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“You can’t be a great writer unless you’re reading,” said Dr. Uzzie Cannon, co-author of Rereading America: Cultural Contexts for Critical Thinking and Writing. Dr. Cannon would know; she’s been an avid reader all of her life.
Macmillan Learning recognizes that the success of our textbooks and courseware is in large part due to our outstanding authors, many of whom have years of experience in research and higher education. Dr. Cannon is one of those experienced educators, and it was her teaching experience and specialization in composition and pedagogy that made her the perfect candidate to co-author the latest edition of Rereading America.
We recently sat down with Dr. Cannon to learn more about her own educational background and teaching interests. What we discovered is a professor who is passionate about providing her students with the skills and knowledge necessary to become successful young adults with a greater appreciation of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Dr. Cannon has always been an avid reader, but she didn’t initially plan on majoring in English. When she first arrived at Southern Wesleyan University to begin her undergraduate career, she thought about studying Advertising and Marketing. Nevertheless, her school didn’t offer that degree program, so she decided to major in English during her sophomore year as a way to further develop her communication and critical thinking skills.
Little did Dr. Cannon know that her love of reading and writing, which her mother instilled in her during her elementary school years, would serendipitously propel her into a successful future career as an educator. “While I enjoyed my time as an undergraduate in English, I thought first about continuing my education in Journalism,” said Dr. Cannon, “but something kept gnawing in the back of my mind that I should teach.”
The gnawing in the back of Dr. Cannon’s mind didn’t turn into a desire to teach until she gained teaching experience during and after her master’s degree. “I had the opportunity to work as a teacher’s assistant and tutor undergraduate students, and I also taught high school and community college,” said Dr. Cannon. When considering whether to continue onto a Ph.D. program, Dr. Cannon realized that her master’s program included more courses in writing and writing assessment than literature, and it quickly became clear that she wanted composition and pedagogy to play a large role in her future studies and teaching specialties.
It was during Dr. Cannon’s time as a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro where literature began to take the forefront. “I wanted to live a life of the mind and share that with my students,” said Dr. Cannon. “It’s always been a priority of mine to give my students the type of experience with reading that I was privileged to have my whole life.”
Dr. Cannon’s favorite genre of literature is fiction. “In terms of African American literature, I remember reading mostly poetry at first,” she said. “But I was exposed to more fiction and novelists during college, which is where I fell in love with the novel.” Dr. Cannon picked up her first copy of Toni Morrison’s Beloved at a flea market while an undergraduate student. “I had not yet heard of her, and the book was a first edition!” Up until that point, the only novels by African American authors that Dr. Cannon remembers reading were The Color Purple by Alice Walker and Clover by Dori Sanders. After reading Morrison’s Beloved, Dr. Cannon was hooked.
While creative nonfiction hadn’t been on Dr. Cannon’s radar as much before, she is now trying to incorporate more into her teaching. “I find memoirs really interesting,” said Dr. Cannon. “I was blown away by Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, and I think we have a lot to learn from Gen X and Gen Y memoirs.” It’s important to Dr. Cannon that her students are exposed to a variety of genres of writing.
When asked her favorite part about teaching, Dr. Cannon said it’s that ‘lightbulb moment’ when a student’s expression demonstrates true understanding of something. “It happened recently in my literature course,” said Dr. Cannon. “We were reading Kate Chopin and having a conversation about women’s sexuality and discussing why Chopin was so avant garde. Not all of the students understood what is meant by gender, so I explained how it’s a construct, and their minds were blown,” she said excitedly. For Dr. Cannon, it’s moments like this one that keep her going. “When students have that moment of awareness–of knowing something they didn’t before–that’s what makes my job worthwhile.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are at the center of Dr. Cannon’s teaching, and last year she presented a session titled Ways with Culture: Toward Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Composition Classroom at Bedford / St. Martin’s writing workshop. “I grew up in a very diverse community in Upstate South Carolina,” she said, “surrounded by all types of people and all classes of people.” Dr. Cannon credits her upbringing for providing her with an openness to other people’s ways of being. “We need to respect people for who they are as people,” she said. “It’s important to be aware of difference and to accept and appreciate it. If we’re not intentionally practicing DEI, then we’re not doing our students justice.” Just as Dr. Cannon hopes to share her love of reading with her students, she also wants her students to leave her courses with a better appreciation of diversity.
One way she seeks to accomplish this is by exposing her students to a wide range of stories and perspectives. “It’s like the tabula rasa theory,” said Dr. Cannon. “How can we expect students to know or understand things which they haven’t experienced or perceived?” This applies to reading, writing, and practicing DEI. “It’s the reason I started using a composition reader in my writing courses,” said Dr. Cannon, “Rereading America is the second reader I ever used, and it’s the only one I’ve used since. It has a wide array of provocative essays that will get students talking and wanting to write.”
Dr. Cannon embraced earlier editions of Rereading America, and it was a bit fortuitous that she was able to become a co-author of recent editions. “It’s sort of a funny story,” she said. “I’d just presented at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference in Seattle, sharing my framework for using online tools in the composition classroom, and a representative from Macmillan Learning appreciated my background in teaching. We got to talking and later asked if I would be interested in co-authoring future editions of the book.”
“I agreed to it because I thought Rereading America was absolutely fantastic, and I’d already been recommending it to other faculty,” said Dr. Cannon. While she was quite accustomed to earlier editions of the book, she had been supplementing it with other materials that she wanted students to read. These selections eventually made it into the book. “It felt like a natural fit to me,” she said.
Dr. Cannon credits her background as a teacher who has worked extensively on writing assessment for making the transition to co-author a smooth one. “The writing itself felt seamless,” she said. “I was prepared to make my own selections about which material I wanted to include, how to formulate good critical questions, and knowing which enrichment activities to add because I had been doing those things so often before.”
After the Modern Language Association in January of 2020, Dr. Cannon spent time during the pandemic to write and edit the latest version of Rereading America. “It wasn’t as time consuming as it would have been if I’d been teaching face-to-face,” she said. Dr. Cannon used some of that extra time to continue working on another one of her passions, black and white photography. “I’ve been an avid photographer for close to thirty years,” she said, “and I like the way that black and white forces the brain to see things differently.” When not teaching or writing, Dr. Cannon likes to spend her time drinking tea and editing her photos.