by Michael Sipe
The scene is a classroom with row after row of students rising toward
the back of the hall. They are mostly juniors and seniors. There are a
few sophomores and one non-traditional student in his late seventies.
Half of UVM classes have fewer than twenty students. Its a rare
English class here that runs as high as thirty. This class on modern poetry,
however, has seventy.
The large enrollment does not deter discussion. For any question I throw
out What effect on the infant does Wordsworth ascribe to
maternal love? or Why does the Duchess inspire anger in Brownings
Duke, and what does the Duke do about it? or What great Modernist
poem does Frosts Directive bring to mind with its ruined
house, the reminiscence of childrens voices, and the broken
drinking goblet like the Grail? several students vie
to answer. What they say is on the mark: Wordsworth says the mothers
love puts the child at ease in the world, The Duke is angry
that the Duchess expresses her feelings freely he cant control
her warmth and spontaneity, and so he has her killed, T. S.
Eliots The Waste Land.
Teaching such responsive students is a joy, one Ive long missed
the last time I taught was 1995, a seminar on the political novel.
The consuming duties I had taken on as a provost and then as a president
seemed to rule out teaching. How could I do justice to the students and
to the texts? How could I even meet classes regularly?
Still, I have always loved teaching, and in my first two years in Burlington
I gave several literary talks for Professor Emeritus Bill Lipke,
who, in his so-called retirement, ran a course for first-year undergraduates,
with frequent guest lecturers; for Connie Gallagher and the Friends of
Library Special Collections; for the Flynn Theater, introducing an avant
garde play that draws on works by Henry and William James; and for a local
synagogue, where I spoke on James Joyce and the Jews.
A senior English professor, Stanley Huck Gutman, had heard
some of these talks. When he asked me to teach with him, and when I demurred,
he simply said, Look, Ill cover the classes when you cant
be there, and Ill do all the grading.
And so we devised The Modern Tradition in Poetry: Wordsworth,
Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Browning, Tennyson, Baudelaire, Yeats, Akhmatova,
Williams, and Frost, an eclectic yet cohesive tour through modern British,
American, Irish, French, and Russian poetry. Weve taught the course
this fall; Ive been able to attend about three-quarters of the classes
and have led about half of them. Each of us participates (and kibitzes)
now and then when the other is leading the class. I cant thank Huck
enough for having made it possible for me to get back into the classroom.
It has been an opportunity to renew my love of teaching literature. It
has been an opportunity for me to put myself into a different relationship
with faculty colleagues: for most of my career, I have been one of them,
and in this activity I am one of them once again. Above all it has been
an opportunity for me to get to know our wonderful UVM students in ways
you simply cant working just as an administrator. Every time I enter
that classroom, I refresh my connection to students, learning, and the
life of the mind to what, in the end, our enterprise is all about.
I am unreservedly grateful for this labor of love, and for the chance
to experience it directly once more.
Daniel Mark Fogel