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Professors After Hours

This article was originally published in the Spring 1999 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By Michael Alec Rose, Associate Professor of Composition, Blair School of Music

Michael Rose is currently serving as a Vanderbilt University Chair of Teaching Excellence. In this role, one of his ongoing projects involves exploring ways to bring together teaching and research. His Professors After Hours series is part of this larger project. As Professor Rose reports, this series is all about challenging borders: by inviting faculty members and students to come together to explore the borders between teaching and research, he also encourages them to cross the border dividing professors from students.

Every semester, I ask colleagues to come to the Owl’s Nest Coffeehouse on an evening to discuss their work with students, and particularly to talk about the relation between their teaching and their research activities. Last spring, I invited John Lachs in Philosophy and Carl Johnson in Biology. This September, Margaret Anne Doody was my guest.

Professor Doody has a wide-ranging set of responsibilities on campus-professor of English, Mellon Professor of Humanities, and Director of the Comparative Literature Department-so I named this particular evening’s discussion “Many Hats, One Soul.”

I opened the conversation by asking her to characterize the connection between her scholarly work and her teaching. “I like talking about books,” she said. “Research complicates former positions on literature,” and discussing books with students can have the same bracing effect on a teacher’s work. For instance, her recent book of scholarship, The True Story of the Novel, challenges orthodoxies about the eighteenth?century novel, pulling the account back properly into antiquity. “The world of knowledge is changeable,” said Prof. Doody, and teaching helps one to negotiate those shifting landscapes.

The discussion turned to the question of disciplines and their natures. One student described her efforts to design her own major, with the help of a professor. Students had much to say about the relative “subjectivity” of fields of study, and there was an exchange about the limited usefulness of the objective/subjective axis. Prof. Doody gave us a historical perspective on the origins of the present system of disciplines in the late nineteenth century and brought up the idea that it certainly could be done a different way. She explained that the Comparative Literature program offers such a path, pursuing connections that the current system has not yet had the resources to encourage, such as the lines of force between English and Chinese literature.

I asked Prof. Doody about the link between her scholarly work and her work as a writer of fiction. She talked eloquently about different “methods of inquiry.” One has to be creative, first, and have a sense of play. This creativity feeds directly into her scholarly work, she said.

Prof. Doody then asked each student to tell her the name of a book which he or she had had trouble digesting or accounting for in the body of knowledge they had acquired up to the point. Names mentioned were Edmund Spenser, Flannery O’Connor (too close to home, the student said!), Poe (my choice), and Swift (Prof. Doody’s choice). She encouraged the students never to lose the love they bring for books (or music!) into the classroom in the first place. One student suggested that turning what you love into your professional life’s work may be dangerous and take the magic out of it.

The one graduate student in attendance commented that once you make your choice to pursue the topic of your heart, many unanticipated opportunities and avenues open up for you.

Prof. Doody followed up by reiterating her point that the world of knowledge is constantly changing–not only in science or computing, but also in the humanities–and we will need people to handle that new knowledge. It’s always taken money to make that happen, and the hope is that more and more social and economic dividends will be recognized in this growing and shifting landscape of knowledge.

Finally, Prof. Doody described her teaching as an “oasis” from the extensive administrative work she is called upon to do in her various roles at Vanderbilt. On that evening at the Owl’s Nest, we all felt lucky to have the opportunity to drink from those nourishing springs.