In 2013 a decade ago I wrote this short tribute to my literature professor Colleen Grissom for her 80th birthday. A decade later in January 2024, I wrote another longer tribute which appears at the bottom of this page when I learned she had died).
Here’s a video of a speech 80 year old Colleen Grissom gave in 2013 which captures her wit and energy:
Here is what I originally wrote:
True story — I secretly signed up for Grissom’s Continental Fiction class after persuading a half-dozen friends to sign up for a Politics and the Novel class being taught at the same time by two other star professors at Trinity. I had signed up Politics at the Novel too until I saw Grissom’s reading list, which was far more interesting. Silone? Tin Drum? Anna Karenina? My friends were mad at me for switching classes, and honestly I still wonder what would have happened if I had stayed…. Heck, life’s a bunch of choices, and I certainly had a great time tackling the Grissomesque path. I owe a lot of things to those classes — including overcoming my snobbery about the “superiority” of “European fiction.” Grissom opened my eyes to the great things American authors have been doing — pop culture references notwithstanding. As someone now immersed in literary publishing, I don’t have much time or opportunity to hang around readers in real life. But I have fond memories about that year in an actual classroom with Grissom and her students, hearing a cross-section of young and thoughtful flesh-and-blood people approach great books without preconceptions. I always liked how Grissom stepped back and let students do the talking, gently nudging us ahead only when absolutely necessary. Often I thought that I had appreciated and understood a story — only to discover during class that others had glommed onto different things and found all kinds of insights I was completely oblivious to. Every day after class, I felt so stupid! — But it was a good, satisfying kind of stupid….
Grissom’s classes would be broken up into two parts: an introductory biographical lecture followed by student-led discussions. I can’t say her classes went into depth of criticism or literary analysis; they were less about criticism than about students giving fresh (and often ill-informed) opinions about what they were reading. Still, it was great fun, and the fact that Grissom had often taught a book before meant that her introductions were well-researched and polished. I could rave about the books I discovered there, but truthfully, I would have probably come across many of them anyway. My main revelation from this class was that Chicks Really Dig Novels (which came as a bit of a shock to me, having attended an all boys high school). This may be an obvious point, but I also learned that the most interesting thoughts about a literary work can come from those you least expect; even people who only half-read a work and might not even appreciate a book’s literary value still can bring interesting ideas to the table.
Grissom assigned students each week to type a one page response to each reading, a format I found limiting and infuriating. On the other hand, because time constraints made it impractical to read critical interpretations by other people, students really had no choice but dive in and respond spontaneously. Later, I recognized that reading a lot of secondary material for a novel often just messes with your head; once in high school I wrote about Kafka after reading dozens of critical essays (each with their own theoretical perspectives). When I did this, I still produced a semi-interesting paper, but I wasn’t really responding to the work itself. I was only following well-trod paths instead of making new ones.
Does we really need to read brilliant highfalutin remarks about literary works to have interesting opinions? Do we really need to know what other brilliant people think about something you have just read? Sure, reading a book or watching a film without reading critical remarks by others results in misunderstandings or offbase interpretations. But maybe there is value in reading Joyce’s Ulysses or Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby without having every single detail decoded or explained. In fact, not knowing these things can reveal aspects of a text which others have been ignoring.
Despite the very social nature of Grissom’s classroom discussions, she identifies the benefits of reading as solitary:
One should make reading an integral part of one’s life. One should do this in spite of all joys, challenges, distractions and attractions of tempting television and films, plays, cocktail parties, athletic competitions, ipods and interactive computers. Reading offers much stimulation on many levels, an important one of which is that it is a solitary process and can teach you the pleasures and rewards of aloneness in a world in which noise (even Don DeLillo’s White Noise) and togetherness seem the norm. I recommend occasional solitude for your personal growth and rejuvenation.Colleen Grissom, A Novel Approach to Life, Trinity U. Press, 2008
January 30, 2024 Further Thoughts Upon Learning about Grissom’s death.
Grissom’s main job was that of Dean of Students –a position of considerable import and visibility at a university. She had to put out a lot of fires about student issues, and she was really good at serving as liaison for the university administration. She knew how to “declaw” student discontent while still providing a human face to policies that students must have objected to. (Conversely, I imagine she must have been an effective advocate for students behind closed doors). She was a superb listener and problem solver. Ironically, despite Grissom’s frequent caustic barbs and joking, Grissom understood the rules of decorum better than anyone. One student recalls that a day after Grissom had made an (unintentional) cutting remark about her in class. she was surprised the next to receive a handwritten note of apology. Once, when two students were being very rude to a third student in a Grissom class I had, she met them after class and gave them a piece of her mind (the two students ended up dropping her class). Grissom tolerated all kinds of students in her classes, but she made sure that civility ultimately prevailed.
Grissom told a lot of funny anecdotes. As a cat lover, she told one story about being accosted in a school parking lot while running late for a Trinity University event. One student passing by asked Grissom what she was doing. Grissom began to explain that she was trying to coax a stray cat from underneath one of the cars and asked the student if he had any suggestions about how to do it. “That is a very existential question,” the student replied and walked away. “So much for the idea that a liberal arts education makes us better people,” she commented with a smirk.
Grissom was not really an academic. After publishing her dissertation, I doubt she published a lot of articles, but she did prepare a lot of speeches both for her classes and various groups as part of her official function. She really did not grade papers except in a cursory way. She had eclectic but mainstream reading tastes. She knew what books and authors were making a splash in the U.S. book world, and she was particularly well-versed in regional fiction, women’s fiction and fiction of minority groups. After talking to her at an alumni reunion, I was delighted to discover that she was also a fan of Arnold Bennett’s The Old Wives’ Tale (a great book long forgotten about). I was elated that Grissom already knew the work, but hardly surprised.
Students read a lot of big books in Grissom’s Continental Fiction class. (Honestly, I didn’t have time to read them all during the semester, but finished them all months later). At the time I didn’t enjoy the fiction in Contemporary Fiction as much, but that was not really fair; how could you compare Tolstoy and Flaubert with John Updike and Anne Tyler? It was clear though that Grissom changed the readings on the syllabus often, so you could retake the same class a year later and find completely different things to read and talk about.
Any reading list is bound to omit many important works in favor of others. In Grissom’s Contemporary Literature class, I was assigned to read Harriette Arnow’s Dollmaker, Morrison’s Bluest Eye, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, Anne Tyler’s Dinner at Homesick Restaurant and stories by Bobbie Anne Mason, Tillie Olson, May Sarton, Eudora Welty and even Susan Sontag. But on the flip side we also read Norman Mailer’s “Time of her Time” (!), Rabbit is Rich by John Updike and also his beautiful story collection, Museums and Women. But I really appreciated the way Grissom’s class essentially put short stories on the same footing as novels. During the last two weeks of the semester, students gave book reports about various writers not covered in class (I chose John Cheever). If I were to find fault with how Grissom ran a literature class, it would only be that she let students determine the overall direction of most discussions. Undergraduate students can notice things that expert readers might not and occasionally have brilliant thoughts. But if you are expecting in-depth literary analysis, you probably won’t find it in a student-led discussion during Grissom’s class. On the other hand, it was revealing to see how differently people responded to the same story. Grissom’s class never shied away from books with weighty or mature themes; she was not simply catering to the callow tastes of students. Her classes were not simply a social hour for book lovers (although I did meet a lot of cool and interesting people!); somehow it seemed that during those classes we were exploring vitally important questions and trying to understand human nature — its capability for both evil and compassion. Yes, these were just books and this was an academic setting and we were mere undergraduates, but these books reflected the enormity of the world’s problems and challenged us to figure out a way to overcome them. And in Grissom’s class, we certainly tried.
Dean Grissom had to wear many hats around campus and often it felt that she was “onstage” wherever she went. She had to deal with a LOT of students in her official role (and not just literature students), so it was not surprising that I sometimes felt that she treated people like me a little too glibly. She certainly enjoyed spending time with introspective English majors, but Grissom had no problem relating to a many different types of people. She seemed to recognize that everyone at Trinity experienced college in markedly different ways. I can’t imagine what Grissom was like as a student — nor do I have any inkling about her private life was like — except that she really really loved her cats.
If there is any justice in this world, I’m sure Colleen will come back reincarnated as a grumpy cat who loiters around bookstores.
See also: Andrew Dansby’s memories of Colleen Grissom’s class in the Houston Chronicle. (Free link, no subscription required).