said Eck.

“FSU students, and English majors in particular, are just amazing intellectual company. I find that if I pitch my classes high, students always come with me and teach me something new I would have never seen before. I love how open FSU students are, and how grateful they are for the chance to work one-on-one with faculty, which is a pure pleasure.

“Put plainly, I am never bored. I like to think that I could cover up the name at the top of a paper and without fail guess whose voice I’m reading – FSU students are that distinctive.”

Another major accomplishment was creating the winter J-Term trip to India.

“The idea came to me that I could design a faculty-led trip abroad and based on my research interest in Postcolonial Anglophone fiction, India was the obvious choice,” said Eck.

“My first sabbatical was in the spring of 2011. At that point, I was a world literature professor who had not left the country since 2000. I went to India solo for three weeks, but was never alone, due to all of the friends and contacts – friends of friends of friends of friends – I had in India, around which I designed a high-impact program that is about ‘the real India.’

“I led a group of FSU students on the first J-term in 2012, [and] again in 2014, 2017 and 2019. However, I also recruited my friend and colleague, Rachel Lucking, FSU’s dean of campus engagement, to lead the J-term program. Between her groups in 2018 and 2020, FSU has hosted six India J-terms, each of which was a life-changing, transformative experience for each and every participant,” she added.

The J-term trip allows students to travel through “Buddhist India, Hindu India, and Muslim India” all while meeting villagers, participating in environmental clean-up projects, and hosting Bollywood dance parties with local children. 

Eck’s main goal is to show an “intense interest in learning from this Eastern place with its local experts and mirroring back our appreciation for all that India has to offer the open-minded traveler,” rather than visiting, taking photos, and leaving. 

“To be a responsible reader/traveler, you have to be willing to read the ways your own biases get in the way of real understanding and connection,” said Eck.

Eck hopes she will be able to incorporate this love of multiculturalism when she succeeds Desmond McCarthy as the next chair of the English Department.  

“I’m so excited to be passing the proverbial baton to Lisa Eck – she will be a phenomenal English department chair,” said McCarthy, the current chair, whose six-year term ends on July 1.

Eck said, “I see my role as we go into uncharted territory as helping English majors, and potential majors, articulate the value of our discipline. We will stay focused on the fact that English majors get good, meaningful jobs after graduation, but also on the deep pleasures our area of study allows us to explore our humanity and [ability to] connect with other voices in the pages of a book in ways that I think will be healing after the corona[virus] crisis is past.”

Eck had some uplifting advice for graduating seniors.

“Give yourself the gift of time – if your dream job doesn’t come right away, know that your second job may be that job, or bring you closer to your goals over time.

“Also, keep in touch with your college friends and favorite professors and mentors. We want to write you recommendation letters now and in five years. We love being part of your ambitious journeys! Also, we want to share in your joys as you move forward in life. Don’t be a stranger!”