Relocating the Ivory Tower: On Professing Literature in Nebraska

Like Tom in The Glass Menagerie, I have a poet’s weakness for symbols. One of my greatest challenges in teaching an introductory literature course this semester has ironically been convincing students to read literally. Beginning the semester with Wordsworth’s The Prelude (the two-book version from 1799 rather than the epic poem it later became) I found myself making such bold critiques in discussion such as “the cliff is not a metaphor” and “yes, when he says he is rowing a boat, he is, indeed, rowing a boat.” This shouldn’t surprise us when there are jokes circulating the Internet about the range of concepts Melville’s white whale can be said to embody or the significance of blue curtains. (I recall seeing such snippets on the walls of colleagues’ offices as if fellow instructors need to display the bullshit preemptively.) My students seemed especially keen to make Wordsworth’s nature into a symbol for his displaced grief at being orphaned. They were right to find his isolation shocking as they encountered the Romantic poet as individual genius for the first time. My dissertation research found The Prelude to be strikingly peopled, but such a claim’s marketability rests upon its unlikeliness, of course. My research also engaged carefully with the question of anthropomorphism i.e. the extent to which Wordsworth is throwing his own voice and subjectivity into inanimate objects. My preference—especially in these ecocritical times—is instead to recognize the alien forms of animation in Nature, as I think Wordsworth demands that we do. The cliff is a cliff in all its sublimity. The point of The Prelude is that Wordsworth doesn’t quite know where he is going or how he feels or why he remembers. Telling freshmen “that’s a great question!” means that they found one without an answer.

The above reflections are intended as a tiny window into my current existence as my first semester as an Assistant Professor is fully underway. I am constantly in a state of exhausting surprise and discovery. What I thought I knew and what I believed I was ready for have firmly crashed against the reality of what I have to learn and what I need to prepare for. Right now I have a document entitled “Future Classes” to collect any and all ideas for the 13 courses that are on my schedule for the next two academic years. These courses are all new to me and, indeed, many of them are new to the college. To my great delight and abject fear, I have joined Hastings College at a time of unprecedented transition. Luckily and unlike many of my current colleagues, the evolution of Hastings College can’t possibly be a shock to my system because I am barely cognizant of the status quo. Having only a passing acquaintance of Hastings 1.0, the new operating system might as well be the only one to my unformed neural pathways.

McCormick_Hall_Hastings_Nebraska_from_NW_2

McCormick Hall at Hastings College: home to faculty and students since the college’s founding (you can find me in the basement!)

Very few new professors get the opportunity to participate in the development of an entirely new curriculum. None of us, of course, feel like we should, considering the black hole that is our experience and knowledge (at least, to our minds). It has been an incredibly rewarding and eye-opening experience to be able to see Hastings 2.0 as it emerges from cross-campus collaboration. One of the perks of being at a small institution is that it’s actually possible to have full department, division, and college meetings of faculty in which we actually do some of the work of building and refining the curriculum. I loved working at the Writing Center and with the Graduate Employee Union at UConn for this very reason: the view could finally be from above and not from below.

A small liberal arts college is also a place where student anonymity is impossible. There’s a safety net—especially because of our increasing dedication to student engagement—that simply cannot exist at larger institutions, and it’s heartwarming to realize that both my students and myself are members of a meaningfully knowable community. Our connections are more lasting; our perspectives on each other are richer. In embracing absolute newness in my life this year, I am also attempting to embrace a permanence that has never seemed available before. (How to live in the happily ever after? I’m getting married too, remember.) I need to be careful, of course. I have taken advice. I have read many applicable “self-help” books for new faculty. Considering how and when to get involved, what and how much to contribute, and handling the external expectations and internal probabilities of productive commitment: this appears the primary minefield for the assistant professor. I’ll let you know when I’ve made it successfully across.

I wake up by 7.30 am. I teach at 9am. I grade papers. I read course texts. I drink the coffee one of my kindest colleagues brews. I teach at 1pm. I plan classes. I write assignments. I try to leave by 5pm.

I attempt to rinse. I always repeat.

It’s relentless. I have never spent so many hours leading classes. I have never had so many students with their needs and desires and challenges and joys and impossibly unique lives.

I’m homesick for the home that this college and town could become.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s