Hattiesburg resident Greg Underwood recently graduated from The University of Southern Mississippi with a Ph.D. in English, after stops and starts in pursuit of the degree over the last 25 years. The local community college teacher and administrator, a 2013 Mississippi Humanities Teacher of the Year, took time recently to discuss his journey to earning his doctorate, his gratitude for supportive family, friends, co-workers and teachers along the way, and how his home brewing hobby and dissertation research intertwined.
First, talk about your journey to Hattiesburg and this milestone event in your life that USM helped you achieve.
I was born in White Plains, New York, but moved to Memphis when I was three. My father is a CPA, and my mother a librarian. My undergraduate degree is actually in accounting, however. It’s probably a bit of academic schizophrenia moving from accounting to English, but I had minored in English as an undergraduate, and the move was largely made out of simple enjoyment and preference for English over accounting.
I had just started my master’s program in English at the University of Memphis when I first met my wife, Leigh Ann. While we were dating, she had a work colleague who suggested I was following in Chaucer’s path as a clerk turned man of letters. In any event, Leigh Ann and I moved to Hattiesburg in 1995 a few months after our wedding for the express purpose to get my Ph.D. in English at USM. We intended to be here four years and then leave -- the best laid plans often go awry, I guess.
While taking graduate classes, I started working part-time at Pearl River Community College (PRCC) in Poplarville in 1997 and full time in 1998, teaching developmental English classes for students who needed a lot of work to get up to speed for college-level classes. It was great to be able to work with students and see the amount of progress they could achieve in a relatively short time frame, given the right opportunity and support. I kind of stumbled into a great way to serve others, and have been at PRCC since.
I started teaching at the PRCC Forrest County Center in Hattiesburg in 2003, and became a department chair a few years later where I still teach but also serve a great cohort of faculty. Currently I supervise about a dozen faculty, but over the years have supervised nearly 100 faculty members.
What drew you to the USM English doctoral program?
A few things: a crass, albeit ironic answer, is money (accountants should not teach English, I suppose). I had been accepted to a few graduate schools in the southeast, but USM offered me the best package with a graduate assistantship from day one. Of course, none of that would have been possible without its quality faculty or its location close to our families in Memphis and Alabama. We knew we wanted to stay relatively close to our families, since we had none here.
What is your area of expertise/research, and topic of your dissertation?
I work with Early Modern (what most folks call “Renaissance”) English literature, but specifically I explore how the literature of that time and place intersects with and responds to beer and ale. It helps me integrate the literature I find fascinating with my love for home brewing. My dissertation examines how Henry VIII’s tutor, John Skelton, suffered critically as a poet because he was linked so strongly with a character in one of his poems who was an alewife—a brewer and retailer of ale. So, every time I brew, it’s a research opportunity!
One good aspect of taking longer is that my research interests were different, and frankly more enjoyable now than they were in the late 90’s. Without establishments such as Keg and Barrel in town or organizations such as Raise Your Pints, I would not have known to even consider brewing as a either a personal hobby or a research interest. My background in home brewing provided a natural way to integrate the centrality of ale in the early modern diet with its literary depiction. I found the literary research and writing to be quite complementary to the brewing—and consuming--processes.
Talk about any challenges you’ve faced in pursuing your degree, and what kept you motivated.
I’m cognizant of the fact that most folks don’t take 25 years to complete a Ph.D. — and while they shouldn’t take 25 years, they should complete. Of course, I could not have done it without the help of my dissertation director, Dr. Jameela Lares. I was fortunate in that she has been at USM for the entirety of my time here, and her patience and good judgement have helped me immensely. My decision to remain ABD (all but dissertation) for so long was in part engendered by my satisfaction with my faculty position at Pearl River Community College.
As far as motivation goes, I had a few sources. While it’s a bit of a cliché, at some point many folks have a mid-life crisis or self-evaluation, and in my own case it became harder and harder to look at my kids with a straight face and tell them to finish anything knowing I was ABD; it was just a gnawing feeling at the back of my mind. More than anything else, that was my motivation. Unlike most people who obtain a Ph.D., I did not need the degree to secure employment, since I am entirely satisfied in my position at PRCC. As far as a “mid-life crisis” goes, writing a dissertation certainly lacks the panache of an affair, divorce, or an expensive sports car, but on the other hand it doesn’t destroy one’s family as much either (fact check that with Leigh Ann to be sure). I had the support of colleagues who would offer encouragement and happily express (or feign) interest in my dissertation topic as well. That was great.
I also recall a particularly apt comment from my friend and USM geography professor Andy Reese who remarked upon my quarter of a century Ph.D. journey the unusual fact that I did not need to finish my degree to obtain a position. He pointed out that was the issue: not needing the position was as much of a blessing as a curse in order to complete.
That being said, without the support of my wife Leigh Ann or kids Jill and George, it would have been impossible to undertake the effort: there was certainly a sacrifice of time. It’s stressful balancing a marriage, full time job, and kids with their activities such as cheer, baseball, lacrosse, basketball, and softball without writing a dissertation—it would have been much better if I had finished it in a traditional manner.
What are your overall reflections on your experience as a student at USM?
Without question, working with Dr. Lares has been the highlight of my USM experience. Her dedication to her profession has been an example to me and numerous other students with whom she has worked. In addition, she was instrumental in my onboarding process back into the program a few years ago. She was excited as I was about my research agenda, and helped in numerous ways to achieve my goals.
I should mention that my original dissertation draft of around 125 pages in the late 1990’s was entirely awful -- comically bad. By that time, I kind of knew my heart was not in it, and the work showed. Jameela suggested I start over and take a year off to complete and finish. As gently as I could, I let her know then that neither starting over nor finishing in a year was ever likely to happen. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been wrong about something, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. The future has a funny way of giving us the unexpected, though.
Of course, I had my wife Leigh Ann’s tireless support and unceasing encouragement. I had the support of my colleagues at Pearl River Community College, who offered encouragement and support along the way as I decided to undertake this project. In many respects, my project might never have gotten off the ground were it not for my fellow home brewers Jason Brown and Don Hinton.
What’s next for Greg Underwood?
As for the future, a number of people have asked if I intend to find another faculty position elsewhere, but I am entirely happy at PRCC. I’ve had offers to leave in the past for other colleges in Florida and Tennessee but Hattiesburg is home; the kids love it here and we have a great network of friends. Now, if a local brewery had an opening for an individual with my unique skill set for appreciating beer’s relationship with early modern literature, all bets would of course be off. But what is really next for me is simply getting my life and my time back. That situation of course played some small part in my taking a quarter of century to complete my degree; perhaps I’ve set the dubious record of USM’s longest time to complete a Ph. D.