You must imagine me writing this with a copy of David H. Richter’s The Critical Tradition sitting on my desk. It is the same copy I used to study literary criticism with Dr. Sugano at Whitworth in the pre-autumnal-Y2K-9/11-smartphone (yes, that long ago) days of my youth. Fourteen years later, I now teach Literary Theory at Northwest University. Richter’s tome remains the standard for any critical survey, and is one of the few texts whose intellectual demands can inspire a student to drop a course outright. Paradise Lost and Ulysses vie for second place. The dust jacket photo alone inhabits a melancholia one expects from Edward Gorey or The Sorrows of Young Werther. I wish I could report that my students receive as positive an experience as I did at Whitworth, but there is no way I understand Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason as well as Doug Sugano. He is one of the best professors at Whitworth, a professor who provides first-tier preparation for graduate school.
I’ve been asked to respond to the prompt, “What have you been up to lately?” Beyond the usual, “getting older not wiser” bit, beyond the Charon riverboat crossing from cultured hipster to thirty-something in tweed, I’ve been at the work I love, the work that being an English major at Whitworth allowed me to pursue. In his book, Life Work, Donald Hall remarks that, “Work is my obsession, but it is also my devotion.” In a very real sense, this is how I would describe the work I am privileged to do. Obsessive. Demanding. A way to inhabit the sacred. A work of devotion. A work of love.
One extravagance of teaching is that with discipline (and Vic Bobb ACME-grade coffee), a person can synthesize the work of the classroom with the work of writing. When I began teaching twelve years ago, I would not have believed such a claim. To my mind, writing and teaching were the oil and water, 16th Century Protestant vs. Roman Catholic oppositions of academic life. No longer. Two years ago I taught British Literature and an essay on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight emerged from the experience. Last year, I wrote a critical introduction for an anthology of T.S. Eliot’s poetry in preparation for a class called T.S. Eliot and the Moderns. This spring, I plan to present a paper at Seattle University that examines the theological implications of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), an idea that was born out of a Faith in Film course I taught last year. More often than not, the dialogue of the classroom inspires the thesis, encourages the research, and revises my presuppositions. The dynamism of this exchange is exhilarating and serves as the primary inspiration for my artistic and scholarly endeavors. Parenting two children with my wife Kristin and taking long walks in the woods of Western Washington doesn’t hurt either.
And then there is the poetry: the blue Proteus. There is no more reliable bulwark against the tedium of institutional life, the noonday demon Acedia, than the work of composing a poem, submitting it to strangers, and receiving the all too common, “We’re sorry, but your work does not fulfill our present needs” rejection in the mail. Kidding aside, poetry is indeed how I keep my bearings, keep my vision of the soul in a world given over to materialism and status. It is my sense of how language might approach a fruitful silence. My work has appeared in several journals, including Rock and Sling (Thanks, Tom!), and is interested in how individuals can preserve their humanity in a world of webpage logins, buzzing phones, and “that guy” at Starbucks complaining that his triple shot caramel macchiato lacks a true grace note and is the wrong temperature.
Ultimately, the work I do is an act of faith. Faith that this is the best time in American history to be an English Major. Faith that what we need most in an age of terror and triviality is to sit quietly in a classroom with Laurie Lamon and read everything Emily Dickinson ever wrote. Faith that, in the words of T.S. Eliot (shamelessly ripping off Julian of Norwich): “All manner of thing shall be well.” I think we need more of this kind of faith. It is why I can still call myself a Christian post-graduate school and mean it. It is the apprehension of dappled things. It is a faith that might inspire students to give Richter a second try.
Jeremiah Webster is Assistant Professor and Chair of English at Northwest University. His poetry has appeared in North American Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Crab Creek Review, Floating Bridge Review, The Midwest Quarterly, Dappled Things, Euonia Review, and Rock and Sling. He wrote a critical introduction for Paradise in The Waste Land (Wiseblood Books), an anthology of poems by T.S. Eliot. He also served as contributor / co-editor for The Spirit of Adoption (Cascade Books) slated for publication this fall.
You can find his work here:
Paradise in The Waste Land
North American Review
Beloit Poetry Journal