Penn State professors are known for being experts in their respective fields of study, but one faculty member takes the concept of real-world experience to an entirely new level.
Pamela Monk, a professor in Penn State’s College of Communications, has writing experience that spans far outside the confines of the classroom. However, she never thought her love of words would blossom into anything more than a hobby.
“I always liked to write,” Monk said. “But when I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I never really thought about pursuing it as an actual career. So, I eventually decided to go into teaching.”
Monk attended Michigan State University for two years before dropping out, but she eventually went on to pursue a degree in biology with a minor in elementary education from Hunter College. A few years later, she moved to the Windy City to earn her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle Campus. After completing her education, she finally jumpstarted her career by teaching middle school students in Ithaca, New York. Monk had always enjoyed working with kids, so she figured a teaching career was the right career move to make.
But there was still something missing — Monk never truly lost her passion for writing. Though she balanced a busy daytime schedule, she often tried to find bits of time to write for own enjoyment.
“I really enjoyed teaching middle school, but eventually I realized I didn’t have to give up writing,” Monk said. “So I sort of stumbled my way into nonfiction.”
It wasn’t long before her work started to take off. Monk began to write pieces for a local paper before submitting various pitches to other outlets. The more her stories got picked up, the more she wrote. Little did she know an especially disappointing rejection would lead her to one of her most notable writing accomplishments.
Monk had recently taken a canoeing and hiking trip with her children and husband David Monk — a Penn State dean himself. For weeks, the family braved the wilderness during a time when cell phones and other digital communication tools had yet to exist. The group relied almost solely on fishing for food, and the trip took the family to several different lakes across the United States.
Monk decided to document her experience in a longform essay and send the piece to Adirondack Life Magazine, but the publication rejected her piece. It wasn’t until her husband suggested another outlet that she decided to give the story another try.
“My husband told me to consider sending it to The New York Times,” Monk said. “I didn’t think much of it, but I didn’t really have much to lose, so I just sent it in.”
Much to her surprise, Monk soon received a call from The New York Times — the editorial team wanted her words in the publication’s next edition. The essay, titled “Discovering the Sweet Inland Waters,” was published on April 23, 1989. A year later, Monk published another essay in The New York Times travel section called “Canoe Camping, Family Style.”
“It really gave me the confidence to keep writing,” Monk said. “I started to really know what it means to learn by doing, so I just kept sending work in when I could and got work published in more publications than I ever thought I would.”
In 1999, her husband decided to take a job at Penn State as the dean of the College of Education. Though Monk was reluctant to leave the area she’d grown to call home over the years, she knew State College had an array of great teaching opportunities in the area. She looked forward to continuing her work with middle school students at a school in Centre County. However, Monk had no idea her career path would permanently change.
“I remember being on campus when my husband first started his job, and some of the faculty sent me a copy of the course description for English 050, which is a creative writing class,” Monk said. “At first I was actually a bit insulted — I thought they were telling me they wanted me to take it. But I soon got a call from them asking me if I had made a decision yet. I told them I wasn’t sure what they meant, and they were like, ‘No, we want you to teach it.'”
Monk never thought she had the ability to teach at the college level and was initially hesitant to take the job. She realized, however, that taking on the new position might allow for the perfect merging of teaching and writing she’d hoped for years ago.
“It was a total spit-take,” Monk said. “I just assumed I’d wait until a spot at a public school opened again so I could continue doing the type of teaching I’d done before.”
Once she began her teaching career in the College of Communications, she began teaching Comm 461 to prospective journalism and public relations students. She aimed to create an environment where students felt comfortable enough to produce their own creative content on a weekly basis. Though the syllabus has changed over the years, the fundamental goals of the course remain the same.
“Starting in the early 2000s, students would help put together this magazine as part of their grade,” Monk said. “The publication focused a lot on various aspects of student life, well-being, and other popular topics among college kids.”
Monk eventually proposed the idea of a class centered solely on magazine writing and website building to Penn State’s Department of Journalism. She then created Comm 497, an experimental class in which students contribute to an online publication called “State of Mind.” As computers became more of an everyday aspect of life, Monk wanted to show students the importance of creating an online presence.
Monk also served as a founding advisor for student groups on campus, such as Valley Magazine and PSNtv. She continues to write in her free time and has enjoyed expanding the scope of her writing whenever possible. Monk has even written several plays and currently hosts State of the Story, a storytelling event held at the State Theater. Overall, she hopes to show students how important it is to develop their own unique voice.
“I’ve done a lot of my own freelance work over the years, but it’s awesome to see what students go on to do,” Monk said. “That’s been a really great part of it, and I wouldn’t have that if it weren’t for teaching.”