Professor of English Chad Simpson was a probation officer for juvenile offenders in Champaign, IL before coming to Knox. His time there altered the way he saw social justice and inequality in the world. Incidentally, his detention center also became his very first classroom.
“When we were going through training one of the people who was in charge of [the program] made a joke about how, ‘oh, there will be so much bickering and so much backstabbing … and some days the kids act up too,” Simpson said.
Simpson explained that sometimes the most challenging part of the job often wasn’t the children the in facility, but fellow staff members who ignored their duties and left them to other probation officers.
“I’ve heard horror stories about some juvenile detention facilities, but the one I worked at was run magnificently,” Simpson said.
Simpson attributes the success of his former facility to the fact that of the new staff, the facility hired half their workforce with social work backgrounds and half with criminal justice backgrounds. Simpson himself got the job because he had a social work background.
“I did a year of AmeriCorps … for that appointment I worked for a men’s homeless shelter. I [also] helped run an after-school program at a boys and girls club. Both of those were really rewarding. At the end of my year of service, I was looking around for jobs … I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school someday, but I wasn’t ready yet,” Simpson said.
After completing AmeriCorps, Simpson saw an advertisement for the probation officer program and applied. He was a probation officer for two years starting in 2000. Though the hours were long, Simpson says he enjoyed spending time with the juvenile offenders he watched over.
“I feel like overall I had a pretty good relationship with a lot of the kids. Learning about them and my interactions with them. . .certainly shaped my heart in a number of ways,” Simpson said.
He stated that one of the hardest parts of the job was reading the files of the kids in the center and seeing all the violence and inequality in their lives. Furthermore, the job often made him anxious when he had to perform strip searches in order to keep weapons outside the facility.
“Everybody at that facility actually cared about the kids … most people who work a job that difficult can’t do it unless you care about the lives of the kids who you’re trying to keep safe,” Simpson said. “I very much appreciated being out with them and trying to help them.”
Ironically, Simpson had a harder time connecting with his fellow probation officers who were much older. He recalled being picked on for bringing a William Faulkner book to read at work, but Simpson put his reading and writing skills to use during a workshop he ran at the facility.
“We did a holiday program because, for a lot of the kids, being locked up during December isn’t fun. We tried to do little things that could make them forget that they’re in jail during the holidays. I remember doing a group poem that involved me giving them a lesson on synesthesia,” Simpson said.
Though Simpson doesn’t believe his time at the detention center explicitly influenced him as a professor, he can definitely draw parallels between his time there and his time at Knox.
“In a way those were some of my first classes that I was like standing in front of before I ever became a professor … but it was a different kind of crowd: they were a captive audience,” Simpson said with a laugh.
Assistant Professor of English Katya Reno was a former student at Knox College. Her love for language led her to return to campus, but not before she spent some time in the book publishing industry.
“When I was little, I was always making my own little books with stories and images. That was kind of an obsession of mine early on,” Reno said. “I guess it took me awhile for that to crystallize into actual goals.”
During her time as a Knox student, Professor Robin Metz influenced her to develop her writing abilities. As her graduation came around the corner, however, Reno grew concerned about how her language skills would translate into the workforce.
“When I was about to graduate I started to freak out, like ‘wait, what am I actually going to do with [my degree]?’ The trick became how to transfer my love of language into a career,” Reno said. “And I wasn’t quite ready for graduate school, I wanted to be out in the world for a little bit.”
After graduation, Reno moved to Los Angeles where she found a job at a magazine publishing company. Reno found that she would be better suited for book publishing — which L.A. lacked opportunities for at the time. This realization sent her on to the next step of her career path: New York City.
“At the time, some of my friends from Knox were living in Brooklyn, and I slept on their couch for maybe a month while I was looking for a job,” Reno said.
Reno arrived to NYC during the craze over internet start-up companies, which led many individuals to leave their traditional publishing jobs. She was able to quickly find a position at Oxford University Press. She held onto her position at the publishing house for nearly four years before moving to Austin, Texas to attain an MFA in Creative Writing from Texas State University.
“I could’ve continued with it,” said Reno, but I just had this burning feeling that, while I enjoyed working with other people’s writing, I wanted to reinvest in my own writing again.”
During her time in Austin after graduate school, Reno worked at a small publishing house called Pro-Ed which publishes psychology textbooks. She also worked briefly at an HBCU in Austin: Huston-Tillotson University.
“It kind of lit a fire in me … I wanted to teach. Unfortunately they didn’t have any full time work available so I couldn’t stay very long,” Reno said. “But it was useful in the way that I realized [teaching] is what I would want to do. “
In 2011, Reno received an email from Knox College asking her to consider a position in the English Department. She accepted and has since held classes based on her experience with digital writing, editing and the publishing industry. She thinks that her professional experience with publishing has informed her teaching and advises students to not fear degrees in arts and humanities that might not imply an exact career path.
“There’s no clear career path for English writing, but I was fortunate to have so many different amazing opportunities. I always try to tell students not to limit their vision too early, and to feel free when you get in the job market to just explore,” Reno said. “There’s so much out there that you can do.”
When Associate Professor of English Cyn Fitch scrubs her household toilet, she feels a sense of empowerment that it is her toilet and the only toilet she will ever scrub again. However, this was not always the case. Although Fitch had several dissatisfying jobs before taking a position as a professor at Knox, her janitorial work stood out as being the most disheartening.
Among her many janitorial positions, Fitch cleaned churches for several years. She remembers cleaning the floors of the sanctuary and finding a surprising amount of fingernail clippings.
“I was always amazed at how many fingernails were on the floor,” she said. “When people are sitting at church they’re either clipping their fingernails or picking at them or biting them.”
Aside from churches, Fitch was given the task of cleaning toilets in homes as well as at the Landmark Cafe in Galesburg. The experience, she explained, was dehumanizing.
“I would find myself with my hands in yet another toilet and think, there has got to be more to life than cleaning,” Fitch said.
Fitch noted that, unfortunately, hands were ultimately the most effective tool to use when cleaning a toilet. Adorned with rubber gloves, Fitch found herself elbow deep in toilet water.
“There was a very tactical quality with that. I couldn’t detach myself with the brush. I had my hand in the mouth of the toilet. And I remember just getting very angry and thinking, I’m just not going to do this forever.”
Fitch remembers a particular home in Galesburg she was tasked with cleaning.
“There’s nothing extraordinary about this toilet and in fact the thing that made me the most angry was that the toilet was never dirty but I had to scrub it anyway,” she said.
This moment, according to Fitch, prompted her to aim toward a different path in life. She eventually took a position as a Certified Parent Educator at Carl Sandburg College, which then offered her the chance to enroll in a few classes. Upon taking classes, Fitch eventually enrolled as a non-traditional student at Knox, where she later took on the job as a professor.