In view of the world - story article image
In view of the world
By Lanita Withers-Goins, staff writer
Photography by Chris English, photography editor

Faculty members often work in obscurity, their work recognized by peers but not necessarily well known off campus. But from time to time, research pushes beyond the boundaries of the ivory tower to the front pages of the newspaper, the opening segments of the evening news or the glossy pages of popular magazines.

What’s it like when your research hits Main Street and makes an impact? We asked four faculty members who have had the subject of their research reach the masses in a major way in the past year.

House mortgage research hits home

In the annals of economic history, there’s a gaping hole: A definitive history of the American mortgage market.

For close to 30 years, Dr. Kenneth Snowden has been working to fill that gap, researching the ins and outs of housing loans and financing. His work is well known among economic historians, who call him “Mr. Mortgage.”

“But that didn’t win me any awards,” says Snowden, an associate professor of economics in the Bryan School. “I was the expert in a relatively small area of scholarship.”

Dr. Kenneth Snowden Dr. Kenneth Snowden

A small area of study that has recently become a big topic of concern. One of the markers of The Great Recession has been the turmoil in the housing market, and that’s made Snowden’s knowledge and analysis of previous mortgage trends front-page fodder.

His first inkling that his research was about to hit a bigger stage: When Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke cited his research in speeches during the onset of the crisis in 2007 and 2008.

“They were old articles, articles I’d written more than a decade earlier,” Snowden says. “Bernanke didn’t make a big deal out of them, but he mentioned this is what we know about the historical mortgage markets and what we can learn from them. Those citations made my work much more visible.”

In the spring of 2010, Snowden was asked to join the National Bureau of Economic Research, the most prestigious economic research organization in the country. Then late last summer, he received one of the biggest signs that his research had become part of a national economic discussion by way of an invitation to testify before the U.S. Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. Snowden was asked to give historic perspective on covered bonds, a loan model widely used in European markets but used in the United States only before the 1940s.

As historically well-versed as he is, Snowden is quick to note that the past doesn’t give a crystal ball answer to the nation’s current economic struggles. But it does provide perspective.

“This mortgage crisis, as we are learning, is not a flash in the pan that recedes quickly or easily,” Snowden says. “As it turned out, it’s really quite similar in length and severity to the mortgage crisis of the 1930s. It’s been a bit of a surprise even to me how much history tells us about what happens during and after a mortgage crisis and how we recover from it.”

Even more opportunities have come Snowden’s way, including a chance to help organize a National Bureau of Economic Research conference on historical housing markets and a National Science Foundation grant that will examine historical housing data on mortgage lending institutions from the 1930s.

For Snowden, the attention to his life’s work has been satisfying. “It’s great to see your work have relevance and some impact, although it may not have been widely acknowledged earlier on,” he says.

“But the most gratifying impact of the recent attention is that it’s provided me opportunities towards the end of my career to do things that I really care about and that appear to matter.”

Solitary venture nets acclaim

For Michael Parker, creative writing is a solitary sport.

He rises early and settles into a chair in his living room. With a clipboard and legal pad in hand he scratches out word after word, sentence after sentence, crafting paragraphs and personalities he hopes will resonate with readers.

His latest novel, “The Watery Part of the World,” has done just that. His seventh novel has received lots of attention, including reviews in The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post and an interview on National Public Radio.

Michael Parker Michael Parker

“Entertainment Weekly put it on its ‘Must’ list,” recalls Parker, a professor in UNCG’s MFA writing program. “I’ve never read Entertainment Weekly, so I didn’t know what that meant, but apparently it’s a big deal. It’s a big magazine, in every checkout in America.

“The best thing that happened is a friend of mine saw a woman reading my book on the subway in New York City and he surreptitiously took a picture and sent it to me.”

For Parker, the praise has been gratifying. “To see all this attention is very rare for me,” he says. “My first book got some attention, but usually first books do. Then you fall into this gray area where you’re not a first time person out and maybe you’ve not written a book that everyone wants to read.”

The book, now in its third printing, was more than a decade in the making, growing out of a short story and a novella he reworked. “A lot of stories actually are made up of different stories,” he says. “You put different things together and it puts together a different energy. Fiction is tension. It’s friction. It’s trying to find elements that don't necessary go together but work together. In this instance, both stories were set in the Outer Banks. Initially they didn’t have similarities in terms of theme.”

But with all the success of his latest work, Parker doesn’t feel pressured to pen another literary hit. The publishing cycle doesn’t really allow for that. He’d already written and sold what will be his eighth book right around the time “The Watery Part of the World” was making a splash this summer.

“That’s the thing that no one realizes. I was done with ‘Watery Part of the World’ two years ago. It takes it a while to get out.”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have high hopes for No. 8. “This may come back to haunt me, but I feel like the new book has the biggest chance for commercial success of anything that I’ve written. My publisher feels that way and my editor feels that way. I have high hopes for this book. I usually don’t. The way I do usually think about it is I have low hopes for these things, so the accolades I get are really gratifying.”

No matter the conclusion, Parker’s greatest joy is that someone -- anyone -- enjoys reading his creations.

“My real love is making a book, making sentences and making up characters and situations. That’s what I love to do. This other part is thrilling, but it’s not nearly as gratifying and it’s definitely not as interesting as the actual process of writing a book.”

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