Randi Tanglen ‘hopes and keeps busy’
New vice provost for faculty affairs discusses her career, literary inspirations and love for TV series Yellowstone
So, you’ve been in North Dakota for a couple of months now. How are you liking it?
All of my friends in Montana thought it was crazy for me to relocate to Grand Forks in the middle of winter, but it’s been great. It’s funny, though, when I was a faculty member in Texas, if there was any chance of snow in the forecast, most students would expect professors to cancel classes. But my students knew that Professor Tanglen wouldn’t cancel class, because she’s from Montana and she’s tough.
What I’ve learned over the past couple of months is that I’m not as tough as I thought! Grand Forks gives Montana a run for its money when it comes to winter weather, but you just have to embrace it. I’m inspired by everyone’s hardiness and vigor in living with winter weather, and I look forward to exploring more of Grand Forks and the region once the temperatures are above freezing!
You grew up in Montana, correct? What was that like?
Most recently I lived and worked in Missoula, Mont., which is located in western Montana. I loved hiking and spending time in the outdoors there.
But I actually grew up in a small, rural community in eastern Montana. That experience shaped who I became as a person and as a higher education professional. Small rural communities such as Sidney, Mont., where I was born, are so vibrant and vital to our region and nation. But they’re often overlooked and underestimated. I think that dynamic of being from a small, overlooked place gave me an awareness of what’s ignored, whose voice we aren’t listening to, and what is regarded as “less than.”
I brought that with me to my study of literature in looking for the forgotten voices of American literary history. That was what I focused my teaching and research on as a faculty member at Austin College in Sherman, Texas, where I was an English professor for 12 years. I was also the director of the faculty development center at Austin College, where I found a passion for collaborating with and supporting my faculty colleagues.
That seems ideal for someone in your role. For people who don’t know, what does a vice provost for faculty affairs do?
My job is to ensure UND is a great place to be a professor! Faculty are on the front lines of bringing knowledge and support to our students at a crucial time in their development and in our history. But for our faculty to be able to provide transformative experiences for our students, the faculty, in turn, need support and care from the University. As vice provost for faculty affairs, I make sure faculty have support at all stages of their careers — from recruitment to retirement — and that they have what they need to be successful in their teaching, their research, and their service to the institution.
How has it felt getting familiar with UND’s community this past couple of months?
I’ve already received so much support from the UND community, especially from everyone in the Provost’s Office, Provost Link, and the other vice provosts.
Every day has been different. Right now, I’m spending my time learning more about the campus, meeting with departments, and getting to know faculty and learning about the great work they’re doing.
For example, I recently received a tour of the forensics crime lab with Dr. Lavinia Iancu, and Dean Maridee Shogren gave me a tour of the College of Nursing’s simulation lab, where the students were in the middle of a simulation with faculty providing care for a postpartum patient.
It’s really been an adventure every day!
Tenure is in the news, both regionally and nationally. You were an English professor for a number of years, so you’ve had your own experience with the tenure process.
It’s interesting that you should ask about my experiences with tenure as a faculty member, because earlier this month Facebook memories reminded me that I officially received tenure at Austin College on March 1, 2014. That post received 268 likes and even went viral on my parents’ social media! (laughs)
But, in all seriousness, receiving tenure called me to something higher as a professor.
I had dedicated my life and career to educating the next generation and to the pursuit of knowledge in my scholarly discipline of American literature; my institution had made a big investment in and commitment to me. That commitment made me think more deeply about my responsibility to my students, my institution, and my community.
Have you had any especially inspiring moments from your career in higher ed? Anything that left a special impression on you?
In 2017, I took part in a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) summer faculty seminar on the American transcendentalists with faculty from around the country. It was held in Concord, Mass., where transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson lived in the 1800s.
I stood in the spot of the jail where Thoreau spent the night for not paying the poll tax. This led him to write his famous essay “Civil Disobedience” in 1849. We also learned a lot about women transcendentalists, who haven’t received as much recognition as writers such as Emerson and Thoreau.
This NEH seminar led to a real shift in my thinking about the work that we do in academia. Authors such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Louisa May Alcott were very aware of the impact their writing had on the American public. That really made me think about my own work as a scholar and educator, and how to bring that more to the public sphere. In my work with the state humanities council in Montana, I found that there was a real hunger for the ideas, knowledge, and imagination generated by faculty at our institutions of higher learning.
Interesting. Were there any books or authors that’ve left an impression on you and your work?
When I was growing up, Little Women by Louise May Alcott was my favorite book. As a scholar of American literature, I think Louisa May Alcott is underestimated in terms of her influence on American literary history.
Her work is often dismissed as “books for girls,” but Little Women isn’t just this sweet, sentimental novel. It is very complex. There are a lot of outbursts of anger and frustration about the limitations of what it meant to be a woman in that time period. That also carries through to some of her other writing, which has some pretty dark and almost Gothic themes.
But one of my favorite quotes comes from Alcott’s published letters, and it’s four words: “Hope, and keep busy”. To me, hope is having an orientation toward the future, imagining a better future. And that’s what we do in higher education, especially in our work with students. Keep busy means finding your place in in that future, and the finding meaningful work that you can do to contribute to that better future.
That really speaks to me and it also speaks to the work of the transcendentalists. It’s powerful to imagine the type of world that we want to live in and recognize our own role in creating that world.
You obviously have a great affinity for art and literature. Before coming here, you were director of the nonprofit Humanities Montana. What’s your perspective on the importance of the humanities in higher ed?
As an English professor, I always used to cringe when my students would say, “I’m majoring in the humanities, would you like fries with that?”
In spite of the melodramatic headlines and snarky Instagram memes about job prospects for English majors, I’ve seen humanities alumni thrive in a variety of professions, and their careers all take interesting twists and turns and present opportunities that aren’t always mapped out for them initially — much like mine has. And there is a need for the humanities!
In my work with Humanities Montana, we received phone calls every week from community leaders, educators, and concerned citizens asking how the humanities could help facilitate difficult conversations. It’s almost as if as a country we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other, disagree with each other, and come to consensus by hearing and integrating multiple viewpoints.
At their best, the humanities and liberal arts promote civil conversations and deeper civic engagement, something that American public life is severely lacking right now. As a job candidate, one thing that I admired from afar about UND was its emphasis on Essential Studies, and that all students, no matter their educational and career goals, have the opportunity to take classes in the humanities and liberal arts and sciences.
Anything else you’d like people to know about you?
I love the series Yellowstone! People are surprised to hear that because the series is not very literary, and my friends in Montana don’t think it’s an “authentic” portrayal of life in Montana.
But seasons 4 and 5 were filmed in Missoula, Mont., and when I lived there, I would see the sets at the county courthouse and the bars and restaurants downtown. They also filmed at the University of Montana one day, and Kevin Costner even waved at me and my co-workers.
I’m writing an article about creator Taylor Sheridan for a scholarly volume. It’s about how Montana history and politics are portrayed in Yellowstone and its prequel, 1883. I’m having a lot of fun with it, spending my evenings and weekends re-watching episodes of Yellowstone.
I also actually applied to be an extra for the series. I submitted my headshot and I was contacted about playing a “swanky lady” in a couple of scenes, but I had to decline the opportunity because of my work schedule.
That’s for the best because otherwise I would have been “discovered” and they would have given me a role on the show. But then, I wouldn’t have been able to come to UND. So, it all worked out. (laughs)
We’re glad you’re here! What are you most looking forward to in your work with faculty?
I’m looking forward to getting to know and working with faculty from across campus. The creation of knowledge and the education of students is important for our state and our democracy. I’m humbled to be able work with such a distinguished, dedicated faculty and honored to be part of the UND campus.