Dr. Ellen Dolgin is a familiar face on campus to all who have a class in Casey Hall whether they know her as the chair of the English Department, Dr. DiSiena’s office mate, their teacher, or simply a friendly faculty member they pass in the hallway. As an English major, I have had the privilege of having Dr. Dolgin as my teacher for three courses and have gotten to know her better with each class session. Additionally this semester, I was asked to sit down and interview her to discuss her career, her expertise on St. Joan of Arc, and the honors course she is teaching this semester entitled “Voices of Authority: Joan of Arc.”
Dr. Dolgin started out her career seeking a Bachelor’s degree in Acting and Teaching secondary education. While acting and drama have remained a passion of hers (she has taught drama-related courses at Dominican University and this semester she helped the Aquin Players with their production of Pippin), she graduated from Syracuse University in 1973 with her Bachelor’s in English Education and was certified to teach students in grades 7 through 12. However, she found it difficult to find a teaching position because no one would hire her without the proper experience. She continued to apply for other jobs besides teaching which were related to English, but so often the case was that her resume and expertise showed her to be, as her father described it, “too light for heavy work, too heavy for light work.”
Despite these setbacks, Dr. Dolgin was undeterred. She refused to give up and continued to knock on doors. Shortly thereafter she made the decision to continue her education and pursue her Master’s degree in English at George Peabody College of Vanderbilt University. While there, she also worked as a teacher’s assistant and taught courses which are the equivalent of Dominican University’s English 112, 113, and 123. After attaining her Master’s in 1975, she worked as an advanced copywriter before getting a part-time teaching position as an adjunct at a community college. In 1989, she decided to return to school and get her Doctorate. She applied to New York University, taking advantage of their summer programs. She graduated with her Doctorate in English and Drama Theory in 1995 and within a year began teaching at Dominican University. It was during her time at New York University that her passion for Joan of Arc truly began.
Dr. Dolgin had first been introduced to Joan of Arc as a junior in college through her British drama class when they read George Bernard Shaw’s play “Saint Joan.” While working on her Drama Theory dissertation, she was reintroduced to Joan through Shaw’s play as well as Bertolt Brecht’s “Saint Joan of the Stockyards.” She was amazed to discover that while both plays were written during the same time period, the two playwrights painted the saint in different lights. She set out to discover why and found herself on a journey that has continued to this day. Her first source of information was an article from the New York Times about the suffragists, comparing Alice Paul and Joan of Arc, but she did not trust herself enough to believe that this was part of the answer. While she was on the right track with this article and it would have been enough to give her the basis of her dissertation, by looking for other information, she has been able to take a multidisciplinary approach to studying Joan “as a text.” This has also helped her to recognize that people can read Joan however they want, and in fact they have — both sides of the suffrage movement used her image for their cause.
This semester has found Dr. Dolgin teaching one of her favorite courses, “Voices of Authority: Joan of Arc” as an honors-level course. In order to make it an honors course, she has arranged it to take on more of a Q and A style class, allowing her to lecture less and for the students to guide the class. Additionally she has made the midterm more challenging and, in general, is asking for a higher level of thinking. She has added oral reports to the list of assignments and will be having the students critique each others’ work as well as a chapter from her own book about Joan using the Socratic method. In April, she will be taking the class to see the play that started it all: George Bernard Shaw’s “Saint Joan.”
Dr. Dolgin describes her expertise on Joan as a series of “accidents” wherein she has continued to find more and more information about Joan through a multitude of sources and has seen Joan “trotted out” every time there is a crisis. She has chronicled her journey in learning about Joan of Arc and examined the saint in her book Modernizing Joan of Arc. Though Dr. Dolgin has never been to France and does not speak French, she recognizes Joan as the “gift that keeps on giving” and that “once you start looking, Joan is everywhere.”