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Teaching Feeling
2005 Kidder faculty Award
by Kevin Foley

photo by Bill DiLillo

Huck Gutman skitters across the lecture hall stage reciting poetry, his hands whorling the still classroom air, his expressive voice, a marriage of literature and Long Island, rising and falling as the lines surge and ebb. The English professor is lost in the moment, or at least looks that way; he drops to his knees to nail a dramatic phrase. Then he stills for a long beat: “What is this guy talking about, anyway?”

The question, both in its irreverent delivery and cutting substance, is pure Gutman. What are poets saying to us? Why should we care? These questions are the objects of his expertise, passion, and buoyant curiosity. Poems start the conversations we need, but so rarely have, he says. They talk about sex, death, love, beauty, failure, redemption… important things barely discussed, even with loved ones. But everything starts with listening, literally and figuratively, so a key tool in Gutman's teaching repertoire is reading aloud.

“I had never heard a more perfect speaker of poetry than Huck - he knew exactly when to add emphasis, knew the poems so closely it was if he had written them,” recalls Kurt Johnson G'03. Johnson, who currently teaches English in rural Japan, says one recitation four years ago still echoes in his mind. “We were reading 'Asphodel, That Greeny Flower' by William Carlos Williams, and he read it with such tenderness and heart-felt longing that he started to cry, and I almost did too. I think that struck a lot of people - his passion for the poetry. And it certainly rubs off.”

Gutman's infectious enthusiasm earned him this year's George V. Kidder Distinguished Faculty Award from alumni, the University's most prestigious award for teaching. (In a rare double-dip, Gutman won also won the Kroepsch-Maurice Teaching Award this year.) Both awards testify to the resonance of a vocation he chose early.

Growing up as the bookish son of refugees who fled the Nazis, young Stanley Gutman, made a momentous decision: He would become a college professor of English. He would spend his days and life reading and talking about books. “I marvel at it…” he recalls. “The idea that anybody would let a 16-year-old kid decide what he is going to do with his life is staggering, but that's what I did: I let the 16-year-old-kid decide for me, that kid who was me, and I have liked it and loved it ever since.”

He went on to college at Hamilton (where the future literature prof acquired his literary nickname), graduate school at Duke, and in 1971 arrived in Burlington, where he has taught novels and poetry ever since. Striving to do that well has taken him in directions likely and unexpected: He has negotiated a truce with PowerPoint (to project poems, paintings and music for his lectures), become an impresario of sorts (bringing pianists to campus to play difficult modern music that complements his classes), and even became a political columnist for several major newspapers in Asia (a gig that started after he completed a Fulbright teaching fellowship in India).

The connecting thread is a sensibility suffused with poetry, art, and politics. Over the course of a conversation, Gutman quotes effortlessly and without pretension from Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Wordsworth, and Emerson. The core of his teaching, he says, is helping students similarly open themselves up to poetry.

“I think my job in the classroom is not to parse lines, it is to have people approach a poem not as if it was a crossword puzzle for the verbally bright but to hear what a poet is saying,” Gutman says. “In order to do that you have to pay great attention to the lines.” His voice rises. “I hate it when students come up and say, 'errrrm, this is what I feel about a poem' without paying attention to the lines.”

Feeling is more than emotion. It's an ever-shifting complex, a blend of thought and emotion and situation that poetry is well suited to untangling. Gutman loves ideas, and has a strong philosophical bent, but chose to study literature in part because it tackles how ideas function in the world, in the grumbling belly. It's less rational, maybe more real. “We don't just think our way through the world, we feel our way through the world,” he says.

Nobody goes to college wanting to learn how to feel, he says, but it happens and it's important. By way of explaining, Gutman quotes some favorite lines from Walt Whitman's “Song of Myself.”

“He says, 'It is you talking just as much as myself…. I act as the tongue of you, it was tied in your mouth…. in mine it begins to be loosened.' He's saying if we read poems attentively, we hear ourselves speaking. … It's a wonderful way of looking at poems. They tell us about ourselves, they help us see things that we think and we feel but we don't necessarily know we think and we feel until they're put into words.”

In that, poets are akin to teachers. Whether darting lecturers or confidants or leaders of lively discussions or some mixture of all three, Gutman believes great teachers have one commonality in their diversity: they pull students into their passions. A Wordsworth line he cherishes elaborates: What we have loved, others will love, and we will teach them how.

“That's the very heart of teaching… it's trying to urge students to take seriously what we care so much about, and show them how they might approach it so it is as rich for them as it is for us,” Gutman says.

The professor tries to tug students into his passions with lively readings, by spending hours before classes gathering historic visuals or burning homebrew CDs of music that he accompanies with six- or 10-page “letters” in which he strives to make sense of the sounds. (After more than 30 years, the professor is still trying new tricks, still changing, especially as he brings music, art, and architecture into courses more than ever before.) The results of all this, always, are a mystery. Maybe nothing - or maybe a former student writes seven years after a class Gutman thought tanked and says it changed his life.

“What happens after they enter into it, after they look around and see and hear what is there in the poem, after they hear what the poem says to them, what they do with it, I can't predict,” he says.

John Pucci '75 probably wouldn't say that Huck Gutman changed his life, but the professor was important for him at a vulnerable time.

The details of the novels he and Gutman probed together have faded now, thirty years later, but the details were never the important things for Pucci, now a litigator in Northampton, Mass. What the professor did for him, more than elucidate tropes or help track the arc of a character's growth, was make the working-class kid comfortable. Other professors also knew their stuff and were passionate about it; Gutman was the guy who seemed like he really wanted to talk with you.

“He was nurturing,” Pucci says. “He was caring, welcoming. He made me feel comfortable entering a world. I did not come from a sophisticated, intellectual background. He was a guide who opened doors.”