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Park Hall Monitor

Park Hall Monitor

Greetings, Park Hall alumni and friends!

Campus has a different look in early May, the presence of more parents than students (and the students conspicuous for their black gowns and mortarboard caps) announcing the end of another school year. On May 7th, we celebrated our undergraduate and graduate Class of 2015 in a ceremony that also highlighted annual awards for students and faculty.

The awards, both internal and external, are numerous, covering everything from research accomplishments to excellence in teaching. The Department of English has much to be proud of, but success in the classroom is surely at some kind of peak. At least that’s the impression I got earlier this year when I compiled the faculty reports of accomplishments for 2014. Reading the teaching evaluations of the faculty, I was reminded of the line in Garrison Keillor’s long-running radio broadcast, A Prairie Home Companion, about the fictional town of Lake Woebegone, “where all the children are above average.” But there’s nothing fictional about teaching in Park Hall, a place where it can truthfully be said that most of the professors are not just “above average,” but wayabove. Over the moon, out of the ballpark, however you want to put it. 

Student comments are far more revealing than the numerical indicators (but the numbers are astounding in themselves: with 5 being a perfect score, I estimate that the department average is about 4.7). Comments say a lot about the different ways successful teaching makes an impact. Many students are impressed by the preparation their professors bring to the classroom, especially when it means the teacher is prepared to make discussion thrive. It’s easy, of course, for professors to come across as knowledgeable, but students value a certain generosity when it comes to dispensing it, making it accessible to them. Students also appreciate the personal touch, the consideration for their own needs and inclinations. Some professors are prized for the way they come across as fully rounded human beings — the way they impart a quality of “keeping it real,” as it’s sometimes put in the evaluations.

A familiar stereotype in the mass media portrays English professors as self-absorbed, bookish types, barely able to get through a day in the “real world,” aided only by their endearing cluelessness. It’s a stereotype that has distant roots in fact. Until the big boom in postwar education after the Second World War, being an English professor was generally a prerogative of the leisure class, a sinecure for unworldly souls disinclined (or unfit) to run the family business. Those days are long gone, and the typical professor today would be up to the task of selling cars, trading stocks, or strategizing troop movements. Student evaluations are vivid reminders that successful teachers don’t teach a subject; they begin with a subject and spiral out from there. Evaluations consistently acknowledge that impassioned professors inspire intellectual curiosity: they convey the sense that one thing leads to another and another and another, until you find you started with a sonnet and ended up, not on that “silent peak in Darien” imagined by a dreamy English youth, but somewhere else altogether — crossing a bridge into Birmingham from a contested start in Selma, coming to terms with the slaughter of French cartoonists, or discovering how mercantile trade routes established centuries ago set in motion the frantic world of globalized interconnectivity we now straddle.

What makes a great teacher? Dedication and practice help, along with commitment to the students. But I think the secret is that all good teachers are themselves students: lifelong learning is a deep instinct. That’s the gravitational force you feel in the classroom — when it becomes apparent that everyone’s in it together, learning and teaching and learning until, to paraphrase an Irish poet, there’s no distinguishing the dancer from the dance.

 

Jed Rasula

Department Head

For more, please read the latest version of the Park Hall Monitor, the department's newsletter.

Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Long Civil War
Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Long Civil War

American literature in the nineteenth century is often divided into two halves, neatly separated by the Civil War. In Nineteenth-Century American Literature and the Long Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2015), Cody Marrs argues that the war is a far more elastic boundary for literary history than has frequently been assumed. Focusing on the later writings of Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson, this book shows how the war took imaginative shape across, and even beyond, the nineteenth century, inflecting literary forms and expressions for decades after 1865. These writers, Marrs demonstrates, are best understood not as antebellum or postbellum figures but as transbellum authors who cipher their later experiences through their wartime impressions and prewar ideals. This book is a bold, revisionary contribution to debates about temporality, periodization, and the shape of American literary history.

Book Signing and Lecture by Prof. Barbara McCaskill
Book Signing and Lecture by Prof. Barbara McCaskill

On Thursday, August 27 at 6:00 PM, Prof, McCaskill will discuss and read from her book, Love, Liberation, and Escaping Slavery: William and Ellen Craft in Cultural Memory (UGA Press, May 2015). This event takes place in downtown Athens at Cine, 234 West Hancock Avenue, Athens, GA 30601.  Free and open to the public.  Contact bmccaski@uga,edu with any questions.