Dr. Bill Church is writing a book about his time at Missouri Western entitled "This is What it Means to Say Missouri Western." Church has been at Missouri Western as both a student, from 1983 to 1989, and as an educator, starting in 1990. His book will cover several topics pertaining to the university.
The book is going to be a three-strand hybrid memoir, with each strand having its own style and theme.
“Strand one is the history of the university from beginning ‘til now,” Church said. “From a small seventeen student junior college that met in Central High School up to when it became a powerful university in 2005.”
Church was an educator in 2005 under Dr. Blake Scanlon, a former president of Missouri Western, when Missouri Western achieved university status. Church said he had the privilege of being in Cronkite Hall to witness when the college became a university. Church’s story of how he achieved that privilege is a complicated one; one that will be illuminated in the second part of his book.
“The second part was my own narrative, a country bumpkin who hated high school so much, who was told by his first college teacher that he belonged in English 100, up to becoming a 4.0 Ph.D. holder and published author.”
During his career, Church has won the Jesse Lee Meyers Excellence in Teaching Award, and the Alumni Outstanding Distinguished Faculty Award, which both recognize his dedication and prowess in his field.
But the book isn’t just about Church or the history of the university; he’s writing about the student body as well.
“The third strand is a whole series of anecdotes about our students. The students who are struggling, who are gone, who we’ve lost over the years, have ‘Dear Abby’-type fictitious names. The people who have succeeded—Ph.D. candidates, people who are published, people who’ve got great jobs—I’m going to give their real names.”
Church had started his book by writing an apology to Shermain Alexie, since the title of Church’s book is an allusion to Sherman Alexie’s, "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." However, Church’s title isn’t just a call-back to a famous work; the title represents an important objective of his story.
“The title came out of a defense of state legislators telling us what we should be doing, how we should be ashamed of our graduation rate of thirty percent, when, in fact, given the underprepared student population we serve—the poverty, the health problems, the car breakdowns—given that, the 30% is pretty darn good. People that could have 4.0s are gone for reasons that don’t have anything to do with academics.”
Church believes that the function of college isn’t necessarily graduation. He agreed that some college can be beneficial to students, regardless of their graduation status.
“Sometimes a student does one or two years and that’s all they need. They got what they wanted out of university because they thought about themselves and the world and writing differently about the written word and the power of it.”
Church also defends his students' right to not want to go to college. He acknowledged that not all students enter college with the desire to be there, and they should feel free to decide to stay or leave for themselves.
“I tell my students this: I respect your right to fail. Because so often students tell me, ‘I don’t want to be here.’” Church goes on to explain that it is the students’ parents that pressured them into college. “I tell them, ‘You know, if you really don’t want to be here, then I’m going to respect your right to fail.’ I’ve had former students out in the community tell me that that really gave them the courage to tell their parents that they didn’t want to be here. Now they’re leading very successful lives, probably making more money than I am. But they didn’t want to go to college.”
Church is in his last semester and is currently teaching several English classes. His current students enjoy his classroom for differing reasons.
Allyson Moore, a student in Church’s advanced creative writing class, has had Church for numerous semesters.
“He makes it an honest and open space,” Allyson Moore said. “He gives it to you straight.”
Caitlin Dillon, a senior at Missouri Western, met Church when her older sister was his advisee; years later, Dillon became his advisee. She hadn’t imagined she could major in creative writing and publishing until she spoke with him.
“Church is the main reason I’m still at Missouri Western,” Dillon said. “He’s not just a brilliant professor that shaped my writing, but he fights for his students. He even helped me find housing when the dorms I wanted were filled.”
While the book is going to cover Church’s experiences and insights of Missouri Western, he believes the themes of the book apply nationally. With the importance of higher education consistently in debate, the function of education and its application have created tensions. Church’s belief is that higher education does more than create job opportunities.
“There’s so much anti-knowledge sentiment that the current thought pattern is if it doesn’t translate immediately into a high-paying job, it’s not worth knowing. I thank God the people who wrote our constitution didn’t feel the same way. There are many things worth knowing to be better humans, to have a better culture.”
Over the summer, Church wrote letters to News-Press Now to implore the administration and board of governors to “review and reverse” the recent department closures at Missouri Western. He believes many of the decisions that were made were compounded by the pandemic.
“I think the COVID-19 gave our administration and our Board of Governors a screen to where they can say, ‘We can only meet by Zoom. We don’t have to hear you faculty in person.’ I think it really negated our power. Without COVID, I think we would have demanded more in-present, open meetings with the administration before things came down the pike. They came down pretty much cloaked in secrecy and released on us when the campus was officially closed... it gave the administration and the board of governors a sense of ‘we don’t have to account.’ We can do this and we can do it like the "Wizard of Oz", behind some giant screen and you guys can just take it.”
Church has always been a loud voice around campus. And with his last semester drawing to a close, his legacy will live on with what it means to say Missouri Western.