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An interview with Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix

By Kayla B. Smith

Professor Shirley Toland-Dix is one of AUM’s literary treasures. After sitting down to talk with Professor Toland-Dix, I was enlightened about her passion for literature and her path to AUM. She is a native of Tuskegee, a wife, and the mother of two adult children and a grandmother of four. She leads classes in literature with a focused specialty in African-American and Caribbean (English speaking) literature.

Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix
Dr. Shirley
Toland-Dix

Dr. Toland-Dix comes from a foundation of educators. “My father was a history professor at Tuskegee University for 60 years and my mother was a college professor and librarian,” she said. She spent most of her time as a child on campus with her parents which innately grew her yearning for books. When the time came for her to leave home for college she initially went to Hope College in Holland, Michigan, but eventually transferred back to Tuskegee University the following year. Not knowing what it was she wanted to pursue, she sought advice from her mother, who encouraged her to study the thing she enjoyed most: literature.

Dr. Toland-Dix loves the contradictory nature of literature. It has influenced her in her judgement of people and situations. “Literature has helped me to see that people are people,” she said. It made her aware of the possibilities she may not have known of. So it was at Tuskegee University that she received her Bachelor’s Degree in English. She was given the opportunity to teach at her alma mater for two years and then at Auburn University where she would later obtain a Master’s Degree, followed by a Ph.D. from Emory University several years later.

After building an impressive background in education from teaching at the University of South Florida and Spelman College, Professor Toland-Dix made the decision to move back to Alabama in order to care for her aging parents. Longing to get back into the classroom, she met with Dr. Darren Harris-Fain in 2015 and learned that AUM would be conducting a search for a specialist in African American literature. She applied, and by fall 2016, she had begun her journey here at AUM.

Other than being influenced by literature, Dr. Toland-Dix enjoys passing on life lessons to her students. Her advice for students taking her classes is to “enter willing to see what English has to offer and to let college be an adventure,” she said. She does not want it to be a wasted opportunity, just a blur or just another activity to “cross off your list.”  For people who might desire to pursue a career in her field, Professor Toland-Dix’s philosophy is that “You must love it.” But when does one know that one loves literature? “When what you read and write gives you a sense of connection,” she said.  

When asked what the most rewarding and the most difficult part of teaching literature was, she responded saying, “The most rewarding part of teaching literature for me is getting students involved. The most challenging part of teaching literature, is motivating those students who have no real interest in the subject.” She expressed that often time’s students feel that literature has no value in their circle or sphere of life. “Some of the readings you may like some of it you won’t, but all of it will make you a more aware person.” She also meets those students who have the desire to learn, but a difficulty understanding it. Because of her passion for the subject as well as the requirement for some students, she strives to find a way to deliver the information without students leaving with a distaste for literature. As a teacher she wants to pass on not just information, but a love or at least a sincere respect for the subject. However, she does proclaim that “I can’t want it, meaning the education, more than the student.”

Interviewing Professor Toland-Dix was intriguing and helpful in understanding the level of staff offered at AUM. I was inspired and grateful to have had the opportunity to gain insight from someone with such wisdom and passion. Talking to her gives me confidence in knowing AUM cares about the quality of a person as well as their academic ability when hiring professors to educate their students.