She Liked and Respected Us so Much

Sr. Mara Faulkner (Associate Professor of English) sits down for an interview with Luke Mancuso (Associate Professor of English):

Luke Mancuso:  You have taught in the CSB/SJU English department for approximately 35 years.  Such stamina indicates a stick-to-it-iveness that is mostly denied to postmodern workers, who shift careers several times in their careers.  To what do you attribute your happy longevity in the classroom?

Mara Faulkner: I love teaching, but it would be romantic nonsense to say that every day has been a joy.  Nor is teaching an ego trip, as some people think.  I've had my share of bad student evaluations and sometimes whole semesters when my students, the material we were studying, and I didn't gel.  I've taught through cancer treatment, the sickness and death of beloved friends and family members, and my decreasing vision. Like all of us, I've taught through years of war and terror.  But rather than adding to those troubles, the students in my classes or sitting in the worn 1970s-era chairs in my office have rescued me many times over the years from fear and sadness.

                If I let them, my students always surprise me.  I learned that lesson long ago from a writing student whose name was Ann but who answered to Pookie.  She had lots of bleached blonde hair and a bunny fur jacket, and was a Vikings cheerleader.  My immediate thought was, "Oh great.  I'll have a whole semester of papers about quarterbacks and rock-hard abs." I was dead wrong. Pookie was the best, most insightful, most original writer in the class.  Now when I'm tempted to judge my students by appearance-slick, surly, pierced-or to believe the proclamations of experts who say that millennials think they're entitled to the moon with a fence around it, to say nothing of all A's, I remember Pookie and prepare to be amazed.

                So, for me, teaching has often been terrifying but it's never been boring, because of my students, because of wonderfully creative colleagues who dream up new ways to do this familiar work, and because the English department has regularly asked me to teach new classes requiring research and reinvention. The most recent and most challenging venture was a contemporary literature course I called "The Past, Present, and Future of the Book."  The first time I taught the class, most of my students had never seen a Kindle or even listened to a book on CD; Twitter and texting hadn't been invented.  For them and me, a book was a bunch of pages bound between two covers, with the feel and smell we all loved.  That semester, the terrain of books and publishing was shifting under our feet; we learned about that tectonic shift together, teaching each other about new developments as they happened.  I taught the same class a year later, only to discover that the ground had shifted again and that most of the material from that first class was obsolete.  While I'm the world's worst person to teach a class like this one (I don't own a cell phone, have never texted or tweeted, never written a blog), I'm glad I did it and hope someone else will continue to trace the evolution of books, publishing, and reading with our increasingly savvy students.  Still, when Ozzie and I sent out the word that we were giving away our books (the print kind), I was overjoyed to tears to have swarms of students come in with Cub food boxes and grocery bags and fill them with the books that have been my friends and teachers.

                Even this semester, when there is no next time, I find myself thinking about better ways to teach a certain text or to help a struggling student.  Chaucer wrote, "The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne."  I think he was describing writing and love, but that statement fits teaching perfectly.  It is certainly has the mystery, mistakes, and struggle of craft; and even if I were to keep at it for another thirty years, I wouldn't come close to mastering it. 

Luke Mancuso: 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 ?  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?

Mara Faulkner: I'm not sure students want to take Writing Essays.  For many of them, an essay is that stunted 5-paragraph creature in which they say something they don't care about in a nonhuman voice. I and all my colleagues try to free them from the stranglehold of that pattern.  What I do in the class is very simple.  We talk about the essay as a chance to test an idea as one tests ore, to see if there is a nugget of gold in it.  We read and talk about essays by writers as diverse as Annie Dillard, Richard Selzer, and George Saunders.  We depend on questions rather than on answers.  Maybe most important, students read drafts of each other's work, offer honest and generous feedback, and in the process become better writers themselves, as I have become a better writer from reading many thousands of my students' essays.  I rant and rave about the evils of passive voice and lard and the glories of revision.  Before students finish each essay, I ask them, "If I were to cancel this assignment, would you still want to write this essay?" If the answer is no, it's back to the beginning to find some real questions about experiences and issues that matter deeply to them. 

Luke Mancuso:  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?

Mara Faulkner:  It seems to me that whatever I'm teaching at the moment is what I love the best.  So, right now I'm loving 13 centuries of women's writing.  But in general I like works in potentially illuminating combinations:  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass alongside Walden; Emily Dickinson's poetry paired with Life in the Iron Mills; The Grapes of Wrath next to Yonnondio and Black Elk Speaks.  Again, I have to thank my students for keeping these works fresh for all these years.  Like many of my colleagues, I ask groups of students to plan and lead discussions on important class texts.  They often come up with ideas I'd never have dreamed of.  For instance, in Modern Literature, we had just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath.  The discussion leaders asked us to study the scene in the migrant camp in which Ma Joad is cooking supper for her family.  Silent, hungry children circle around her, watching her with big eyes and hoping for a handout.  Then, the leaders asked us to fast for at least half a day.  Astonishingly, almost everyone did it and came to class ravenous and furious with their roommates for cooking good-smelling food and for chewing loudly.  They came ready to talk about the Okies and that circle of hungry children.

Luke Mancuso:  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?

Mara Faulkner:  I got my PhD at the University of Minnesota after I'd already been teaching in high school and college for 15 years.  My study of women's literature and history and feminist criticism revolutionized my teaching of English. But without a doubt, my most rewarding recent experience has been writing Going Blind.  It's about my family, my father in particular, and the physical blindness that shaped his life and mine. I knew very little when I began to write this story almost ten years ago, and my questions led me to do mountains of research to fill in the many gaps in my knowledge.  Fortunately, I had a sabbatical and a couple of summers to learn about the famine Irish, the Native American tribes from my hometown, the Germans-from-Russia, blind people, and the host of other individuals and groups whose lives intersected with my family's.  Doing this intriguing work convinced me once and for all that research and creativity are essential partners for most writing.  I also write poetry, and in July the Finishing Line Press will publish Still Birth, a chapbook of poems I've written over many years.  Even writing those poems required research of many kinds.    

Luke Mancuso:  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?

Mara Faulkner:  Once again, I can't narrow my choices down to one.  Here are a couple of possible candidates:  Literary historian Paul Lauter's critique of literature rests on this fertile question:  "Why this work, written in this way, at this time?" I ask that question in every class because I think it saves us from narrow readings disengaged from the writer's world.  For instance, Emily Dickinson's poem "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" opened up for us in a new way when we realized that she wrote it during the first year of the Civil War.   Another text that has influenced my life and my teaching is Audre Lorde's "The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power."  In this daring essay, Lorde redefines the word erotic, rescuing it from its usual romantic or pornographic contexts and restoring it to its original meaning.  I can't summarize the complexity of her argument in a few sentences, but the heart of it is Lorde's conviction that the erotic is the source of authentic feeling, thinking, and sensing that puts us in touch with ourselves and each other.  It infuses everything we do and makes passivity and grayness unbearable.  She ends with this promise:  "The power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama."  It's risky to talk about teaching as an erotic experience, but in Lorde's redefinition, it most certainly is.  I've taught this essay many times and seen students light up as they name experiences that pull together the fragmented parts of themselves and lead them to acknowledge vulnerability and claim their authority to speak and act.

Luke Mancuso: What professional challenges or unfinished agendas do you regret not having completed, in your long, richly-textured career her at CSB/SJU?

Mara Faulkner: During these 34 years research and writing have often ended up in the back seat, or locked up in the trunk.  There have been years when I didn't write a word except for the too-copious comments I put on student essays.  I think I might have stopped writing entirely if it hadn't been for the two small writing groups I belong to.  For over twenty years Karen Erickson and I have kept each other writing poetry and trying to get it published.  In some ways, not having time has been a blessing.  My ideas have had a long time to marinate, which is fine since I'm a slow thinker and writer.  I figure on about ten years to research and write a book.

Luke Mancuso:  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?

Mara Faulkner:  I used to think I wanted students to say, "She's tough, but I learned a lot."  But I guess I've mellowed.  Now I hope they'll say, "She liked and respected us so much that she asked for the best we have to give, not just in the classroom but in our lives in the world."

Luke Mancuso:  You will leave a poignant and lasting legacy among your long- and short-term colleagues in the English department, and beyond.  What will you miss most 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?

Mara FaulknerSomeone has said that all loss "comes from loving and holding dear."  I've loved and held dear and will miss dreadfully my colleagues' kindness and challenge, laughter and serious talk around the lunch table, jokes about my little snowman whom everyone blames for this long winter, the daily pleasure of working with students, the times when a random roster of students becomes a community.  Most of all, I'll miss coming every day to a job I've loved that somehow fits my shy, introverted self.

There have been times when I thought I should have been doing something else, maybe teaching girls and women in Afghanistan or working directly for peace and justice.  I won't do those things now, but I'd like to teach English to adult immigrants in St. Cloud. And I'm hoping that another book is waiting in the marinade sauce!