When she started her new position, the new dean already knew her way around the building. A professor of English, linguistics, and education, Dean Curzan has been an inspiring member of the U-M faculty for 17 years. During her time here, she has worked as the associate dean for the humanities for LSA and as the faculty athletics representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association for the University of Michigan. Dean Curzan is also an alumna, having received her Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from U-M.
Dean Curzan’s research focuses on the history of the English language, and she describes herself as a fount of random linguistic information about how English got to be the way it is — information she shares every Sunday on the show “That’s What They Say” on Michigan Radio. She has also dedicated one major strand of her career to helping students and the broader public understand linguistic diversity as part of cultural diversity, and language change as a natural part of living languages.
LSA’s new dean has repeatedly distinguished herself as an educator and administrator. An Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature, Linguistics, and Education, Dean Curzan has received both the Henry Russel Award and the John Dewey Award for outstanding research and undergraduate teaching. When she was announced as the dean over the summer, former students reached out over Twitter and in person to share their excitement and their enthusiasm for their former professor.
We sat down to talk with Dean Curzan about who she is, what kind of dean she hopes to be, and what alumni can do to help shape the college’s future.
What kind of dean do you aspire to be?
AC: A dean who is genuinely invested in people, the common good, the power of learning and discovery, the value of play, and the importance of well-being. I will also be the fiercest of advocates for the value of a liberal arts education and for the research we pursue here in LSA.
I aspire always to be guided by this principle: “In the end, it’s all about people.” These wise words come from John Hannah, the president of Michigan State for 28 years, who was also my grandfather. I am deeply invested in the success of everyone in the college — students, faculty, and staff — and I want that “everyone” to be as diverse and inclusive as possible. An organization is only as good as the people in it, and fundamentally my job is to foster an environment — with the resources and support structures and expectations for excellence — that allows everyone to thrive.
To me, thriving means pursuing meaningful work, leading a meaningful life, and contributing to positive change. This requires strong relationships and a vibrant sense of community around a shared vision, mission, and values.
What do you do for fun?
AC: I have been an athlete my entire life, and I love sports — both playing and watching. Growing up, I was a tennis player and a rhythmic gymnast (yes, with the ribbons and balls and hoops), and in college I played varsity squash and 17 intramural sports. I have no idea in retrospect how I got any studying done!
After college, I turned myself into a triathlete, and I still do distance swimming and running. Believe me, I know this is not everyone’s definition of fun, but, for me, it’s a form of meditation.
I always have a novel on my nightstand and try to read at the end of every day, and I really enjoy cooking for others. Someday I hope to return to playing the piano.
Do you have a favorite spot on Central Campus?
AC: I think the new Trotter House is now my favorite spot on Central Campus. I also have a real fondness for the reading room in Rackham because I wrote big chunks of my dissertation in that beautiful, quiet space.
“When I think about the impact of LSA on the world, I am thinking about both the work happening on campus and the work that our alumni are doing all over the world.”
What’s the most Ann Arbor-ish thing that’s happened to you lately?
AC: I was walking through the Diag the other day and stopped to watch a young man slowly but surely kneeling down to pet a big fat squirrel — and the squirrel let him!
What do you think would surprise readers of LSA Magazine most about you?
AC: I went to college as a math major. And honestly, I didn’t really know what linguistics was. My first year in college I took the sequence of intensive math courses for majors and did well. I also took an introductory linguistics course because I enjoyed learning languages and I knew linguistics was in some way related to the study of languages. I liked the course enough to sign up for a course called “The History of the English Language” in my sophomore year — and that class changed my life.
I wanted to know what my professor, Marie Borroff, knew. Reading about what had happened to English over the past 1,500 years was so much fun that I felt like I was on a playground. Could I really study this topic and get credit, let alone a job? I often share this story with first-year students to help give them permission to change their minds about majors and discover new fields. After all, how could you know you wanted to study sociology or women’s studies or biophysics or linguistics if you have never encountered them before? That kind of exploration is one of the real joys of a liberal arts education, and all of us get the best education when we are studying something that genuinely excites us.
What role do you see alumni playing in LSA’s future?
AC: LSA alumni are a vital part of what makes LSA such a remarkable place to work and be a student because they are the biggest part of the LSA network. When I think about the impact of LSA on the world, I am thinking about both the work happening on campus and the work that our alumni are doing all over the world. I am grateful for all the alumni who provide mentoring for today’s students and help with internships, career opportunities, scholarships, and much more. I look forward to continuing to think with alumni about how the expertise and life experience they have gained over the years can contribute to the education of today’s students.
“Today’s students have more information at their fingertips than ever before, with higher expectations for what they will do with it.”
What should alumni know about the challenges and opportunities today’s students face?
AC: In the first week of class, I always ask students to tell me about all the other activities they are engaged in — in addition to classes — and I’m always floored by how much they do: working one or more jobs (often to pay for school), participating in clubs and singing groups and religious organizations, doing volunteer work, pursuing entrepreneurial ventures, playing sports and marching in bands, tutoring, teaching preschoolers, raising their own children, assisting in research all across campus, and the list goes on. It is inspiring, and I never want us to lose sight of how much today’s college students are juggling as they “student.”
We know that many of today’s students suffer from stress levels that hinder learning; we know many are managing mental health issues. First-generation students — and there are more and more first-generation students at U-M — are breaking new ground for their families, which is an exciting opportunity that comes with lots of challenges. Today’s students are facing an insecure landscape in terms of jobs, the effects of climate change, and much more. They have more information at their fingertips than ever before, with higher expectations for what they will do with it.
I would ask that we all be wary of discourse that disparages younger generations and today’s college students. I am continuously inspired by the ways that today’s students are already trying to change the world. It is one of the true privileges of working at a university. I would also ask that each of us who has the means considers what we can do to help students afford to come to U-M and then to have equal access to the educational and extracurricular opportunities here.