Armstrong retires, 20 years of learning at Winona State


Photo contributed by Winona Media

“What I’ve discovered over my career is that any person can write at least one good poem,” Armstrong said. “It’s almost impossible to go through my class and not write at least one good poem.”

Gabriel Hathaway, Editor-In-Chief

As Dr. James Armstrong looks forward to his last few weeks in Winona State University’s English Department and his impending retirement, he reflected on his time here. 

Armstrong came to Winona in Fall 1999 after four years of teaching creative writing at Northwestern University which he had attended for his undergraduate. Armstrong also received his M.F.A. from Western Michigan University and a Ph.D in American literature from Boston University. With this prestigious academic background, Armstrong experienced some culture shock when he started at Winona State. 

“When I came here, I was kind of a more stuck up professor. I had a lot of notions that I got rid of really quickly because my students were not going to put up with that or didn’t benefit from that. And they taught me to be more down to earth and to be more student focused,” Armstrong said. “It was actually good for me, really good for me.”

Armstrong also mentioned how Winona State students are special, pointing out their excitement and receptiveness to learning and how that helped him learn and grow.  

“When I first got here, I was surprised at what people didn’t know,” Armstrong said. “And then later I found that that was an advantage because they didn’t come with preconceptions the way they did it at Northwestern, let’s say.”

Armstrong, being the English department’s resident poet, of course taught beginning and advanced poetry along with college reading and writing like the other faculty. Armstrong also taught a variety of other courses like environmental literature, and film back before Winona State had a film major or minor.

Another notion that Armstrong quickly learned to abandon was something he was trained to do, discourage poets to keep the market from being flooded with poetry. 

“I realized that’s a disgusting way to proceed because what I’ve discovered over my career is that any person can write at least one good poem,” Armstrong said. “It’s almost impossible to go through my class and not write at least one good poem.”

Armstrong has been involved in various areas at Winona State and the broader Winona community. As part of the creative writing program along with Dr. Beth Oness and Dr. Debra Cumberland, Armstrong has been instrumental in the Great River Reading Series which brings contemporary writers to Winona State to speak in classrooms and for events. In the community, Armstrong started the yearly Maria W. Faust Contest and promoted poetry as Poet Laureate, appointed  by the City of Winona in 2007. But what Armstrong is most proud of is the workshop environment he has garnered.  

“I think what I’m most proud of in terms of my career, is that I developed a way of teaching poetry that created a real workshop, a real workshop atmosphere where students were eager to come to class and share their work and criticize each other’s works,” Armstrong said. “And to me, the big moment came when I realized that some students were disagreeing with me when we talked about a poem and that was okay because they were developing their own aesthetic and their own ideas and that’s the point.” 

Dr. Ann-Marie Dunbar, English Department chair, spoke highly of Armstrong.  

“[Armstrong] brings a great deal of energy, creativity and whimsy to the work of the department,” Dunbar said. “Jim is a strong believer that the arts and creative work are essential to the life of the university, and that they belong at the center of a strong community. He has played a huge role in fostering that kind of creative energy and community at WSU and in the broader Winona community for many years.”

Armstrong commented on the arts and culture boom he saw in Winona in the last 20 years. When first arriving in Winona in 1999, there was no Shakespeare Festival, no Beethoven Festival or Frozen River Film Festival. Armstrong looks forward to continuing to contribute to the arts and culture of Winona in his retirement. As part of this, Armstrong released a new book, titled “Empire”, through local Winona Publisher, Shipwreckt Books.  

“We have so many students who have gone out into the world and done great things. And I have been proud to be a part of that,” Armstrong said. “I’m happy to stay in Winona and continue to contribute to the cultural life of the region.”