Below is a short tribute I wrote for Colleen Grissom’s 80th birthday. Grissom is a literature teacher I had at college. Besides being a great teacher, she was also just hilarious all the time. (Even the lecture on the youtube link shows her being very fast and sharp. Her sense of humor was sometimes terrifying, but utterly disarming too. Below is the first
True story — I secretly signed up for Grissom’s Continental Fiction class after persuading a half-dozen friends to sign up for Stoessinger/Sherry’s political novel class being taught at the same time. Then, at the bookstore the day before class, I realized that Grissom’s reading list 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 writers 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 meatspace. 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….
Here’s another bloggy tribute I made to her classes a few years ago:
Often when asked to describe the courses that had the greatest impact upon me, I would have to say Death & Dying, 2 Asian Studies courses and –amazingly — a PC repair course (saved me hours and dollars). I also took an excellent 2 semester Western Civ course (called “Human Quest”) teamtaught by some rising academic stars at Trinity, as well as 2 semesters of literature courses taught by the Dean of Students, Colleen Grissom. Anybody going to Trinity during the Grissom decades found her inspiring both as a teacher and as Dean of Students. She was smart-witted and taught with a passion for her subject. 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 taught the same class for decades meant that her remarks were polished and full of insights. I could rave about the books I discovered there (John Updike, Anne Tyler, Gunter Grass and Ignacio Silone come to mind), but truthfully, I would have probably come across them anyway. The 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 its literary value can bring interesting ideas to the table.
Another obvious point from Dean Grissom’s class. The class approached literature in a naive way, eschewing secondary sources and criticism. Later, I recognized that reading secondary material often just messes with your mind; in high school and college I wrote a lot about Kafka, reading loads of criticisms, each with their unique theoretical perspective. Interesting, but irrelevant to the lover of literature. One Amazon.com commenter about an Iris Murdoch book complained about the introductory essay by Martha Nussbaum, saying his students tended to gulp down her analysis as truth without trying to formulate opinions on their own. Far be it from me to complain about having too much literary criticism in the world, but I know what this commenter meant. Does one 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’ve just read? Sure, reading a book or watching a film without reading critical remarks by others results in misunderstandings or interpretations that are way offbase. But maybe there is value in reading Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing the exact parallels with Homer’s epic. In fact, not knowing can cause us to notice new aspects of a text others have so far ignored.
Grissom has started the task of transferring her lecture notes to books. I looked at her recent book A Novel Approach to Life. It was a hodgepodge of stuff — all fun and witty with occasional insights into reading and education. From a similar talk she gave a few years ago (audio here) here’s another favorite passage:
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