The English Department would like to introduce you to Dr. Jeff Spanke:
How would you describe your perspective on teaching?
I think that teaching is first of all a reciprocal enterprise. So I don’t like the idea that there’s a person with knowledge that gives that knowledge or gifts that knowledge to students who are otherwise incapable of learning. I like the idea that teachers serve as guides and facilitators of students’ own learning process, and that ideally teachers are learning along the way too. So it’s a mutually beneficial and a reciprocal process that doesn’t need to take place in a classroom and often doesn’t take place in a classroom. In my experience this idea that we’re treating students as incomplete globs of clay just doesn’t make sense and it’s totally unrealistic. Students are complete individuals, they have worries and fears and motivations and goals, so within the institution of schools, teachers need to adapt to those needs and those learning styles, otherwise we’re just going to keep reproducing a system that every year leaves millions of kids feeling marginalized and othered. So I think teaching is the most noble and important and rewarding thing any of us can do, but I also think that it’s one of the most difficult, and one of the least understood professions in the world.
What are you currently reading, if anything?
I’m not currently reading anything “for fun.” I teach a Young Adult Literature class that demands a lot of my attention, so I’m enjoying rereading all of those books; and then the various texts I’m reading for the classes I’m teaching. I’m rereading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Most recently, I read a book called The Witches, which was about the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, so I love historical nonfiction. A while back I read Stephen King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams, it’s a short story collection that he published last year. So that’s what I’ve been plowing through. But I usually reserve recreational reading for summer vacation and then winter break. Other than that, I’m always heavily fixated on my job and reading for that.
What is a text that you think everyone should read?
George Saunders’ Tenth of December. If you’re into modern short story writing, George Saunders is a creative writing professor at Syracuse University and he’s a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant, so if you want to delve into psychologically complex fiction I would suggest that book. Seconded by Kurt Vonnegut’s Welcome to the Monkey House. Saunders is lauded as the contemporary Vonnegut, and if you read these books you can definitely see why. In terms of sort of “life texts” that I think everyone should read: Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus, and I would say Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Especially for college students, I think those three books would be integral to your philosophical and intellectual development.
What is your biggest pet peeve in the classroom, or a big mistake that students tend to make?
I think a big mistake that students tend to make is not respecting the process of learning. I hate to use this phrase, but “students today” tend to be—at least in my perspective— much more evaluation focused, and skill and occupation focused than maybe they ever have been. I think the education system at large is more focused on job training and vocational preparation than democratic education and intellectual development, so anytime a student skips over the process of learning, whether it’s a critical revision of an essay, whether it’s just struggling with ambiguity and uncertainty and confusion. Anytime students deny themselves the opportunity to grapple with those issues by way of privileging just grades and “what the professor wants” is the biggest mistake they can make, because I think it cheapens the end product. So anytime we’re more product-centered over process or progress centered, I think that’s a big mistake. In terms of pet peeves, it bothers me when students—and this isn’t necessarily their fault— when they feel that their questions are silly, or they feel like their questions are dumb or they’re embarrassed or ashamed by their questions, and consequently don’t ask questions. And I think there’s this social capital placed on certainty, and you know, culturally one of the worst things you can do is appear to be unsure. And I despise that message, because I think especially in places of higher education and higher learning, uncertainty and unsureness are our life force and our bread and butter, and that’s what we thrive on. So anytime a student doesn’t want to ask a question, either because they’re too scared or because they think they’ll just figure it out later; I think that’s a pet peeve of mine. Because inevitably I get twenty of the same questions in an email sent an hour apart. So yeah, that’s a pet peeve.
Are you working on any projects at the moment?
I’m always working on projects! I’m working on a poem right now for English Education, which is a journal that’s in my field, and it’s going to serve as a sort of dialogic response to another poem that was submitted. So I was invited to do that because of past creative works I’ve published in that journal. I’m working on an article about international perspectives on young adult literature, specifically focusing on the book Between Shades of Gray which is about the Stalin genocide following World War II. So I’m collaborating with a friend of mine in Lithuania to throw something together for that. I’m working on a project on service learning composition courses in college and what those look like. Sort of creatively, a friend of mine and I are working on a pretty extensive book-length project on teachers’ language, the terms and the words they use in the classroom, and then linking those words with little vignettes and stories that sort of highlight the meaning. It’s sort of an abstract project, but it’s along the line of a book called The Lover’s Dictionary which is a bestselling popular book that kind of employs the same device. So I’m appropriating that for teachers. And that’s it right now.
What are some of your hobbies or interests?
I’m a recovering cinephile, so I love movies and always have loved movies. I think that movies early on more so than books taught me about the power of storytelling, and the various modes and rhetorical devices that can be used to convey whatever you want. So I fell in love with TV and movies before I ever fell in love with the written word. Which I think is comforting for me to say as an English professor, because I don’t want to come across as an inherent bibliophile who’s loved reading ever since I was little— that’s just not the case, I did not grow up loving to read. I was read to, and I grew up around texts, but that love came much later, not until high school, college, and even grad school. So I love movies, I love TV; I love exercise so running, weight lifting, and playing sports. I love eating delicious food, and then running, after the delicious food. But that’s it, anything that’s outdoors or physical or fun. But I think I’m a pretty off the charts introvert, so I prefer small intimate gatherings and good conversation, and wherever we can have those, we’re good. I don’t like parties, which sounds really weird, but concerts, big events where there’s a lot of people… Dave & Buster’s is like my personal hell. So anything that’s not Dave & Buster’s would be fine with me.
What is a piece of advice you would offer students?
I think if there’s any advice I could give students it’s to develop a healthy sense of perspective and humility. So perspective of your own abilities; perspective of your own lack of abilities. Something I see a lot particularly in the humanities is this idea that just because you enjoy something or just because you really want to do something doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do it. And that’s not a failure on your part— well, it could very well be a failure, but it’s not a character flaw, or a moral deficiency, it just means that sometimes in life you can’t do the things you want to do. And so being able to have a healthy perspective in those situations and to overcome those obstacles to live a healthy and productive life I think is something we need to work on, sort of as an educative culture to help cultivating that sense of perspective, and awareness. I think so many of the problems in the world could be alleviated with some restraint and some deliberation with our actions and our thoughts and our words, which is why I am drawn to literature and the written word because I think that’s what equips us with the ability to do that. Deliberation, restraint, perspective, humility, compassion, these are traits that I think are massively undervalued but undeniably significant if you want to have a prosperous culture. So whatever we need to do to foster those traits. It ain’t about grades and it ain’t about job applications or marketability after you graduate, I don’t think.