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The Books are Scary, the Teacher Isn't

Tony Magistrale is a man comfortable in shadows. On a bright April morning, he strides into an Old Mill classroom and immediately draws the shades. He plans to show students a clip from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the film version of Stephen King’s novel. The scene — a conversation between a ghost and a mentally unraveling novelist played by Jack Nicholson — occurs in a lavish bathroom decorated completely in red, from the scarlet walls to the gleaming porcelain, as though the entire room has been freshly drenched in blood.

Magistrale freezes the scene mid-frame and turns to his audience, now cast in ochre shadows. “What are you seeing?” he asks. Magistrale has brought in garlic bread for the class, and the heady aroma wafts through the air. As students respond to the scene, Magistrale switches off the VCR. He asks and responds to questions, paces, gestures, and jots ideas on the chalkboard. The rapt students, shrouded in semi-darkness, seem unfazed by the gloom, garlic, and grisly subject matter. They have grown accustomed to their professor’s offbeat teaching style. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

A UVM professor of English since 1983, Magistrale is the recipient of the 2001 George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award. The annual award bestowed by the UVM Alumni Association recognizes excellence in teaching and dedication to the enhancement of the academic experience for undergraduate students. Magistrale, whose previous honors include the Kroepsch-Maurice Award for excellence in teaching and a Fulbright fellowship, is regarded as the world’s leading scholar on the work of Stephen King. He relies on the accessibility of popular contemporary authors such as King, he says, to introduce students to the Gothic tradition and unleash them from their writing reluctance.

In March 1999, Magistrale brought King to campus, where he addressed a packed house at Patrick Gym and spent hours with students who had studied his work in a special seminar. When King returned the $15,000 honorarium, suggesting that the university “do something interesting” with the money, Magistrale retooled one of his classes, “Poe’s Children,” into a course that was offered this summer free of charge to Vermont high school students.

A combination of personality and pedagogy makes the easygoing Magistrale one of the most popular professors on campus. Captivated by his exuberant teaching style and his ability to relate to students “on our own level,” scores of undergraduates patiently negotiate long waiting lists to enroll in his courses in American literature, and the American Gothic tradition.

Charlotte Miller, an exchange student from the University of Sussex in England, rushed to sign up for Magistrale’s “Poe’s Children” course this spring after two unsolicited recommendations: a fellow exchange student “raved about him, and said I had to take his course,” she recalls, and a former student she encountered at a Stowe ski shop made it plain — “You just have to take a class with Tony Magistrale.” At an English university, Miller says, “We would never read these texts or encounter a professor who wears jeans and trainers and who will ask us what we think.”

History major Spencer Crispe is a veteran of several Magistrale courses. “I tell everyone to take at least one class with him, even if they hate English,” says Crispe, whose inky black hair, earrings, and black attire belie his plans to attend Vermont Law School this fall. “He’s honest and sincere,” says Crispe of Magistrale, “and he cares about his students. He’s not even my advisor, but I’m in his office all the time.”

Like Crispe, dozens of students at first reluctantly entered Magistrale’s classroom to fill an academic requirement. But they quickly fell under Magistrale’s spell of infectious enthusiasm, returning to his classroom semester after semester to probe the psychological labyrinths in the works of Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and their successors in the Gothic, horror, and detective genres.
Others, including junior Kristin Valente, credit Magistrale for inspiring them to choose English as a major. “His knowledge of the subject material and his obvious love of what he’s doing make his classes fun,” Valente says. “He doesn’t lecture, but turns the discussion over to the students. He wants us to push the envelope, to take what we learn in class and apply it to our lives.”

Magistrale admits that long ago he abandoned prepared lectures in favor of spontaneous teaching. “I view teaching as a communal experience,” he explains. “I share my expertise, but I rely on interaction to allow students to discover the kernel, the magic, for themselves.” Being surprised by students, he notes, is “the joy of teaching.”

Despite the frank and sometimes graphic discussions, and the occasional “Simpsons” cartoon parody thrown in for fun, Magistrale’s classes are not all ghouls and games. His students respect him as “a tough but fair grader” and say his expectations of them are high. Assignments are often returned with pages of Magistrale’s comments.

“In our written assignments, he doesn’t want us to regurgitate what’s said in class,” Kristin Valente explains. “He doesn’t even assign themes for our papers. Instead, he’ll say ‘It’s your Poe, you write about what interests you about him.’”

Students attest that Magistrale’s sincere interest helps them develop pride in themselves and their abilities, an impact upon their lives that clearly doesn’t end with graduation. In letters supporting his Kidder Award nomination, UVM alums from New York to Seattle credit Magistrale not only for strengthening their writing and analytical skills, but also for instilling in them a lasting appreciation for literature that influences how they think and experience the world. VQ

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