Summer 2003 Magazine Archive & SearchMuhlenberg Home

 

  BY JEN EPTING ’03

At bigger universities, the faculty members live double lives. By day they are teaching students in classrooms, and by night they are pursuing their own “work,” whether that work is related to what they teach in their courses or not. But in Muhlenberg’s English department, this is not the case.

“What’s distinctive about this department is that we don’t recognize the dichotomy that exists at other colleges,” says Jim Bloom, chair of the English department. “Everyone makes a concerted effort to keep the flow open.”

This “flow” that Bloom talks about is exactly what’s original about Muhlenberg’s English department.

“What we teach reflects our research interests and also shapes our research interests,” Bloom says.

Bloom has seen this firsthand through the creation of his second book, entitled “Left Letters.” The book, a look at literary commentary in the 1930s, was inspired through the teaching of the Modern American Fiction course. But this phenomenon isn’t just limited to Bloom’s experience. According to Bloom, the majority of the faculty in this group use their “personal” academic research in the classrooms, but also use the classroom to inspire their personal research.

Alec Marsh, associate professor of English, is a major example of this. A few years ago, the lineup for Living Writers, a course Marsh co-teaches with Associate Professor Linda Miller, included poet Jay Wright. Marsh had developed an interest in Wright’s work, and he used that to get the poet here. But in turn, having the poet in his classroom propelled Marsh to create his own course on Wright, a senior seminar he taught in the spring of 2003.

“I’d say that my personal interest in some writers has been enhanced because of Living Writers,” he says. “I’ve started
writing on Wright because of the class.”

Through the seminar, Marsh was able to bring Wright’s poetry to a group of seniors, but also learned a lot about Wright from what the students were able to get out of the poetry.

“I’ve always thought that scholarship is to teaching as theory is to practice,” he says. “I think you bring what you learn from scholarship to the table. If I’m interested in this writer, I say, let’s read him together.”

Learning from students is also the practice of David Rosenwasser, professor of English.

“I think classrooms are about creating spaces in which the students have the knowledge base and skills collaboratively,” he says.

Rosenwasser has seen his personal interest manifested in a class as well. A few years ago, he developed a “Special Topics” course that dealt with Irish literature. He then taught the course as a Muhlenberg Scholars class, and, based on its success, began teaching the course as part of the regular English curriculum. The popular course is now taught every spring semester.

“At this institution, there are fewer roadblocks to curricular experimentation than any institution I’ve heard of,” he says. “If you have an idea here and your department head is amenable, you can experiment with it in the classroom almost instantly.”

The student-focused pedagogy of a small college isn’t without its challenges. As Rosenwasser points out, one of the problems with the small college is the amount of responsibility put on faculty.

“I don’t have the time or institution incentives to do ‘my work’ that’s not related to teaching and pedagogy,” he says. “Anything I’m interested in, I teach. Anything I think I might want to write on, I teach.”

And because there are just 10 full-time faculty members in the English department, an instructor is often the only faculty “expert” on his or her topic. “One problem with small colleges is that you don’t have colleagues in your field,” says Rosenwasser. “You have to define a piece of turf that we can all work in.”

The solution to this problem, for the English faculty, is collaboration. Each spring, Rosenwasser leads an independent study with Marsh and Jill Stephen, professor of English, on contemporary Irish poetry and literature. Rosenwasser brings to the table his expertise on Irish literature, while Marsh and Stephen offer their knowledge of poetry. Together, the three are able to generate new and original thoughts about their own subjects while providing a challenging learning experience for a small group of students.

“I think about my classrooms with the idea of ‘let’s think together,” Rosenwasser says. “Twenty engaged people can make a lot more happen than one guy who’s grading everybody standing in the front of the class.”

 

 

 

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