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Entire Niehoff Lecture

by James Schiff, associate professor of English and comparative literature

Given at Kingsgate Conference Center, Sept. 6. 2006

Professor James Schiff

Professor James Schiff

Thanks to all of you for coming out tonight to support UC as well as to honor the teaching that takes place here. It's wonderful to be part of this "Great Professor" celebration, though I'll confess that I'm really, at best, nothing more than a "Good Professor" teaching in the midst of many other "Good Professors" at this university.

I want to thank Buck Niehoff as well for purchasing so many copies of my books, which will be your parting gift tonight. Never have I seen so many copies of my books, nearly 150 of them, in one place, except for the Christmas morning my mother decided to give all of my cousins and extended family a copy of my first book, "Updike's Version." You can imagine their faces when they realized that this would be their Christmas gift. Several of those cousins are here again tonight and will be thrilled, I'm sure, to receive yet another signed copy of one of my books. That said, I don't want to see any of those copies floating around on eBay tonight. I recall a friend telling me of how he was browsing through a second-hand bookshop in NYC and found a novel, written by a well-known novelist, which was inscribed, "To Mom and Dad, With all my love."

For several years during the late 1990s, I helped Buck identify and select professors at UC who, I thought, could also be effective lecturers for this event. Buck seemed pleased with the speakers I suggested: poet Andrew Hudgins, critic Michael Atkinson. However, when, for two, maybe three years in a row, the chosen speaker just happened to come from my department, I think Buck and others grew suspicious. Further, I recall that when I stood here at the podium and introduced one or two of those former "Great Professors," I hinted -- well, actually it was probably more than a hint -- at my own availability for the honor, at which everyone, if I remember correctly, smiled and laughed … though for all those subsequent years, nothing ever quite happened in that regard. I also remember, at some point in one of my introductions, making a pitch to the roomful of donors about the English Department's need for a new building and endowment, and so, not too long after that, Buck for some reason or other stopped calling me about this event. However, perseverance, as I've learned, pays off, or perhaps Buck simply ran out of names. Either way, I'm delighted to be here and grateful for the opportunity.

I'd also like to thank as well as recognize Buck and Patti's many contributions not only to UC, but to the city of Cincinnati. For years now, they have poured their time, energy and financial support into the many organizations that fuel our city, and it's hard to imagine two people who better deserve the title, "great citizens."

For my talk tonight, I thought I would devote a few minutes to what I teach: literature, and more specifically, contemporary American fiction; however, I'll begin by discussing two other interrelated subjects: life on campus and teaching. The glue holding these subjects together, ostensibly, will be the theme of personal transformation as well as the desire for transcendence. For those who were hoping for a slightly different talk and subject, I apologize and quote Rousseau, who in "The Confessions" wrote, "I am well aware that the listener does not require information, but I, on the other hand, feel impelled to give it to him."

There are many myths about what is taking place on campus these days, particularly as it pertains to the college professor. Some on television and talk radio would argue that we're all elitist left, forcing Marx and a liberal agenda down the throats of our students; that we don't teach the great books anymore and have substituted courses in television and popular culture (instead of teaching Shakespeare, we teach "The Simpsons"); that political correctness dominates classroom discussion so that no one, particularly a student with conservative views, feels comfortable enough to speak candidly; that we as professors put in a shorter work week than anyone in society, with three months off in the summer to boot; and finally, that we as professors have no understanding of the real world. All these myths are, of course, true -- or at least as true as those other wide-sweeping generalizations which are made about attorneys, surgeons, and automobile salesmen.

Perhaps the downfall of American education is captured best in this passage from Don DeLillo's darkly prophetic novel, "White Noise," which features a Department of Hitler Studies as well as a professor of popular culture and American Environments who teaches a course about automobile crashes in movies. That same professor, Murray Jay Siskind, says to Jack Gladney, chair of the Department of Hitler Studies, "You've established a wonderful thing here with Hitler. You created it, you nurtured it, you made it your own. Nobody on the faculty of any college or university in this part of the country can do so much as utter the word Hitler without a nod in your direction, literally or metaphorically. This is the center, the unquestioned source. He is now your Hitler, Gladney's Hitler. (I should add that Gladney, as we learn, doesn't actually know any German and is being tutored furtively in preparation for a Hitler conference.) It must be deeply satisfying to you. The college is internationally known as a result of Hitler studies. It has an identity, a sense of achievement. You've evolved an entire system around this figure, a structure with countless substructures and interrelated fields of study, a history within history. I marvel at the effort. It was masterful, shrewd and stunningly preemptive. It's what I want to do with Elvis."

While I'm aware that some would argue that classes in Elvis have become the norm at universities, a quick glance at our course descriptions or a stroll through the textbook section of the bookstore would reveal that this fall English students at UC will be reading a good deal of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Emerson, Dickens, Dickinson, James, Bronte, Faulkner and Morrison. Not that there's anything wrong with studying Elvis, or American culture through Elvis, but subject matter remains far more traditional in English curricula than many would argue.

As for the other myths, they're also entertaining. A liberal agenda and Marx are about the furthest thing from my mind when I teach; I simply want my students to understand Morrison and Atwood, and I want them to learn to read more carefully and critically. As for attempting to squelch classroom debate, most of us are thrilled to death when we can engender significant and impassioned debate in the classroom.

As for the supposed short workweek and summers off, the truth of the matter is that while I did travel with my family in June and July, I generally worked full weeks when I was out of town. Along with several of my colleagues who are here tonight -- and who, I should add, are better teachers than I, Buck, and would, I imagine, be available next year for this event -- I spent the summer reading four Ph.D. dissertations and attending those defenses; preparing budgets and speaker programs for the upcoming school year; meeting with students and writing recommendation letters; trying to keep up with new readings in my field; and, in my spare time, writing reviews and essays, editing a book, and serving as a peer review reader for journals.

While my colleagues and I probably haven't worked quite as hard as my old investment banker friends in NYC, I'd wager we've put in as many or more hours this summer than most American workers. For whatever reason, though, while the public is quick to point out that teachers supposedly don't work an entire year, no one ever accuses the college basketball coach -- and I'm a big fan of college basketball and very excited about our current program -- of only working from December to March, or of working only four hours a week, the amount of time two basketball games consumes.

But enough about the hard luck, "woe is me" life of college professors. Let's talk about the reason we're here in the first place, the students.

Today's student is different from those of generations past. Not only does he or she have more tattoos and body piercings, but today's student is busier than ever, largely because of outside jobs, which typically consume 20+ hours a week of time. Today's student is also older. I have many students in their mid to late 20s, as well as some in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. I even had one is his 80s, a man who graduated from Harvard in the late 1930s. Just about every teacher I know relishes having older students in class.

While some would claim that today's students don't read and can't write, I can confirm that my undergraduates are able to read and understand six or seven novels over a 10-week course while my graduate students read a novel as well as multiple critical essays each week and are able to talk intelligently and thoughtfully about them.

While our students are earning money and wish to be independent, one of the most important things that can happen to them at college, experts would tell us, is to find a professor, mentor or other adult on campus who will take a personal interest in their studies and life, a teacher who cares. Students who find this person perform better and are more fulfilled.

In considering today's college student, a useful question to ask is, "Why is the student in the classroom?" The obvious answer is that he or she is trying to complete a degree in order to get a better job so that he can live the kind of life that our society tells us is worth living. But a more interesting and I think revealing answer is that he's trying to improve himself, make himself better than what he currently is.

We take a class, it seems to me, whether in French, Middle-Eastern Politics, Italian cooking, enology, or squash because, either explicitly or implicitly, we want to improve ourselves, transform our sense of who we are, what we know, and what we can do.

Now while few today would question the usefulness of computer science, Mandarin Chinese, or accounting in a college catalogue, some may question English. Not in regard to literacy or writing; no one would argue, I think, that our students couldn't benefit from courses in writing. However, I'm talking about the study of literature. What is its value? What does reading a stack of novels or the works of Shakespeare do for a student? Is the 30 hours it takes to read Tolstoy's "War and Peace" worth it? While some would claim that reading great works makes us wiser and better, noted Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt demurs, stating, "There's no reason to think reading Shakespeare necessarily makes you a more reflective or deeper person. Otherwise, the Nazis who kept the German Shakespeare Society going in the '30s and '40s would have learned something."

In literature, however, there are examples of how knowledge and its pursuit can change and improve lives. Those who have read Benjamin Franklin's "Autobiography," America's first best-selling self-help volume, know this well. And if you've read Frederick Douglass's "Narrative," you'll know that as a child slave, Douglass quickly discovered that slave owners, cognizant of how literacy empowers, did not want him to learn how to read and write. Eager to acquire the skills denied him, Douglass was ingenious. In a Baltimore shipyard he observed how carpenters wrote large letters on pieces of timber to designate which part of the ship they were intended for (e.g., a piece for the larboard side forward would be marked L.F). Douglass copied and learned the relatively few letters he saw there: L, F, S, A. Later, when seeing a literate white child in the street, he would challenge the child, saying he could write just as well as that child could. He would begin by writing the few letters he knew, then challenge the child to beat that. Though he always lost these challenges, in the process he learned the letters of the alphabet. From this and other early experiences, Douglass developed, and through a lifetime of study, determination and struggle, he transformed his life as well as the lives of many others.

Perhaps the question, though, is not so much whether the writer can transform his life through study and writing -- that happens all the time -- but whether the writer can transform the life of his or her reader, and if so, how?

Dickens and Twain, of course, were famous for their public readings, which clearly affected and transformed members of their audience. Following a private reading which he had given to William Macready, the famous actor-manager, Dickens wrote in a letter to his wife, "If you had seen Macready last night -- undisguisedly sobbing and crying on the sofa, as I read -- you would have felt (as I did) what a thing it is to have power." Public readings also provide the possibility of transcendence for both author and audience; after one reading, Dickens found himself so animated by his audience that he wrote, "I felt as if we were all bodily going up into the clouds together." Dickens' performances were said to be astonishing, and his "warmth, histrionic flair and expressiveness evoked tears, applause, shrieks, laughter, hisses, and shouts of 'Hear, hear!' from his audiences." While not all authors perform so well and memorably on stage -- Melville's address at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati in 1858 was described in the newspapers as "earnest, though not sufficiently animated for a Western audience" -- it is fair to say that many authors elicit strong emotional and intellectual responses from their readers.

Speaking personally, there are hundreds of novels and short stories which have affected me deeply, beginning with Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" and Joyce's "The Dead" and including, more recently, works by Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes, Lorrie Moore and Margaret Atwood.

While I'm not sure I could articulate precisely how these fictional works have changed or affected me, I can tell you that before I began reading copiously I was a fairly shy, inarticulate undergraduate, lacking confidence and reticent about opening my mouth in class. I hope it doesn't sound as if I'm claiming that literature is the elixir that will change your life, though I have to confess that that's sort of how I feel.

Let me try to demonstrate how a particular writer and novel have affected me. John Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich" is a novel I've taught on numerous occasions. The third of five fictional works chronicling the life of Harry Angstrom, a former high school basketball star, "Rabbit Is Rich" is set in PA in 1979 during the summer gasoline crunch, a time in which Rabbit finds himself selling fuel-efficient Toyota automobiles, which means, economically, that he's doing pretty well.

I should, perhaps, begin by saying that Updike is a writer I've admired immensely since I was about 22, which is when he showed me something new about the culture in which I lived.

Like some of you, I grew up in Cincinnati, and when I went away to college I began to read Russian and European writers: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Ibsen, Flaubert, Camus, Joyce. Their worlds were different from my own upbringing in Cincinnati, and I genuinely believed that my own rather middling, Midwestern existence was not capable of being the subject of great literature -- that was reserved for Tolstoy's Moscow and Yasnaya Polyana, Dickens' London and Joyce's Dublin.

It was through reading Updike, however, that I saw my own world of relative suburban calm, domesticity, television and radio, sports and automobiles, come to life. In his Rabbit novels, in particular, Updike made everyday American life the subject of great literature. He legitimized the world I knew best and showed me the beauty and grandeur of a quotidian, middling existence. He could write a short story about a stroll through the supermarket and make it compelling, or generate a deeply engaging ten-page scene in a novel in which a character simply drives his car across town, listens to the radio and thinks.

Reading Updike has surely taught me to pay closer attention to the everyday, and to what the seemingly mundane world around me holds.

There are other reasons I value Updike, beginning with his facility for language. Updike writes beautiful sentences. As one critic wrote many years ago, "John Updike frequently gives the impression that he has six or seven senses, all of them operating at full strength." I cannot tell you how often I have read a line of his and reacted much the same way as I did upon first seeing the Tiger Woods commercial in which Tiger plays hacky sack with a golf ball balanced on the clubface of an iron. As you watch, you say to yourself, in the case of both Tiger Woods and John Updike, "How does he do that?" And so I would contend that reading Updike has made me strive to become more precise and ambitious in my use of language.

In addition, Updike has taught me a good deal about American culture and history, computer science, physics, Africa and Brazil, witchcraft, sex, religion, art and a wealth of other topics. As novelist Martin Amis writes, Updike is "a master of all trades, able to crank himself up to PhD level on any subject he fancies."

One of the most distinguished American novelists of the last 50 years, Philip Roth, wrote this upon completing Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich," "Updike knows so much, about golf, about porn, about kids, about America. I don't know anything about anything. His hero is a Toyota salesman. Updike knows everything about being a Toyota salesman. Here I live in the country and I don't even know the names of the trees. I'm going to give up writing."

What I particularly admire about Updike's "Rabbit Is Rich" is that he does what I had always thought was impossible: He writes a compelling novel about a relatively comfortable, satisfied life. Fiction needs conflict, tension, problems. It is filled with bad marriages, tragic deaths and brutality. Some of my favorite novels and plays, I'll confess, end with women throwing themselves under trains, men dying in Death Valley, a woman walking into the ocean to drown and entire royal families ending up dead on stage.

Yet Updike's canvas, like those of the great modernists, Joyce and Woolf, is stretched across the domestic as well as the interior life, and like the painter he admired most while growing up, Vermeer, he celebrates those relatively quiet domestic moments which comprise the everyday.

It is not my desire, however, to turn this evening's talk into an exercise in hagiography. What I'm simply trying to demonstrate is that every English professor and every serious reader has his or her own Updike or Updikes, writers who have taught them a great deal.

And if you are an English professor at a research institution like UC, then you're also expected to write about the authors and texts you read. People sometimes think of teaching and research as being at opposite ends of a spectrum, as if there are great teachers over here and great researchers over there, and never the twain shall meet. Although I have seen very good college teachers who don't publish and excellent researchers who can't teach, I've also seen a good many people who can do both very well. I should add that many of us in academia see the two, teaching and research, as being interrelated; the more you know, the better able you are to teach a subject.

Now some may question the significance of research and publishing in a field like English. "To what end?" you may ask. My good friend, George Rieveschl, who is here this evening, did research that has helped millions of people. His work has clearly made a difference and made people's lives better.

But what about in an English dept? What good is the writing that goes on there? Two of my colleagues who are here tonight, Brock Clarke and Michael Griffith, are novelists, short story writers and critics, and I can tell you that the writing and work they do outside of class has not only engaged and affected their readers but it is absolutely critical to what they do in class. They are active practitioners, bringing the lessons they've learned about their own writing into the classroom. They are also writers whom you should read.

Another colleague present tonight, Lee Person, is one of our nation's foremost authorities on Hawthorne and has written significant studies of Hawthorne, James and others. His critical writings have clearly made him a more knowledgeable figure in the classroom. Another colleague here tonight, Jon Hughes, is a well-known photojournalist whose images of Cuba, Sarajevo, China and Cincinnati have won awards and appeared in newspapers, magazines, books and exhibitions. Jon's travels and projects, his research, have clearly made him a more formidable and knowledgeable figure in the classroom.

And Nicola Mason, the managing editor of our newly established literary magazine, The Cincinnati Review, is here tonight, and I would sense that Nicola's work as a fiction writer has made her a more effective editor as well as mentor to our many graduate students who read manuscripts for the magazine. (I should add that anyone wishing to see a copy of this wonderful new magazine that is making a national presence, should contact Nicola.)

As I said earlier, my very loose theme tonight would be personal transformation, which is something that happens at universities and also through literature. I've alluded to Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass, who transformed their lives through education and writing, and stories of transformation and self-reinvention are pervasive in American letters and culture. Horatio Alger, Jay Gatsby and on and on.

Let me conclude with a literary image which has stayed with me over the years and which concerns transcendence. In Updike's first novel about Rabbit Angstrom, "Rabbit, Run," our protagonist, the former high school basketball hero, finds that life in his 20s, when he is no longer the darling of the crowds, is second-rate and disappointing. Something is missing. And so he finds himself on a kind of quest to regain that something that once filled his life. He is, however, confused and unable to articulate precisely what he's looking for.

On a golf course one afternoon with a minister who is attempting to counsel him, Rabbit hits a drive off the tee that flies magnificently through the sky, stretching far into the distance, and he cries, "That's it. That's it." That's what he has been after. Pure physical sensation. Transcendence. If you've ever struck a golf ball purely, or hit all net on a twenty-foot jump shot while being guarded closely, you may have experienced the same sensation. It's pretty tough to beat that feeling, and maybe there's nothing in the classroom that can quite equal it. However, Updike shows us that through language we can at least approximate and understand that sensation. And as we get older, perhaps experiencing those pure physical moments less often, transcendence is more likely to come from pursuits and moments that are intellectual, psychological, and educational.

As I said earlier, I don't think of myself as a great teacher but rather a good one, surrounded by many other good teachers. It is, in fact, the presence of these good teachers that makes each of us better. We tend to rise to the level of those around us, and at UC we are very fortunate to have so many who have dedicated themselves to the education of their students.

There's also a saying that behind every good teacher is another good teacher, which is certainly true in my case. I've been blessed with good teachers. But I would also argue that behind a good teacher is often a good parent or parents. In my own case, I would like to thank my mother, who is here tonight, and my father, who for health reasons could not be here. They have been the most terrific and generous people I can imagine, very encouraging all along the way. They're really the best and most loving parents anyone could possibly hope to have, and I couldn't be more grateful to them for all they've done and all they have given.

I'll conclude by leaving you something that I try to leave with my students at the end of each term, a reading list for the future, which will be given to you as you leave tonight.

And with that, I thank you for your attention and for coming out tonight to support UC and its teaching.