Holding a tea-filled mug with a printed image of a dog on it, professor Jo Ann Beard unraveled the details behind her double life as a teacher and a writer: “[For three days of the week,] I come in, I get my cup of tea, I teach my class, I do conferences back to back." she said. “[And then] I leave here, I go to the faculty house or the hotel. I lie on the bed and stare at the ceiling for a while, then I get up and I drive to Gino’s pizza. I get two slices and a bottle of beer, some M&M’s.”
When Beard isn’t busy teaching at Sarah Lawrence, she lives in upstate New York. "[At home], I get up in the morning and I read the New York Times everyday and then I wander to my studio to write," she explained, adding, "And I stare out at the big field with binoculars and I watch what the animals are doing.”
Beard’s professional and personal life appear to be very separate, but they are linked by one common bond – her obsession with dogs. Beard has always had dogs in her life. Currently, she has a red nose Pit Bull named Autumn, an 11-year-old, deaf, foster dog from the Mount Vernon Shelter, and Jet, an adopted, black mutt.
“Dogs are even a big part of my Sarah Lawrence life because when I come to Sarah Lawrence, I usually have a block of hours from time to time while I’m down here in Bronxville and for the past ten years or so, I used that time to work with dogs in local shelters, the Yonkers Animal Shelter and the Mount Vernon Animal Shelter,” Beard said.
While working at the dog shelters, Beard met a local dog trainer. Shortly after bonding over their love for dogs, they created a local Pit Bull rescue organization called “Best Bullies.” The duo looks for dogs that would suffer within the shelter environment or be otherwise overlooked. Their rescue mission is to provide medical care and training for the dogs. More information can be found at bestbullies.org.
Not only does Beard devote a lot of time to helping dogs, but she also writes nonfiction pieces about them. She’s written about her previous pets, rescue dogs and the wolves at Yellowstone National Park.
In addition to being inspired by animals, she gets her writing ideas from her own life experiences. “If you pay attention, even the most dull life is glittering in its own way,” Beard said.
Beard’s published work includes In Zanesville, a novel about the struggles of becoming a teenager. Originally, the story was supposed to be a memoir, but Beard decided to face her fear of writing fiction. “I just didn’t feel like putting my family and friends through the trials and tribulations of having to be written about, so I began changing their names and their identities and once I did that, they stopped being the people I remembered and became new characters who behaved in new ways,” Beard explained.
While Beard self-identifies as a nonfiction writer, some people have called her a fiction writer because of this novel. “I still am startled when people remind me that I’ve written fiction. They say things like ‘you’re a fiction writer’ and I go ‘no, I’m nonfiction’ then I go ‘oh right, there was that book,’” she said.
Beard has also written The Boys of my Youth, a collection of essays that she mostly wrote as a graduate student. She did not initially intend to write the essays for the book, but years later Beard realized she had a ton of essays that could be compiled together.
Among her other published work in literary journals and magazines, her favorite essay that she is the most proud of is her piece on Cheri Tremble, a patient dying of breast cancer. Even though she never met the subject of the story, she was able to talk with her friends and family members to gain insight into Tremble’s life story.
“Even though it sounds very depressing to other people, I found it really fascinating and moving and interesting to think of somebody facing their own death with such clear-eyed determination and focus,” Beard said.
Due to Beard’s success, she visited several schools to talk about her experience as a writer. In 1999, she became a guest teacher at SLC and loved the school so much that she got a permanent position. She currently teaches graduate and undergraduate writing workshops, mostly consisting of nonfiction courses.
“I love nonfiction and teaching it gives me an excuse to have to read it, to have to stay up in that world of what’s happening in nonfiction writing,” Beard said.
Not only is Beard ecstatic about nonfiction, but she’s passionate about teaching it. “I feel like sometimes I walk into class with the same thing in my mind, like I really want to understand this piece and the only way we are going to understand it is for all of us to talk about it and to begin in one place and end in some place completely different. To do that you really do need to have ten or twelve voices chiming in and I really love that process,” Beard explained.
Although Beard keeps her students busy, she realizes that there is the need for a balance between work and play. “I understand that writing is really hard and so I say to them ‘no assignment, go relax and think’ which is also a part of writing but it’s the part that’s harder to find time for,” Beard said.
SLC’s dog-loving, nonfiction-enthusiast teacher is also a feminist and a vegetarian. “I didn’t want to eat a chicken, I wanted to know a chicken,” she said. While students are able to have open discourse with Beard, Autumn and Jet will never know how much of an impact they have on this woman.
Alexa Di Luca '19