By Rivka Inger, Senior Features Editor
How long have you worked at YU? I’ve worked as a tenure-track and tenured professor at YU for over twenty years. But I’ve actually worked at YU longer than that! I was here on 9/11 teaching as a full-time adjunct instructor before I got my PhD.
What do you like most about working at YU? I was just saying to a friend of mine that it’s rare to have students who have a shared body of knowledge, a set of references they can rely on when reading and discussing literature. Writers and scholars used to be able to assume that their students would know the Bible or would know something about ancient Latin and Greek texts. Nowadays, few college students have one shared reference point. They don’t even watch the same television shows or listen to the same music. Because Stern students are able to draw on a shared set of references – their studies in Judaism, their understanding of the Bible – they are able to read certain texts with a deeper understanding.
I’d also say that for the most part, the students at YU are remarkably kind people. I’m still so surprised—even after more than twenty years here — that at the end of a class, students will come up to thank me for the lesson and ask to continue the discussion. They aren’t afraid to show their excitement about learning. They seem to genuinely like being in the classroom. The majority of the students I teach really seem to take pleasure in their education. I feel so fortunate to be teaching in this kind of an environment. They are engaged and so am I.
Another quality of students at SCW – and this might seem like a peculiar thing to focus on – is that I think they are faring better than many students these days because they have that Sabbath break from Friday to Saturday night. So many of us these days are struggling to be present because we are faced with endless distractions and little time to reflect and take stock and just think about what we are doing. Although YU students have other challenges – they take way more classes a semester than most college students – they have this advantage: they are given an opportunity to quiet their minds and step away. I believe this helps them in their reading, their thinking, and in their overall emotional health.
What made you passionate about English Literature? I’ve always been a passionate reader. I knew whatever I did, I’d need to be engaged somehow in books, the written word. After college, I started out working in book publishing, a good fit but not quite the perfect one. I knew that teaching was what I really needed to be doing. Here was my real vocation. I hadn’t intended to focus on American Literature when I started graduate school—I was initially more interested in early 20th century British literature — but because I decided to write a dissertation on 20th century American women writers, this became my central field of study. What’s wonderful about teaching at Stern College is that there’s flexibility. I have other areas of interests – creative writing, global literature, for example – and because we are such a small and supportive department, there’s room for me to explore other areas of interest.
Is there anything interesting you are currently working on? Right now, I’m working on an autobiographical essay (a family story that has for many years been kept a secret), and a longer book-length exploration of a community of writers who lived in Wisconsin, my home state, in the 1920s and 30s. I started the longer project a while ago, but then decided to scrap what I’d done – it didn’t feel right, too dry, too academic – and have started over. This time, it looks like the project will be a novel. We’ll see!
Do you have any advice for students interested in a career in English? After I left book publishing, I worked for a few years as a high school teacher. Then I went ahead and applied to graduate school for an advanced degree in English Literature. I’m happy with the path that led me here today. My advice to students: relax a bit. Try a few different things after you’ve left college. If you are interested in teaching English or in writing, don’t feel you have to immediately apply for an MFA in Creative Writing or a Masters or PhD in Literature or Education. There’s so much time; it doesn’t all have to happen immediately after graduation. Be flexible. It’s very hard to find college-level tenure-track teaching jobs these days, but they still do exist, and if that is what you decide is your passion, then of course, go for it. But don’t be afraid to take a few years after college to try other kinds of jobs that might help you make that decision. Be open.
If you could bring in any guest lecturer, alive or deceased, who would it be? What would they speak about? Last year, I taught a course on global short fiction, and one of the writers we read was Yiyun Li. She’s a Chinese American writer who now teaches at Princeton. She’s a beautiful writer, a quiet writer, and someone who in recent years has dealt with immense loss. She lost her son to suicide a few years ago, has spoken about that, and about ways to heal and deal with grief. So many of us these days are struggling with grief because of all that is happening, and I somehow imagine that this kind of quiet attention that Yiyun Li shows in her work could be helpful to us.
What is one thing you want students to know about you? I want my students to know that when I walk into the classroom, I’m often as uncertain about what will happen as they are. I have a lesson planned and ideas about the material, but I never know how it will go or what I will learn in that hour and fifteen minutes. We are all figuring it out together, all learning together.
Is there a particular book you would recommend that everyone read? In two of my classes this semester – Intro to Creative Writing and Literature of Parents and Children – I taught a novella called Foster by Irish writer Claire Keegan. Keegan’s prose is spare, tight, nothing extra, and yet she says so much about love and family and loss. Everyone should read it.