My So-Called Teaching Life: Speaks to an English Professor

Dr. Pancho Savery is an English professor at Reed College, a small liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Savery has a passion for education - he's been teaching since 1975, and joined the faculty at Reed in 1995. Read on to learn about the joys of life as a humanities scholar, and why the discipline is intrinsically relevant to our lives.

By Megan Driscoll

Reed College Old Dorm Block What led you to teaching and the field of English?

Dr. Pancho Savery: I decided when I was a freshman in high school that I wanted to teach. My high school ran an after-school tutoring program for neighborhood kids. I started working in it and felt an intense satisfaction in helping kids gain tools that would help them be successful in the world.

I went to college with the intention of being a history major, but I found the history courses I took to be too dry and boring. I then changed to psychology, but the department soon switched its emphasis away from clinical and developmental psych towards social psych, and I wasn't moved by that shift in emphasis, so I switched again to English when I was a junior. I eventually got experience teaching nursery school, kindergarten, first, second and third grades. When I graduated from college, I had an offer to be a fourth grade teacher at a private school in New York City, but I decided I wanted to be a college teacher so I could have more freedom and independence without a boss who told me what to do or what to teach.

E-P: What is your educational background?

PS: I have a B.A. from Stanford, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from Cornell.

E-P: What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about majoring in English or considering becoming an English professor?

PS: I think, objectively of course, that English is the best major. Any job you get after graduating from college is going to require that you have good communication skills. Being an English major is the best place to get those skills; not only spoken and written communication skills, but the ability to read and think critically and independently.

Becoming an English professor is tough. I am presently part of the search committee for an opening in our department, and we have received almost 700 applications. Only one person is going to get the job, and there are many more applicants than there are positions. But if you get a job, it's a great life. What could be better than getting paid to read interesting books and then sitting around having interesting, intellectual conversations about them?

E-P: Reed is well-known for its required introductory Humanities course. Can you tell us about the general humanities program at Reed?

PS: Reed has a freshman Humanities course, Hum 110, and all first year students are required to take it. Prior to this year, the first semester concentrated on Ancient Greece, starting with Homer's Iliad and continuing through Hesiod, the Pre-Socratic philosophers, the lyric poets, the historians Herodotus and Thucydides, the major playwrights (Aeschylus, Sophocles , Euripides, and Aristophanes), Greek art and ending with Plato and Aristotle. The second semester concentrated on Rome. It looked at Roman poetry (Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid), history (Livy and Tacitus), art and politics, then looked at Jews and Christians as minority citizens within Rome and finally looked at Roman citizens in North Africa, culminating with Augustine's Confessions.

For many years I had complained that the syllabus suggested that Greece existed in isolation and had little to no contact with its neighbors. The faculty was finally convinced to alter the syllabus, and what we have now is much better. For example, we now don't just look at the Greek view of the Persians and the Egyptians, we also look at Persian and Egyptian art, history, literature and religion. The course now more accurately reflects the reality of the Mediterranean melting pot. There are also three sophomore-level Humanities courses. Two continue from Hum 110 and go up to the twentieth century, and the third studies China.

E-P: What role do you think general humanities studies play in undergraduate education?

PS: One thing that is good about humanities programs is that they break down barriers between fields and allow students to see how everything is connected. We don't read texts or look at art in isolation. We are looking at the material in its cultural context and from a variety of perspectives. Humanities courses also allow us to ask some big questions, such as what is the relationship between the individual and the community, what is the nature of love and desire, what is the relationship between power and justice and what is the relationship between knowledge and virtue. People have been struggling with these questions for thousands of years, and we get to join the conversation.

E-P: Courses in humanities fields such as English are, of course, offered at almost all postsecondary institutions. Do you feel that they're approached differently in the liberal arts environment? What advantages and disadvantages does the liberal arts environment offer to humanities education?

PS: The advantage of a liberal arts environment is that students are in small classes and so there is real opportunity for them to actively engage in the educational process. Education should be thought of as a verb, something you actively do to and for yourself and the others in the room. It is not a noun, something that someone has and that is then passed down to you and that you absorb in a passive way, the way that a sponge soaks up water.

Another advantage of a liberal arts environment is that you are getting real professors in the classroom, not graduate students. And a liberal arts institution is one in which the primary responsibility is teaching. In larger institutions, teaching is almost always viewed as being a distant second to publishing.

E-P: Individuals in humanities disciplines are often forced to defend the relevance of their studies. What would you say to someone who is challenging the 'usefulness' of humanities education?

PS: In his history of the Peloponnesian Wars, Thucydides has a debate on the death penalty and whether or not it acts as a deterrent to crime. He also raises the question of the connection of poverty to crime. In Antigone, Sophocles presents a conflict between loyalty to family versus loyalty to the state.

We debate the same questions today in often the same terms used by writers from the past. I think it's a useless question to ask if the humanities are useful or relevant. It should be obvious that they are.

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