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photo by Michael Sipe

Back in Class

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. It’s 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 Browning’s Duke, and what does the Duke do about it?” or “What great Modernist poem does Frost’s ‘Directive’ bring to mind with its ruined house, the reminiscence of children’s voices, and the ‘broken drinking goblet like the Grail’?” — several students vie to answer. What they say is on the mark: “Wordsworth says the mother’s love puts the child at ease in the world,” “The Duke is angry that the Duchess expresses her feelings freely — he can’t control her warmth and spontaneity, and so he has her killed,” “T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land.’”

Teaching such responsive students is a joy, one I’ve 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, I’ll cover the classes when you can’t be there, and I’ll 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. We’ve taught the course this fall; I’ve 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 can’t 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 can’t 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