Pat Nickinson, Sworn Enemy of the Dangling Participle, Devoted Lover of Literary Nuance, Retires
By Keith Morelli
TAMPA (September 7, 2021) -- For many Muma College of Business faculty, staff and students who have written important reports, impactful research papers or even thank-you letters knows of the importance of a good editor. So, before anything gets published, those savvy writers know they must pass the Pat Nickinson test to catch that comma where there should be a semicolon, a split infinitive, an improper tense.
For the past 14 years, Nickinson caught those small but important mistakes, making written-word documents that much more perfect. Most thought of her as a white knight, saving them from petulant typos, Oxford commas and redundancies in manuscripts. The director of the Muma College Business’s BizComm Center for nearly a decade-and-a-half, Nickinson retired in August, taking up residence in the Florida Panhandle to be closer to family.
Her retirement follows the demise of the BizComm Center; its copyediting duties now spread between the Collier Student Success Center and the USF Library Writing Studio.
“The consolidation of the campuses made the BizComm model unworkable, though I still believe there is a clear need for friendly one-on-one help and the USF Library can handle only so much,” Nickinson said. “But it also was time for BizComm to expand focuses, especially to embrace more of the community outside the university, and that would have required resources that just weren’t available in this belt-tightening time.”
The years she spent here kept her busy editing research papers, academic reports and student résumés. She taught writing and professional communications for MBA and PhD students.
“I loved having such a variety of tasks,” she said, “helping the students polish their thank-you letters for their scholarships, visiting classes, creating PowerPoints for in-class workshops and to share with instructors, training the writing consultants, offering feedback on research article drafts, providing the accountancy program with assessments of the students’ writing skills and pitching in to help proofread the annual report.”
Before all that, her interests resided in places that had nothing to do with accounting, marketing or management.
A written-word person through and through, Nickinson earned a PhD in English from Penn State. She worked in a thriving tutoring center, where she taught both technical writing and literature courses, while completing a dissertation on, of all things, hero-damsel dynamics in British medieval chivalric romances.
And after coming to USF’s English Department in 2001, she taught contemporary Native American and Caribbean fiction.
The written word, she said, is the thing.
“I don’t know that fewer people care about writing these days; I think we are expecting more and more people to be able to write gracefully, lucidly and precisely,” she said, “because those are hallmarks of what we assume a good education emphasizes, and we’re disappointed when they can’t. But words are just one means of communicating especially with increasingly easy access to computer-generated imagery and tools for creating professional displays of information, humans now have so many ways to explain a concept that words may take a back seat.
“Still, American popular culture doesn’t seem to value precision in language,” she said. “But one reason I loved working with the Muma faculty on their research articles was that this is a group dedicated to clarity and precision. It’s often easier for an outsider like me to be able to pinpoint where wording isn’t yet clear (or might not be, to another non-specialist reader). The Muma researchers I worked with were eager for and very receptive to feedback on clarity and word choices and sentence structures, and it was wonderful fun working with them.”
Her own education in writing molded her editing skills, she said.
“I grew up with a rigid sense of right/wrong for grammar and sentence constructions, and it’s hard to shake that,” she said. “I still roll my eyes at ‘they’ to indicate an individual, and I growl every time I hear a BBC person use “us gardeners” as the subject of a sentence. But the truth is that language is a living, growing, evolving medium. We CAN split infinitives. I’m cool with that.”
Is writing a dying art?
“That’s a loaded question,” Nickinson said. “The forced loosening of the ‘correctness’ bounds has led coincidentally to some playful (and powerful) uses of language that we should all see the fun in. There are still plenty of thoughtful writers who open our eyes, shape our opinions, help us think through our own ideas.
“So nope, it’s not dead,” she said. “Good writing may seem to be getting drowned out by the volume of cacophony that the Internet produces, but pleasurable reading is there for the asking.”
Who does she read for pleasure?
“I’ve just finished Elizabeth Becker’s ‘You Don’t Belong Here,’ and Angela Mi Young Hur’s ‘Folklorn,’” Nickinson said. “My favorite book is always what I am reading (or teaching) at the time, but I go for anything with vivid characters, believable dialogue, and precise prose.”
During her tenure here, Nickinson worked with faculty teaching writing-intensive classes in the business college and helped students develop professional writing and presentation skills. She came to the college in 2007.
She assisted in writing and copyediting major reports for the college and she co-taught courses in professional communications for MBAs and new PhD students and a graduate-level, online writing course for intelligence analysts in USF's School of Information. Prior to joining USF in 2001, Nickinson wrote newspaper feature stories.
She earned bachelor's degrees in psychology from the University of West Florida and communications studies from Virginia Tech, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. She continued at Virginia Tech to complete a master's degree in English, with a concentration on rhetoric and composition, before earning a PhD in English from Penn State.
She hopes retirement does not mean hanging up the green eyeshades.
“I sure hope to keep copyediting; I love the analytical, reflective nature of that kind of working with someone else’s words and ideas,” she said. “Our state retirement system forbids me from offering my services to any state-funded group or individual for about a year. But after that, I’d love to get back in the game.”
She moved to Pensacola in December to retrieve her 94-year-old mother from the pandemic lockdown in her assisted living facility and the two have been living together in a little bungalow a block from the bay.
“We have a tiny patio stuffed with large flowering plants: the intoxicatingly scented white butterfly gingers I brought up from my yard in Lutz, a magenta impatiens that has been blooming profusely since November and has grown, in 10 months, too big for me to move; summer-blooming azaleas (who knew?), and pots of purple salvia and angelonia and persian shield and yellow-orange gaillardia and tiny mums, all with a backdrop of lush rich greenery. My 7-foot tomato plant – in spite of the patio’s dappled shade – has reached its twilight years, but it did its best. The plants are happy here.”