Rohr builds linguistic foundation for students

By Jonathan Soder, Features Editor

As a young woman, assistant professor of English and TESOL Jessica Rohr developed a curiosity about the way her brain worked to use two language systems.

Growing up in Brazil as a child of missionary parents, Rohr learned to speak, think and operate in both English and Portuguese. As an undergraduate at Baptist Bible College, Rohr discovered a passion for the field of linguistics while studying under linguistics professor Dr. Greg Christopher.

Linguistics is the study of language and its building blocks – sound rules, structures and meaning. More than just the vehicle which carried Rohr to OBU after her Ph.D., linguistics is also the ever-present structure Rohr sees under all of society’s interactions. In her TESOL specific classes, linguistics has practical applications for all of Rohr’s students.

“I want to teach my students, who are going to become language teachers themselves, to understand their own language well enough to be able to convey it to their students in a way that makes sense,” Rohr said.

“If you want to teach English, then you definitely want to know how English works on all levels, from its smallest sounds to how we actually use it in society, so that you can teach your students not just what the ‘rules’ are, but why and how those rules work.”

On the other side of the coin, linguistics plays an equally important role in literature classes.

“If you are studying medieval literature, for instance, it might help you to know something of the history of how old English changed and developed into the English we would recognize today,” Rohr said. “A class in historical linguistics could tell you that.”

One well-established theory of literary criticism is called structuralism, and it relies directly upon linguistics to analyze the structure of an author’s language and conveyance of meaning within the work.

“A structuralist view of literary text would start by asking what are the most basic units, the ‘atoms,’ of a text,” author Mary Klages writes in her book “Literary Theory: A Guide for the Perplexed.”

“Well, a literary text, like any other kind of written text, is made of language, so a structuralist analysis of literature would start with a structural examination of language itself.”

One author that Rohr said she enjoys specifically because of his linguistic creativity is Salman Rushdie. In particular, she mentioned his book “Luka and the Fire of Life.”

“It has some of that really neat lyrical language…” Rohr said. “He’s a fascinating writer from that perspective, and that’s actually one of the things I appreciate most… I love stories, and I like stories that are well-told. I like stories that transmit the good, the true and the beautiful – all of those things that we value – but I also really appreciate an interesting voice.”

Linguistic analysis doesn’t only apply to English. As Rohr said, her interest in linguistics stemmed from a broader interest in how her mind worked in two languages. Dr. Charles Swadley, an associate professor of English and Spanish, also utilizes linguistic practices for both languages.

“I took [the linguistics class] over 10 to 12 years ago…” Swadley said. “I really like it. It’s really fun, and it’s helped me teach grammar better.”

Under the umbrella of linguistics are many sub-disciplines including phonology (the study of the sounds in a language), semantics (the study of meaning within language) and syntax (the study of a language’s structure). In a world where elements of language are constantly shifting, Rohr has learned tactics to keep up with linguistic trends and changes.

“I work with the people who are on the cutting edge of language,” Rohr said. “So, the people who are on the cutting edge of language are young people. The people who change the language are people ages 24 and younger. They are the ones who are constantly innovating with language. They’re making new words and using new words.

“This new generation of students is doing even cooler things with language because they’re basically reinventing the written system through what we do with text.”

Underneath this, Rohr said, there are constants. Not every aspect of language can be changed. Grammar, syntax and other structural elements tend to remain static. However, the ever-changing vernacular landscape gives a vibrancy to language which Rohr sees through linguistics.

“Studying linguistics affects the way you see the world,” Rohr said. “It helps you to see language as a living entity that’s constantly changing, and to approach everyday language questions with excitement and curiosity.”

One faulty perception of many Americans that Rohr points to is the idea that there is only one right way to use the English language.

Instead, she says there are languages specific to each community a person is a part of. For example, there is a specific vernacular one uses at home with family and another one used at school. School English or academic English is that flavor which is hailed as the “proper” form of English.

“The way that my colleagues here in the English department and I like to think about it is, when you come to be a writing class, we’re not asking you to stop being yourself and only speak this way,” Rohr said.

“We’re just saying, ‘Hey look, this thing that we’re all working on, this academic thing that we all have to know how to speak, is kind of like another language that we’re all taking on. We’re all taking this one so that we can communicate in the same way.’ But that language that you speak at home, that’s good, too.”

This diverse use of the English language is more than a topic for Ph.D. study or classroom talk for Dr. Rohr. It also informs her faith.

“By studying language, I get to appreciate the amazing creativity and diversity of the mind of God, and His graciousness in designing our minds to connect with Him in and through language,” Rohr said.

Inklings supports OBU writers

By Morgan Jackson, Assistant Arts Editor

The Inklings at Oklahoma Baptist University are a group of readers and writers committed to discussing and producing creative stories.

“The Inklings, originally, was a group of scholars, writers, and friends in Oxford, England, who gathered to discuss literature and share their own fiction writing,” assistant professor of English and founder of the OBU Inklings Dr. Lindsey Panxhi said. “The most famous members of the Inklings group were J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. The Inklings here in Shawnee is named after the original Inklings gathering.”

The literature the group discusses is typically fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction. Panxhi formed the group in 2016.

“I heard about a lot of English and Creative Writing majors at OBU who enjoyed Tolkien, Lewis and fantasy,” Panxhi said. “I had been part of an Inklings group while completing my doctorate at the University of Arkansas, so I decided to begin a group here in Shawnee as well. There were lots of enthusiastic participants from the first meeting onwards, and we’ve been meeting ever since.”

Current OBU students, recent graduates, and interested faculty are encouraged to attend meetings.

“The group is informal, and not even limited to just OBU students,” Panxhi said.“Several former OBU students who are now alumni living in Oklahoma City and Tulsa actually drive over to join in the meetings. Also, any faculty who share a love for the writings of the Inklings are welcome to join as well. For example, Dr. Jessica Rohr is an active participant in, and co-leader of Inklings.”

At each of the writing-focused meetings, members of the group benefit from the feedback of other writers with similar interests.

“Each participant reads their work aloud at the meeting, and then we discuss their writing: what we like, what needs improvement, and what questions the story raises,” Panxhi said. “For those of us who have hopes of publishing one day, it is immensely helpful to get feedback on our ideas, encouragement over storylines, and accountability to keep writing even in the midst of busy schedules.”

The Inklings also meet monthly to discuss a high fantasy or science fiction novel of the group’s choosing.

“We discuss not only the writer’s prominent literary themes and their skills as a writer and worldbuilder, but also how their ideas relate to Christian faith and practice,” Panxhi said.

The OBU Inklings give warm welcome to new writers and ideas. Some student members feel that the group is very important to their success as writers.

“I used to hate sharing my stories because I’ve always kept them to myself, and had never shared them, but getting feedback and being able to hear other people’s stories made it less daunting,” senior English major and Inkling Chloe Harrison said. “Inklings has been a very big motivator for me. It’s been pushing me to actually write.”

Students say that Inklings have helped spur their creativity, and the group gives them encouragement.

“Sharing my work and getting feedback is extremely important. Inklings is a place where we do just that,” said Josiah Jones, a Creative Writing and Psychology double major. “Bouncing off of other people’s creativity, especially in a shared area of expertise like writing, is also really inspiring and motivating,” said Jones.

OBU’s Inklings uses its focus on writing to glorify God.

“We exist to glorify God through our fellowship, our discussions, and our writing,” Panxhi said. “God is an Author, too, and we take delight in reading, discussing and producing stories that [glorify him].”

Inklings forum celebrates literacy forefathers

By Morgan Smith, Assistant Faith Editor

Many OBU students are familiar with the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but what some students may not know is the two were a part of a literary group known as the Oxford Inklings.

The Oxford Inklings would gather together to share and discuss each other’s writings.

Lewis and Tolkien became not only the groups best-known members, but are remembered for writing science fiction and fantasy stories with Christian themes.

Years after the original Inklings’ meetings, their literary tradition continues with other groups under the same name.

OBU has its own Inklings group, which was started by Dr. Lindsey Panxhi, an assistant professor of English.

Sat., April 14, Dr. Panxhi, along with OBU students and Inklings members Andrew
Wright and Chloe Harrison, will attend a forum hosted by the OKC Inklings society to share and discuss their own work.

The OKC Inklings forum will feature creative work inspired by the writings of the original Inklings as well as scholarly work on fantasy and science fiction works that follow the Inklings tradition.

Wright, Harrison and Panxhi were all selected to share their work with the forum.

Both Wright and Harrison said they first came to know the Inklings work by reading Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia when they were younger and have continued to discover and love more of their work since then.

“Through high school and college especially, I’ve just fallen so much in love with so much that he [Lewis] wrote – not just the beautiful world of Narnia, but his ‘Mere Christianity,’ which I’ve read two or three times,” Wright said.

“It’s an absolutely amazing, foundational text in many ways of what it is to be a Christian, and his other stuff, like the Space Trilogy, is just mind-bendingly good.”

Wright, a senior creative writing major and theater minor, said he will present an excerpt from a fantasy novel he is writing.

“Still mourning the disappearance of her sister, a young college student finds herself tumbling into a beautiful and terrifying world of magic,” Wright said. “I am reading chapter one and most of chapter three.”

Harrison, a junior English major with a minor in professional editing, said she will present a scholarly paper she wrote for one of her classes, titled “Inescapable Suffering, the Dangers of the Other World in Sir Orfeo.”

“Basically, I’m looking at why is there still suffering in magical worlds, and what can we gain from that,” she said. “The reason I’m presenting it at the Inklings forum is because one of the articles I use is ‘On Fairy Writing,’ by Tolkien himself.”

The forum will also feature keynote speaker Joyce Coleman and visiting professors such as John Granger, a scholar who focuses on Harry Potter as a literary text.

Wright and Harrison said one of the reasons the Inklings are still emulated is because of their contributions to both science fiction and fantasy literature, as well as apologetic writing.

“In the world of speculative to fantasy, more than anyone else, they built it as a genre,” Wright said.

“Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, any other writer that does a fantasy where they’re in their own world with their own kingdom and whatnot, it’s inescapable; it’s not just the influence that’s far reaching, it’s the foundation on which everything else is built.”

Harrison said the Inklings not only created the modern fantasy genre, but defended it as a literary form.

“On top of that, they’re just really good stories,” she said. “Everybody loves reading Lewis and Tolkien.”

Lewis’ and Tolkien’s work is also still beloved in the Christian community, and Lewis is just as well known for his apologetic writings as his fantasy and science fiction writings.

“Lewis is a huge part of modern apologetics,” Wright said. “When Dr. Travers, then
Dr. Panxhi afterwards, taught the C.S. Lewis class a year ago, half the class was people coming over from the theology department because of how respected Lewis is in that field even though he wrote stories of magic.”

Harrison said she thinks it was the way the Inklings chose to approach Christianity in their writings that made them so beloved.

“It’s not obvious, though sometimes it is in Narnia, but I think it’s how they aren’t just writing to try to tell a moral tale,” she said.

“They’re trying to create rich worlds and stories that people will come to again and again.”

Wright said that despite the lack of overtness in their writing, readers can still catch the message in Lewis’ and Tolkien’s writing.

“You can feel the truth through the worlds they built,” he said. “We tell our truth, and the world sees Christ through that.”