Finishing a Ph.D. is an immense accomplishment in and of itself, but Tomie Bitton gets to add one more accolade to her resume: Honorary Graduate Commencement Marshal. The native Californian, who is graduating in English with an emphasis in creative nonfiction, decided to “put my name in the hat” after reading that OSU's Graduate College was accepting applications earlier this year.
“I sent it off to the graduate office in my department and they said, ‘Um, you need to be nominated by your advisor,’” she recalled, laughing at her innocent mistake. “But my advisor, Sarah Beth Childers, said she would absolutely write something up … I got the application in for her, she nominated it, and then our department’s graduate office sent it on from there!”
Bitton was chosen by the Graduate College for the award, which is given to just two graduate students university-wide. It wraps up five and a half years of work for Bitton, whose studies were split between literature by Black female authors and the theory and writing of nonfiction. Her dissertation took the form of a memoir, wherein she explored the connections between her childhood and motherhood.
“My dissertation is a collection of flash pieces,” she said, explaining that flash pieces are a type of short-form writing. “While my dissertation is close to 150 pages, not very many of the pieces are longer than one page.”
“I think my personality leans toward writing about memory,” she continued. “I’ve always been into nonfiction. I love getting to know real people. There’s so much beauty — and non-beauty — in the world that can be shared.”
Bitton’s advisor and Department of English assistant professor Childers has worked with Bitton “from day one” to complete her dissertation.
“In her creative nonfiction, Tomie excels at tracing the effects of trauma, ideology and human experience through generations,” Childers said. “She also has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of her prose, and an ability to focus in on everyday moments of life, revealing their life-changing potential.”
Childers was one of many female professors Bitton took classes from while at OSU, something she made a point to do.
“When I came here, I really just wanted to learn from women,” Bitton said. “So much of my upbringing was learning from men or reading men’s stories and male authors. There is so much more out there! So I pushed myself to focus on women. Every single class I took was from a female professor. Same for my committee. I just wanted to dive in and immerse myself in women’s writing and the way that they approach things.”
Bitton has not only had the chance to learn while at Oklahoma State, but teach as well. Her courses have included composition, technical writing and introduction to creative writing. Because she had already taught college courses while getting her master’s degree at Chico State in California, she was able to “jump right in and teach part time” at OSU.
“When I taught my first class, it cemented in my mind that I want to continue teaching,” said Bitton, who’s also had some at-home experience this year teaching her seventh- and fifth-grade kids alongside her husband, David. “I tell my students, ‘We’re not just going to study and read others’ work. You’re going to actually do it.’ And whether it comes naturally or not, they realize just how much of a craft it is and how much work goes into it.’”
Childers pointed out that writing, especially creative nonfiction writing, provides people with “the opportunity to document and make sense of their lives.”
“It also allows writers, through research and examination of memories, to empathize with others,” Childers said. “It encourages them to ruthlessly interrogate their own biases, failures and fears, often allowing them unexpected opportunities to heal … Reading creative nonfiction can be a wonderful way to feel connected with other people who have had similar experiences, and to educate ourselves about experiences that are vastly different than our own.”
“You learn so much from other perspectives,” Bitton added. “We need that, especially in our country's climate right now. We need to put our feet in other people's shoes and see where they're coming from. And not only be exposed to that, but have a discussion about it … There's something about that world view that's so important.”