Ozzie Interviewed by Luke
•1. You have taught in the CSB/SJU English department for approximately 35 years; such stamina indicates a stick-to-it-ness, that is mostly now denied to postmodern workers, who shift careers several times in their careers. To what do you attribute your happy longevity in the classroom? Be concrete and specific.
I am still amazed after nearly 45 years of teaching, 34 here at CSB/SJU, that I am paid to discuss works of literature! Reading and having dialogues with others about novels, poems, films, essays have been part of my life since my high school days in Southwest Louisiana. I was fortunate to have an English teacher in 10th-12th grades that introduced me to reading some of the classics as well as contemporary works of literature. As a 10th grader, I read Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way and became absolutely enamored by the sense of balancing the intellectual, spiritual, and physical dimensions of life that the ancient Greeks practiced. So, as I began to read widely, I also began to wonder in what ways my insights from these readings applied to my personal life; such a goal seems trite in retrospect, but to a sheltered Cajun boy, it seemed like a giant step out of a somewhat provincial and very circumscribed life. The thrill and challenges of entering into remote worlds (just to list a few: Wuthering Heights, Anna Karenina, Animal Farm, Hiroshima, Jane Eyre, Black Boy-this last novel was banned from our course once a parent had read it, but most of us quickly read it before we had to return our copies) was absorbing and at times disturbing; Wuthering Heights remains the work that marks my devotion to literature. I was enticed into a world of extreme passions and complicated relationships that were certainly remote from the life I was living or that I knew others were living. So, my interest in teaching literature gradually grew and eventually led me to the classroom where I hoped to engender similar excitement as a teacher of literature. As so many others have said: I became a teacher because of inspiring teachers, starting with two Carmelite nuns in high school to high powered but stimulating college professors. There was a time right after I had completed my MA degree in English at the University of Arkansas that I thought I did not want to go any further with my graduate education. But, after two years serving in Peace Corps in Cote D'Ivoire, I could not wait to enter into a Ph.D. program. I knew by then that I loved learning and even more I was drawn into a career that would provide me the chance to have conversations with others about the imagination and the profound effects it has on our lives. (To see an example of what I mean, you might want to read a book review of Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow that I wrote and published in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack.
•2. According to folk wisdom, good teachers are made not born. What concrete, formative events, mentors, and/or texts influenced your decision to spend your adult life in academics? Be concrete and specific.
See response to#1.
•3. You are legendary teachers of a variety of courses, but above all, courses in essay writing, such as our required class, English 311: Writing Essays. Can you describe your teacherly bag of tricks in some concrete ways? Why do you think students loved enrolling in your essay-writing courses through the years? What challenges did they manage to overcome under your tutelage?
"Writing Essays" allows me to help students understand what I call their "mental maps." It's a course that teaches them how to create voice but more so how to forge connections between their own lives and their audiences. These connections challenge budding writers who have in general been encourage to write out of personal narratives but not often enough to answer the fundamental question that I always ask in conferences: "So what?" Why should I, your peers, and, even more challenging, a distant audience want to read your piece? While this is a challenging question, it is also the most stimulating and can be a source of creativity if they see it as an opportunity to envision how their private world has meaning beyond itself. I never give my students topics on which to write because I believe that the best writing comes from those beliefs, perspectives, and values that we hold most dear. So, I have students from day one develop what I call an "Ideas' Bank" in which they deposit experiences and insights that may evolve into topics and eventual theses. I insist that these deposits must be ones that are crucial to them and that they might want to write about if they knew they would die soon or that a group of readers might die soon. This "banking" may soon a bit morbid, but it does force my students to examine their own set of values-a goal that seems at the heart of our liberal arts curriculum.
The other course that I love teaching and that students seem to gravitate towards is English 387: "Introduction to Linguistics," which I was originally hired to teach. Over the years, I have developed the course in a way that applies what the linguist W. F. Bolton describes as the fundamental values of linguistics:
To compare linguistics with the study of other forms of human behavior is instructive, but a still grander comparison comes to mind: In many ways the study of language is like the study of life itself. Languages, like species, come into being, grow, change, are sometimes grafted to each other and occasionally become extinct; they have their histories and, in the written record, their fossils. The origins of both life and language, and their processes, are mysteries that can be penetrated (if at all) by reasoning from incomplete and perhaps ultimately inadequate evidence. And linguists, the scientists of language, study language and its environment with a biologist's care and intensity in order to approach an understanding of the nature of language itself--the most characteristic attribute of all humanity. ("Language and Its Study." Language: Introductory Readings, 3rd ed. St. Martin's P: New York, 16).
I tell my linguistics students that this course might be the most important one they will ever take because it gives them ways by which to enter into the minds, hearts, traditions, and values of whole groups of people while sustaining an interest in the power of language. Linguistics is the tip a cultural iceberg, below which are the ways that we set our values and ways of being. While students study ways by which we have organized language in English grammars, they also do comparative studies of grammars from other languages, including non-Western ones. But they also are asked to learn about the ways languages develop and are sustained. One fun assignment I have them do is to come to class ready to share "Linguistic Tidbits," current language issues or experiences as local or as universal as they may be. Former students often will send me such tidbits long after the course has ended, a sign that they see how a study of linguistics is as Bolton says, "a study of life itself."
•4. When you glance backward over traveled roads, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, which literary texts have you returned to again and again with students, with sustainable passion and mutual discovery? Which texts will you most miss in the years ahead, as platforms for teaching students how to read well?
As an Americanist, I migrate toward those works that seem to moves us to self-reflection, not just personally but culturally. So, I have always enjoyed teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter for its exploration of how a culture creates the outsider and how the outsider can move to the center and The Marble Faun for ways it seeks to examine large cultural values grounded in nationalism and gender. I also have enjoyed teaching Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for its obvious dramatization of moral dilemmas but also because its satiric vein provides a humorous but sincere critique of North American values. I have loved teaching Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth with its caustic critique of social mores while at the same time complicating placing blame on any one segment of society. Her novels in particular ask us to read closely and to appreciate the nuances in language, especially at a time when appearance was often valued more that integrity.
As you might conclude, I cherish the works of the 19th century but have also loved teaching some from the early modern and contemporary periods. For example, I have taught two upper-division novels' courses, one focusing on a selection of novels by William Faulkner and Willa Cather; the works of these writers read and discussed side-by-side give us a chance to compare and contrast the ways regionalism plays out, especially within the historical contexts of the South and Mid-West; however, the ways that gender, race, nationalities, and class complicates the regionalism of these works encouraged students to avoid oversimplifying by romanticizing Faulkner and Cather's narratives. I more recently taught the same course but this time using Faulkner's novels along with those of Toni Morrison. The racial issues that both writers focus on are obvious, but more broadly I had students explore the evolution of self-identity which I think both writers held up for scrutiny. My literature courses are all based on what I have called the "Iceberg Cultural Model," which argues that what is seen on the surface of a given society-its works of arts but also its customs, traditions, ways of forming gender, popular culture, etc.-provide us with ways by which to examine that society's values and cultural viewpoints. I tell my students that we have professionals to help us decipher these underlying meanings; they are called critics and are generally categorized by disciplines. However, for my courses, I place the students within this category as we learn how to decode the ways works of literature reveal our belief systems.
One of my most sustaining texts is not a work of fiction but a collection of essays by Russell Scott Sanders; his The Force of Spirit especially has inspired my own writing of essays and has consistently engaged students. Sanders, in my opinion, is the best Creative Non-fiction writer living today. Not only does he have an inviting voice, but he always grounds the broader amplifications in personal narrative, thus engaging readers in an intimacy with him but leading us to see how the particulars of life has meaning. To use the poet Marie Howe's words, he illustrates "what the living do."
•5. As you glance mentally at your professional profiles over the last decades, what forms of service and/or research have nourished you most deeply, both personally and collegially, in the English department and beyond? Be concrete and specific.
I have twice served as Chair of the English Department and learned about my leadership skills from such experiences. Before I took over this role, I really had not sincerely self-reflected on my leadership abilities, but I learned that the my bent toward process could serve others well; as chair, I quickly understood how as a leader I had worked my way through an issue before presenting it to my colleagues; however, my role as a leader was to create a process for them to use, based on the one I had experienced. I could speed up the process, but I really had to imagine the stages through which the department had to move in order to come to a well discussed and fair-minded conclusion. I also think I fostered faculty engagement in the work of the department by establishing a Chair's Council made up of faculty representing the department; the council and I met regularly to discuss departmental issues and to set the agenda for meetings. I also believed that through social opportunities colleagues could become more cohesive. So, I encouraged potlucks as well as a departmental version of the Collegial Conversations which has become campus-wide. And finally, I believe that a good leader-like good teachers-learn best from having those they lead give them feedback; so, unlike most department chairs, I had my department colleagues evaluate me each year; and from these evaluations and my own self-assessment, I regularly reshaped my chairing.
My teaching and research have been most significantly shaped by my interest in Feminist Theory, leading to Masculinities' Studies, to Gender Studies. If one were to examine my courses, one would find that there is a significant integration of gender, not just in the texts but in assignments that often have students consider gender challenges in their own lives. As one of the initiators of integrating gender into the curriculum (I directed a major FIPSI grant from 1984-87) in my early years here at CSB/SJU, I quickly learned about our institutional values and procedures whereby curricular innovations could be fostered. It was at times a grueling education for me, but it gave me a rich and deep appreciation for the ways CSB/SJU sincerely fosters its mission and vision. As was true for many in my generation, I had little academic training in Feminist Studies, but quickly discovered how invigorating Feminist Theory could be; it led me to some of my earliest publications on for example the psychological dramatization of Pearl in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and D. H. Lawrence's use of children in his fiction or the symbolic use of the pin-a traditional female sewing implement-to examine anew the paradigm in American Literature from its early period to contemporary times.
•6. Which one print or media text has shaped your imagination and/or practice as a teacher, above all the others? Why does this text have such a hold over you, do you think?
If I were to choose one such text, it would be Ken Macrorie's Telling Writing, which I came across early in my teaching days here at CSB/SJU. The following quote from his introduction captures the spirit I have adopted not just for writing classes but for my pedagogical perspectives in general:
Writing classes in high schools and colleges are titled "composition" courses. Compose, from the Latin, meaning "put together." In truth, what happens is more a coming to than a putting together. When we write we have an idea of where we'd like our meaning to go, but we don't know what words or sentences will take use and our readers there. If we're traveling well we don't know all the things or people we're going to run into on the way, what all the things or people we're going to run into on the way, what we'll pick up, what we'll learn-and especially, what events, sights, or insights will sneak up on us. (4th ed. Boynton/Cook P: New Jersey 1).
What Macrorie taught me was to allow my students' instincts and deeply felt but often not publically acknowledeged thoughts to lead them to insights and revelations. While I certainly prepare for my classes, I always include in these preparations ways by which my students have the opportunity to roam around a texts or their own thinking . When I do, the results can be explosive in their personal effects on my students and often have far more lasting impact than when I lead them to meaning and interpretation.
•7. What professional challenges or unfinished agendas do you regret not having completed, in your long, richly-textured careers here at CSB/SJU?
While I have been fortunate to complete most of my goals, there are three undertakings that I have not completed. First, a few years back, I was appointed Professor of Gender Education and Development, a position that was intended to be endowed. This professorship relieved me of most of my teaching duties and required me to act as the liaison between faculty and Student Development staff. I was certainly honored to be so appointed by the Provost and eagerly undertook the challenges that came with this appointment. However, after serving in this capacity for three years without any endowment, I found that most of my time was taken up with searching out for funding to assist our gender efforts. Subsequently, I suggested that the administration temporarily put the professorship on the back burner until the appropriate endowment came through. I regret having to step out of this position but am hoping that it will be revived in the near future.
There are two disciplinary projects that I have begun but have not finished; I am looking forward to progressing with them in my retirement: I have written five Creative Non-fiction essays focusing on my Cajun origins but exploring various dimensions of my identity. I am intending to write five more and then to seek a publisher. Some of the five I have written have been published and have received positive feedback, including from Scott Russell Sanders, one of our leading essay writers as I mentioned earlier. The tentative title for my collection is Musings of a Roaming Cajun.
For years I have used Modern American Prose: Fifteen Writers + 15, edited by John Clifford and Robert DiYanni, in my English 311: Writing Essays course since it is the only text that provides 4-5 essays per writer. Such a collection I believe is necessary for a course whose aim is to have students develop a sense of their style. My belief is that you cannot understand other writers' style unless you have more than one sample of his/her writing. The drawback , however, is that this collection does not include non-Western writers, which limits students' understanding of how the genre of the personal essay is partially shaped by cultural, social, political, and religious values and historical circumstances of the countries from which the writers emerge. One of my questions is how does a writer from a primarily communal society use a genre-the personal essay-that is based on individualized expression and explorations? I have supplemented the Modern American Prose text with essays by non-Western writers (e.g., Chinua Achebe and Arundhati Roy), but my hope is to edit a collection of essays that is more cross-cultural. I began this project over my last Sabbatical but am still in the process of selecting the writers and their essays.
•8. When your thousands of former students recall their semesters enrolled in your classes, what statement would you most want to fall from their lips, if they were to summarize their experiences in those courses?
Thanks for a course that gave me ways of valuing the creative spark that is in all of us and in providing me with ways of valuing the world by prioritizing the ways storytelling moves us beyond our limits and in the words of C. S. Lewis, "lets us know we are not alone."
•9. You will leave a poignant and lasting legacy among your long- and short-term colleagues in the English Department, and beyond.... What will you most miss in the months and years ahead, as you now reflect on this important life transition? What projects do you most look forward to in the months and years ahead, outside of the undergraduate colleges?
This is an easy one to answer: I will miss my colleagues and students, both of whom have sustained me intellectually, emotionally, and psychologically over my 34 years. My colleagues have given me connections to their worlds and have open them to mine; the riches of these connections are immeasurable, especially as I have heard from friends and colleagues at other institutions who are constantly are odds with faculty, not only in other departments but more sadly in their own. The nurturing I have felt from the first years here has given me a foundation for meeting challenges not only in my discipline, my teaching, my research, but even in my personal life. Students have prevented me from rooting myself too much in safe ways of thinking and especially of teaching. I have longed to simply pull out a former syllabus when I am teaching a course I have taught before, thinking that it will be a simply matter of changing dates for assignments, etc. This has never occurred because each class of students brings new interests and forward-looking issues that force me to rethink my course.
I look forward to having the leisure of reading more broadly than I have been able to do and to working on those writing projects I mentioned above. But, I am also hoping to expand an interest in cooking that I suspect stems from my Cajun heritage where caring about food and eating with joy are innate characteristics. So, in recent years, I have been hired to cater meals, sometimes for large gathering (e.g., receptions) but mostly dinners for special occasions. I find preparing meals for others as satisfying as reading and discussing literature: in both instances, there is the profound mystery of transformation. In the instance of reading, reader and text create a third narrative that miraculously emerges; cooking has a similar transformative dimension whereby a cook uses ingredients to create dishes that embody a fusion of creativity and nature. Is this not miraculous as well?
I am ready to retire, to move onto the next stage in my life, but I also know that parts of heart and soul will always be here at CSB/SJU.