Chair’s note: The following is a guest post by Brian Gebhart, one of our majors. I think he makes a strong case for taking English Studies seriously. It is my hope that you, dear reader, will agree.
When I applied to college, I had to write a number of essays. It comes with the territory, I suppose: the nature of applying to university in our present day requires students to pen some sort of “statement,” often in response a question of some sort. “What does education mean to you?”“What do plan to achieve at such-and-such university?” ”How will such-and-such degree help you attain this goal?”“How have you been influenced by this factor or thing?” “Name a world problem and how you plan to solve it.”And these are all fine and dandy, one could argue: at best, what they’re trying to do is prompt some sort of response out of their would-be responders, and, sometimes, they are the only real window into the character of the soul behind the GPA and the letters of recommendation. It’s one thing to have others vouch for you; it’s quite another to vouch for yourself.
At any rate, my application essay burned a hole in my computer. I jest, of course, but the idiom is appropriate because of its underlying metaphor: fire. I was fortunate enough to have a teacher that spent a few weeks in my junior year going over the application essay, and what to expect; and I was even more fortunate that she had just spent the past half-year going over American literature. For me, Edith Wharton, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J. D. Salinger were hot off the presses – what is more, I loved those writers. I tried aping their style in my own writing; I would make notes and mark up words and lines and phrases that captured my interest, and then try to incorporate those same phrases into my own writing (often about those same writers, no less, and with varying success). Regardless, my teacher had revealed to me the benefits of extended metaphors (among other rhetorical tricks and tools) – of taking an idea or image and stretching it throughout a piece of writing, so as to uses its powers for a new purpose. In any case, I knew enough about writing by that point to know that metaphors, when used consistently and repeatedly, make for easily remembered writing, and extended metaphors can help to make up for writing that is otherwise quite bland or boring. (And what is the college application essay, if not a boring topic, made to dress up like an interesting one?)
And so I played with fire. In my application essay, I spoke of a flame that had begun somewhere in my education, probably in middle school – a spark that flickered and ignited out of my own teachers’ passion for literature. This is significant if only because I used to despise English – in elementary school, I thought reading and writing were wastes of time. Even though I loved stories, I saw reading and writing as burdens to bear, as these ugly little beasts that needed to be slain and burnt to a crisp, immediately.
And it might have stayed like this – with me preferring to doodle mindlessly in my spare time than to read. But something changed. Somewhere over the years I began to see literature not as a useless chore, but as a powerful means of escape. I’m not quite sure exactly when and where that change took place, but it did. And, beyond that, I started to see that reading didn’t just have to be an escape, either – it could also be a means of learning, and growing, and expanding the mind. It took me some time to realize, but I owe that first change to my parents; I owe the second change to my teachers. Especially my middle and high school teachers. These strange people had a love for reading and writing (and a knack for teaching) that, to me, was infectious. As I put it in my application essay, “they had a spark, a zest for the written word.” How could I resist these teachers who could recite poems and lines from memory, and speak to the power of stories by telling those stories and asking us (their students) about them? As I wrote elsewhere in my (brief) application essay, “With that flame, they [my English teachers] taught me how to understand the themes in storytelling, to glean the morals and the lessons, to illuminate the dark caverns of character and make it better, bit by bit.” Somewhere along the line of my own education, I saw books for what they were: portals into other worlds, harboring a host of contradicting worldviews, out of which I would have to assemble and develop my own. To keep the metaphor going, I learned how to take some of the fire of others (both my teachers and the writers they taught) and start my own with it.
And while my time here is not yet quite over, I think it is safe to say that, at the University of Michigan-Flint, that fire has only grown larger and burned brighter. I remember my most influential teachers from school not just by their personality, but by what they taught – I can tell you whom I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Things They Carried with, or who introduced me to Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, or who assigned Night and A Brave New World and All Quiet on the Western Front as summer reading.
I could say the same of UM-Flint. While here, I’ve had the opportunity to read no less than Yeats, Byron, Eco, Ibsen, Garcia Marquez, Homer, Frost, Soseki, Heaney, Gaines, Milton, Mishima, Borges, Eliots T. S. and George, both Shelleys, both Rossettis, and more Shakespeare than I can shake a stick at (to say nothing of scholarly work and articles). Not a bad bunch, if I do say so myself. And there are many others, to be sure – I mention only the ones that jump to my mind immediately. But the point is this: I have a name I could attach each of these writers to. And I have my English professors at UM-Flint to thank for that. I’m not going to say that I never would have read any of these writers without my professors (who can know when he or she may end up reading a particular author at a certain point in life?), but, because I did read these writers with certain people, my perceptions of their (the writers’) works will be forever colored by their (my teachers’) presence.
And that, I think, is the inevitable byproduct of the profession of the English teacher – whatever books he or she teaches you will invariably become linked with them in your mind. Or, at least, I think so. It’s something I try to be aware of in my own path toward becoming an English teacher, in any case. I know that one day I will be teaching my own class of students, and I may just introduce to them an author whose name means nothing to them – an author whom, by association, I will bond with in their heads (along with all the other attachments I may give them, from test to essays to homework to presentations: the real package deal).
Even so, my real hope is that I can keep that flame going, and – if possible – pass the torch along to my own students. I hope that I can show my students that reading is a lifelong joy as well as a constant source of paradox, worldview, and knowledge. I hope that I can show my students how their thinking will only improve through and with reading. My favorite part of school has been, and always will be, reading. Discovering new writers, rereading and relearning old ones – I just love to read. If nothing else, I want my kids to see that a love of reading can spark fires and enlarge the mind – that knowledge can warm as easily as it can burn, and can provide both a certain kind of defense and light in their lives. I am fortunate in that my English professors at UM-Flint have only reinforced my understanding of literature, even as they have challenged and expanded it. What else can I say? I’ve had some great classes here.
In short, in my original application essay to this college, I spoke of a flame that had been sparked by good teaching and great reading. I like to think that flame has only been fanned here at UM-Flint. My only hope is that I can one day help others see that playing with that fire – the fire of literature, that blaze of knowledge, those embers of other worlds – is worth the effort.