Dissertation Determination: Ms. Hamilton’s Gap Year

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//PICTURED ABOVE: Upper School English teacher Summer Hamilton conferences with senior Sawyer Bannister. Hamilton will take one year off from teaching in order to complete her doctoral dissertation.


As the 2018-2019 school year comes to a close, many students will say goodbye to some of their favorite teachers. Many of these goodbyes will be bittersweet, but for students of Ms. Summer Hamilton, the goodbye is only temporary; next school year, for the first time in the history of the Hockaday English department, a teacher will take a leave of absence in order to write a dissertation.

Hamilton will write her dissertation as the final step of completing her doctoral degree in the field of English Literature at Southern Methodist University. The subject of her dissertation is “the discourse of housing that continues to mold African American attitudes towards home buying,” according to Hamilton.

In Hamilton’s words, her dissertation aims to show how African Americans have relied on literature to both critique and withstand the psychic violence, violence against a person’s psyche, of an oppressive system.

“When reading through American literature, there will often be some sort of discussion of buying a house, or finding a home to live in. So, for example, in The Great Gatsby, the narrator Nick briefly mentions buying a home in West Egg. It’s very brief – just a paragraph … and he moves on,” Hamilton said.

“When I’m reading African American Literature, again, there is this story of getting a house, because that’s just a part of life. Except, when reading African American literature, that part is not a paragraph, it’s a whole chapter. Or it keeps coming back in many chapters. Or it’s not successful. Or it is successful, and so surprising that the story will be told by three different characters.”

After noticing this distinct difference in the discussion of housing, Hamilton continued her research.

“I started researching newspaper articles, conferences that were happening, a lot of nonfiction. How are homes being discussed? And I found a narrative.” Hamilton explained.

The narrative she discovered that has been put forward throughout history is that “if African Americans would live in ‘suitable’ homes, they would be entitled to the rights of citizenship that they had been denied in the past.” Essentially, the people in power historically put forward a narrative that the lack of rights given to African American citizens is due to their lack of proper housing.

Through this narrative, Hamilton explained that the idea of a house underwent a transformation, going from an object to be bought to a myth that could not be attained.

“I noticed how authors were dealing with this. The truth of the matter is, African Americans would try to get that house and they would be blocked. Redlining, no mortgage available or sometimes they would get the house and it would be taken from them on some sort of “trumped up” charge,” Hamilton said. “So that’s where I say the ‘psychic violence’ comes in, because you’re told that if you take this path you will have these rights, and then you try to take this path, and you’re blocked from it. What does that do to someone? And so, I say that authors are recognizing the falsehood of this narrative, and they are writing about it to provide methods of survival.”

The writing process has been slow, but Hamilton has learned that it is very important to stay active and not take long breaks. In her words, writing a dissertation “requires constant thinking. You’re creating a study that’s never been done, so you have to think all the time about it.”

Hamilton decided it would be necessary to take a gap year to write the 300-page paper during the 2019-2020 school year because dissertations must be completed within six years of the completion of qualifying examinations. August 2020 marks the sixth year since Hamilton completed these examinations, so taking this year off is crucial in order to get a doctorate.

“Completing my dissertation and thus my degree reaches beyond a personal goal. As a first-generation doctoral student, I want to serve as an encouragement and a source of pride for my family, including my son,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton first approached the English department about taking her gap year this semester after Christmas break.

“Hockaday has been extremely accommodating of my request. I feel beyond grateful,” Hamilton said.

Because of the new nature of this kind of gap year, English Department Chair Janet Bilhartz commented on Hamilton’s intellectual leave.

“We have certainly had people have to take maternity leave or family illness, that kind of thing. But this kind of leave [has] never [occurred] in the years I’ve been at Hockaday,” Bilhartz said.

The two most important people in the process of finding a temporary replacement for Ms. Hamilton are Bilhartz and Assistant to the Head of School Blair Lowry. As the English Department Chair, Bilhartz takes the task of hiring someone to replace Hamilton for the year. According to Bilhartz, she is looking for a candidate who can teach well and fit into the department and the Hockaday community.

As Assistant Head of School, Lowry hires all faculty and academic staff. This process includes writing the job descriptions, reading the resumes and “Zoom”ing with candidates—a video interview application similar to Skype. Once Lowry has selected finalists, she makes arrangements for one of the most important parts of the process: a day spent on campus, individually, with each finalist.

“[The shadow day involves] teaching a class, having lunch with the English department, observing a couple of classes and meeting Mr. Murray,” Bilhartz said.

Bilhartz and Hamilton both agree that taking this year to research, write and learn will positively influence Hamilton’s teaching in the future.

“I think the students will be enriched by the knowledge that Ms. Hamilton will bring back with her,” Bilhartz said. “She’s already an excellent, committed and passionate teacher. The subject of her dissertation is a fascinating one, and I think that she will be so intellectually invigorated by this year. She’ll bring that passion and excitement back to her classes.”

Hamilton agrees that her dissertation year will improve her empathy as both a writer and an essay grader.

“I am sure I’ll also be more empathetic to the writing process after spend a year of doing nothing but literary analysis!” Hamilton said.

While Hamilton is absent, however, her close students will miss her, as reflected by both Bilhartz and the student body. Junior Sarah Beth Kelton, one of Hamilton’s students this year, comments on one of her favorite parts of English III.

“We all call her our woke queen. Her class is super engaging. We’ve analyzed Cardi B and Beyonce? lyrics a few times, so there’s an element of pop culture that we bring into it that has been really interesting, so I hope [the rising juniors] don’t have to miss out on that,” Kelton said.

Luckily Hamilton has a senior advisory and they will graduate in May.

“I feel really glad that I will not have to miss my advisory. The timing has worked out really well in that regard,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton plans to come visit her coworkers and former students for lunch during her absence. She will miss the Hockaday community, especially teaching.

“I will miss the feeling of being in the classroom. Teaching is my happy place,” she added. The Hockaday community will greatly miss Hamilton during the coming 2019- 2020 school year. Rest assured, the Hockaday community can know that this will not be a permanent goodbye and that she will come back more invigorated and excited than ever.


Story and photo by Laine Betanzos

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Laine Betanzos

Laine is a junior who can be found hanging out at Bachman Lake on the lookout for nutria. She loves classic movies, her pet fish, and making extensive Spotify playlists.

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