Professor of English
College of Arts and Sciences
Learn more about Integrated Scholar Jill Patterson, in this question-and-answer session.
What are your research objectives and interests?
My research centers around two areas of interest: narrative nonfiction and narrative law. For both, I'm frequently out in the world, interviewing people of interest, whether witnesses to a crime or simply, on the other end of the spectrum, some horse trainers; attending events that are related to my subjects, whether capital trials or rodeos; and taking classes where I can learn more about my subjects, whether a forensics seminar, where I learn about blood spatter patterns, or a class on shoeing horses. My ultimate research objective in both fields is to shape all the facts I've gathered into a compelling story—a text that entertains, educates and persuades. In narrative law, I hope to transform technical legal documents and witness testimony into the vivid and full lives of defendants. In my essays, I frequently tackle some of the most complicated social issues today—violence against women, race relations, privacy—and hopefully am making these topics easier and more enjoyable for people to understand and ponder.
How do you feel your research impacts the globe?
My research in narrative law is impacting the debate about the use of the death penalty. I'm training attorneys to represent their clients in a manner that makes it difficult for society to dismiss indigent people as the other invading the security of our towns. In doing so, I'm encouraging a serious conversation about poverty, racial prejudice, class biases and the difference between justice and simple revenge. How do we make our criminal justice system truly rehabilitate offenders? How do we stop the environmental factors that are triggering criminal behavior? How do we stop mass incarceration and the devastating effect it is having on the American family?
What types of service projects have you been involved with?
Since 2009, I have served as a case storyteller for the Regional Public Defenders Office for Capital Cases, a project that places me in at-risk neighborhoods building relationships and giving voice to people who are frequently not heard. Currently, I'm helping to establish a program that addresses poverty in Lubbock's middle schools—which I truly believe is one of the best ways to stop violent crimes. For this program, we provide food bags for financially challenged students to take home over the weekend as well as healthy school lunches. Our next step is to provide mentoring programs for these kids, helping them take advantage of opportunities only available, for various reasons, to kids of privilege.
What are you currently working on?
I'm currently serving as a Soros Justice Fellow, an opportunity to participate in the national criminal justice reform movement, sponsored by the Open Societies Foundation in New York City. My goal as a Soros Fellow is to establish narrative law as a field of expertise in capital murder litigation. I'm training attorneys and consulting on various murder cases across the state of Texas, showing district attorneys, judges, and jurors how critical narrative is to understanding the men and women our state would execute. From my work as a Soros Fellow, I am drafting a book manuscript, a field guide to the death penalty, filled with stories and my first-person experience as an eye-witness to the death penalty process. Additionally, I'm working on a collection of original stories, "Trouble Is a Friend of Mine," that spins major, real-life environmental traumas in the mountains of Colorado into stories populated by fictional people—their stories showing us the personal, devastating consequences of environmental trauma.
Where do you find your inspiration?
Everywhere. Every person I meet is a potential story, a potential opportunity for social change. There is so much inspiration in this world that it's hard to focus on just one subject, one project, at a time. I find it impossible to do that. Many writers are afraid of the so-called blank page, but I don't understand that concept at all.
What advice do you have for new faculty members about balancing the components of Integrated Scholarship—teaching, research, and service—in their careers?
First, find what you truly love. Zero in on it. Then, figure out how to translate that passion into a research project that also informs and shapes your teaching and service, so that when you're working on one—say, prepping for class or meeting with a committee—you're working on your research, as well. Balance isn't so much the ability to pigeonhole and assign time slots to various components of our careers; it's more about the ability to see how they're all connected and cannot exist without one another. Finally, look for funding opportunities not directly related to your degree; instead think about how your area of expertise could influence an entirely different field and look for funding opportunities in that field. Chances are, you'll be bringing a new perspective to an old dilemma, and that kind of innovation is exactly what foundations want to support..
When I was a young girl, my father, a graphic designer, had a studio in our family home. He didn't work at an office building, but was, instead, right there, all the time. He set up a corner in his studio for me, where I learned to type, respect the Beatles and CCR, play the flute, and develop my interest in writing good stories. Most nights, I read novels to my father while he worked—which, I think, could be seen as a very early, primitive version of books on tape. I cannot tell you how many books we read together, but I do know that how much we enjoyed those stories—that's why I wanted to be a writer.
How did I end up working with death penalty lawyers? A professor in the Texas Tech Rawls Business College invited me to coffee to teach me about the death penalty and see if I wanted to help public defenders represent men and women charged with capital murder. Over coffee, he asked if I knew what attorneys called people who didn't believe in the death penalty because we might execute an innocent person, and I said no, but felt pretty confident that such a stance was the most ethical, open-minded one. And he said, "We call you 'automatic killers.'" After that, I plunged right in.
- B.A., Abilene Christian University, 1987
- M.A., Texas A&M University, 1989
- Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, 1993