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Interview with Charles Brooks Dodson, November 20, 2001 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Charles Brooks Dodson, November 20, 2001
November 20, 2001
Continuation of interview with Dr. Brooks Dodson. In Part 3, Dr. Dodson discusses departmental faculty meetings and activities, and the university's search for a chancellor after Dr. Wagoner's retirement. He also discusses the trend toward literary theory, cultural theory and postmodernism in English departments, as well as the importance of reading in intellectual development
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Dodson, Charles Brooks Interviewer: Lack, Adina Date of Interview: 11/20/2001 Series: Voices of UNCW Length: 32 minutes

Lack: Hello, it’s November 20, 2001. I’m Adina Lack, the UNCW archivist and I’m here with Dr. Dodson, Professor Emeritus of English who will be sharing some of his thoughts and remembrances today.

Dr. Dodson, we spoke on the phone earlier and you were just mentioning a couple of things that you would like to share that I think is really good for our oral historical record.

Dodson: Yeah, there are several things that I recalled after we last spoke, minor. Most of them are minor, but when I was department chair, we held our department meetings in the Rare Book Room in the library. I thought that was an appropriate environment for us so I talked Gene Huguelet into letting us in because the room was kept locked all the time of course. I promised him we wouldn’t steal anything and so at least until we outgrew it, we had our department meetings there. That was kind of nice I thought.

Lack: Appropriate.

Dodson: For a number of years in Morton Hall after it opened, the English and foreign language departments were on the first floor and math and history were on the second floor and so every spring there was a titanic struggle in softball between the first floor faculty and spouses and the second floor faculty and spouses, all but one of which games I must add were won by the first floor.

Lack: Interesting.

Dodson: And then when we got graduate programs, the graduate students started to participate and then it just sort of petered out several years ago. It’s been probably four or five years since we played the game. It was always a lot of fun cause we did it in May and everybody was, you know, it was the end of the school year. Everybody was kind of relaxed.

Lack: Do you think it petered out partly because it became more spread out, the departments?

Dodson: It could be because by then, math had moved out and modern language had moved up to the second floor, but I’ve never been quite sure exactly why it did stop. I guess people just got tired of it. I didn't, but you know, some people did and it got to the point, I think the last year or two seemed like most of the participants were grad students rather than faculty. There were always a few faculty spouses who played which was fun.

The other thing was when Chancellor Leutze was hired and I was not on the Search Committee so I don’t have that perspective, it was the first search that had been conducted. Dr. Wagoner was not hired from a search. I’m not sure how that came about, but he was the superintendent of county schools and then he became the president of the college. The first president of Wilmington College was Dr. Randall who I understand his car broke down as he was passing through town.

Lack: There is a great story about that.

Dodson: Yeah, yeah, anyway it came time, Chancellor Wagoner was retiring and it was time to hire a new chancellor so a search committee was formed. I think it had 10 or 12 people on it. Jack Levy can tell you much more about this than I can because he was one of the faculty members on the search committee, but as I recall it anyway from my perspective, most of the makeup of the search committee was Board of Trustees. There were, I think, three faculty members, maybe one student, I think the president of the student government.

So the faculty had a relatively small role in the choosing of the chancellor which did not go down well with a lot of us who were accustomed to national searches with, you know, full faculty participation and so forth. But at least they were having a search this time so, you know, we said fine.

And I guess it became clear fairly early on that the faculty members who were Jack Levy from chemistry, Carole Fink from history and I’m trying to remember, there was a guy in the School of Education who has since left, but they were the three faculty members and it was clear that they did not favor the candidate that the Board of Trustees favored who was, as it was put, an encyclopedia salesman.

I believe, I had never met the man and I don’t want to be unfair to him, but what I heard or read was that he had no real academic experience at all. He was a J.D., a J.D. was a lawyer. I think he had spent one year as administrative assistant to the president at Wake Forest so what little academic connection he had was with a very different kind of school than this.

Lack: Oh sure.

Dodson: And he was an officer in, I think, World Book Encyclopedia. He was not a door to door salesman, but that’s how he was referred to.

Lack: Was he a fairly high up executive?

Dodson: I think he was fairly high up, yeah. But the problem as far as the faculty was concerned was that he had never taught and had not come up through the ranks and so forth. Well the trustees had to forward two or three, I forget which, names to the president of the university system, C.D. Spangler.

I think most people had no trouble if the search committee wanted to forward the name of this man from World Book, but what bothered the faculty members on the committee was that they were not going to include James Leutze who they thought was by far the best candidate. I mean he had been on the faculty at Chapel Hill for many years, had had an administrative position there. I think he was the head of a particular program and, of course, he had been a president of a college so he had, you know, many, many years of academic experience.

It got a little nasty, I guess. I know there was a comment made by one of the Board of Trustees on the committee that was it seemed to us and to the people involved pretty clearly anti-Semitic because two of the members of the committee were Jewish and the wife, I think it was, of one of the trustee members of the committee was talking about, I guess, he was qualified because he was a good Christian man or words to that effect.

UNCW in many ways was still pretty provincial although it had been changing a lot. Anyway, I think it was Jo Ann Seiple who somehow got word of what was going on. I don’t think she was on the committee herself. If she was it might have been as representative of the Vice-Chancellor of Academic Affairs. I think she was in his office at the time. Anyway the whistle was blown.

Now all of this was taking place during summer vacation when, you know, most faculty aren’t around.

Lack: Or students.

Dodson: And that bothered some people too, but a special faculty meeting was held in which the faculty members on the committee spoke and explained the situation and the Board of Trustees was meeting within a day or two I guess to make the final recommendation, to make their final decision on who to recommend to the president.

So the faculty demonstrated and it was the first time I’d ever done that. It was all very civil. We had our signs and we lined up along both sides of the sidewalk that goes to the Madeline Suite which is where they meet and we had our signs. And you know, the trustees said “Good morning” and we said “Good morning” and everybody was polite.

Lack: Did the signs specifically say things like bring Jim Leutze in?

Dodson: I honestly don’t remember. I don’t remember, but it was clear to the committee, I think, that the faculty felt pretty strongly about this and our position, I believe, was not that somebody should not be on the final list, but that Leutze should be. I guess the faculty members of the search committee had been pretty convinced that he wouldn't be.

Lack: It wasn’t democratic then? It wasn't up to the entire committee?

Dodson: Well it was, but they were in the minority, you see. There were only three out of about 10 or 12 which I think in itself is inappropriate, you know, I didn't have any say in it. So that was the thing. You know, there was going to be a vote, I’m pretty sure, but you know, the faculty members were in the minority on it. It worked because his name got added to the list.

Lack: That’s great.

Dodson: And the list went up to the president and the president interviewed the candidates and of course Mr. Leutze got the job. President Spangler was quoted later in I think the newspaper as saying that you know, Leutze was his favorite candidate all along or something like that, that there was absolutely no doubt in his mind that he was by far the most qualified candidate. So that’s what happened with that, at least from, you know, my perspective. It was something that I think representative of what I found the faculty to be like here, that they worked together.

I mean we all have our squabbles and you know, one department likes to joke about another department and so forth, but when it comes to a crunch as it did then, the faculty, at least those of us that were around, were pretty much united. One of the things that I liked most about being here is that we have, to my knowledge, no chronic malcontents and I came from a university that had a number of them and they kept the university tied up in knots.

They were constantly, you know, making public attacks on the members of the administration and I think these people had their own agenda. There’s none of that here that I am aware of. I mean we don’t always agree with what goes on in Alderman Hall and I don’t agree with everything that Chancellor Leutze has done, but I think he’s been, he was the right person at the right time. The school needed somebody like him, I think. But the faculty, I think here seems to be more interested in doing their teaching and doing their research than in playing political games especially with the administration. And believe me I came from a department and from a university that was very unpleasant. It doesn't take many people to make it unpleasant and I won’t go into that.

Lack: And I was going to say it doesn't have to be high ranking people, is it?

Dodson: No these were, no I mean these were faculty members. A couple of them were in English and one was in history and I forget what all else. Well several of them were in English. It was very, very unpleasant and that’s one of the reasons I decided I wanted to get away from that. The English Department there was not very good. It was especially in turmoil.

I had been so gratified, you know, over the years that I’ve been here to not see that, to see any of that sort of thing. Department chairs will get on their soapbox to argue for what their department needs, but that’s in the line of business. I’m not aware anyway of faculty members getting on a soapbox to push their own political agenda and call the members, the deans or the vice-chancellors or the chancellor’s names and that sort of thing so that’s been one of the best things about being here.

Lack: That’s good to hear.

Dodson: It may be because we’re growing and as I said last time, we’ve got the programs of growth. The school I came from had the opposite problem and I think that just added to the tension. I mean they were firing tenured people there. I know once we were, each department was asked to determine which of their tenured members would be fired. It was the only time in seven years I was there that the English Department was united on anything and we unanimously refused. We all signed a letter refusing to determine who among us was going to be terminated. None of that here.

Lack: Good, good, that’s good to hear. I wonder with this, the demonstration, I suppose that would have been in maybe the summer of 1990?

Dodson: Probably.

Lack: And it’s good to hear your memories even if you say you don’t remember it too well because I don’t know if we have anything written down in the archives about that event. Jim Megivern has given us some things when he was cleaning out his office, but we haven’t processed his collection yet so it’s still in boxes. It just was real interesting to hear and I think it wasn’t necessarily the easiest thing for you guys to do, I’m sure. Even if you did have tenure, to do that and to put yourselves…

Dodson: No, no, because that kind of thing, you know, has an awful lot of negative associations from the 60’s and 70’s, with me even. So you know, I wasn't exactly reluctant to do it, but I felt uncomfortable doing it. I felt it was important. I’m sure that other faculty members who were there that day felt the same way.

Lack: Was there a petition that circled around here, do you remember?

Dodson: I don’t remember that. There may well have been, there may well have been. That’s sounds vaguely familiar. I don’t remember.

Lack: I’ll talk to Jim about that.

Dodson: But that, I mean the hiring of the chancellor was, I think, a significant event regardless of who ended up on the job. It was a significant event for the university because it was the first time that they had ever done anything like that.

Lack: They went outside.

Dodson: Yeah and to have a national search and bring candidates to the campus for interviewing and so forth and now, of course, whenever there’s any kind of position from an assistant professorship right up through vice-chancellor for academic affairs, provost, there is a genuine national search and the faculty is fully participatory.

Lack: For my job too.

Dodson: Well there you are.

Lack: Which is a faculty position, but lecturer.

Dodson: I think that’s one reason why we were so concerned, not only about the kind of leadership we were going to get but because of the precedent that would have been set. It was, it would have been a bad precedent.

Lack: Do you know which names were submitted to the…

Dodson: I don’t. I know that the name from the encyclopedia company was submitted and whether there were three names or not, I don’t remember. I know there were two.

Lack: I’ll have to pull that information. As far as that remark, was it a member of the Board of Trustees that said something, Jim Megivern said something about a Jewish conspiracy or something to that effect.

Dodson: Well I don’t remember hearing that phrase, but it was something like, well, that’s what we expect from you people or people like you or something like that. The third faculty member, by the way, was Mormon and so that made him an outsider too from that point of view anyway. And I remember that shortly after I asked Jack Levy if the person who made the comment had ever apologized and he said no. I think that comment really riled up the faculty.

Lack: Oh yeah, understandably.

Dodson: It really riled us up. The person that made it, you know, may not have realized what he was saying or spoke without thinking or something, but it was, we thought, inexcusable.

Lack: Yeah, it’s quite telling in the fact that it was 1990 and of course things like that happen today, but still, when it does happen, it always jars you. Well I was wondering if you could tell us, do you have a little bit of time today…what you remember from working with President Wagoner or if you worked with Dr. Leutze too, you could kind of talk about that.

Dodson: No, I had no direct contact with Dr. Leutze. I have been in his office. I had a talk with him in his office one time about, in my capacity as an officer of the College Acres Homeowners’ Association when a development was being proposed and we strongly opposed it and we were afraid the university was going to support it. So I went and talked to him about that. That was the only real contact I ever had with him that I can recall.

I had little contact with Chancellor Wagoner either. When I was department chair, I worked with the dean of course and so about the only contact I had with Dr. Wagoner was saying hello on the campus, you know.

Lack: And he probably knew everyone.

Dodson: He knew my name, yeah, he knew my name. He was a very kind man, a very likeable fellow. He accomplished a great deal while he was here. I mean he took the school from being a two year college to being a four year college to being part of the one of the best university systems in the country so he did good work.

Lack: And then Dr. Leutze has accomplished quite a bit.

Dodson: Yes, I think he’s done quite a bit. As I said, he was the right person at the right time and I think the university was ready for new leadership and his academic background was very strong. One of the first things I think he did was to start bolstering the foreign exchange program and that has helped to cosmopolitanize the campus a lot.

Unfortunately again, I guess funding, there are no ESL classes for non-speakers of English and so these kids are thrown right into regular English comp classes and history classes and everything else and I know I’ve had students who clearly were very capable, very bright, but their command of English was just not very good and so they had trouble expressing themselves clearly and so forth. That presented some problems, you know. You've got to be fair to them and you've got to take in account that they’re like writing in a foreign language and so forth.

But I thought that was good, that the international studies program was started. I think Chancellor Wagoner had actually started it, but Dr. Leutze made a major upgrading of it, I think.

Lack: Really put some priority into it.

Dodson: And he just set a good tone. He was articulate at the time. He had a nationally syndicated program on PBS which you probably know about and that brought lots of favorable publicity for the university. At about this time, we started getting better and better students applying. The SAT scores started going up and that’s not simply because he came, but I’m sure his coming ultimately indirectly had …

Lack: His leadership.

Dodson: …Yeah because he was just making it a better university in one way or another.

Lack: I suppose being at a university as chancellor for 10 years is pretty long for this day and age.

Dodson: Yeah, I don’t know what the average tenure is, but I don’t think it’s 10 years.

Lack: I suppose we’re all wondering is he going to leave us and when will that be?

Dodson: Well you know when Chapel Hill was looking for chancellor, a lot of people thought that we would lose him to Chapel Hill, but it did not work out.

Lack: I wonder if he was on a list.

Dodson: I don’t know and he was very closed-mouth about it and I don’t even know if he applied, but it would seem a natural thing to do because he spent most of his career there and knew the school and knew that campus, of course, inside out. He didn't leave. I think he has been saying something recently about, you know, he’s about ready to stop. I’m not certain about that.

Lack: Go somewhere else or maybe…

Dodson: I don’t know. All I’ve heard is that he’s been thinking about stepping down, whether to go somewhere else or just to become a faculty member or what. Charles Cahill became a faculty member when he stopped being provost and so did his successor. I mean that’s the, you know, if you don’t want to go on to another place, that’s the logical thing to do. For all I know, he’s retiring, I don’t know.

Lack: Speculation.

Dodson: But that’s pretty certain that whenever he does retire or leave or whatever, that there will be a real search and it will all be done the proper way.

Lack: And do you think there will be more faculty representation?

Dodson: I think so.

Lack: Do you think that that whole search would have been different if it were during the academic year?

Dodson: Well I don’t know about that because probably the makeup of the search committee would have been the same. I think and I certainly don’t want to imply that the search was timed so that faculty wouldn't be around. I don’t think that was the case at all. It just worked out that way and it made it a little, we felt, a little more difficult for the faculty to express its voice because there was not a majority of the faculty on campus, you know.

I think the outcome would have been the same except that the faculty would have been even more assertive cause there would have been more of us, you know.

Lack: And maybe some more coverage.

Dodson: Yeah, yeah, maybe in the local paper. I think there was an article in the local paper about it. I don’t know, it’s been a while.

Lack: Sure, we can look it up. I was also thinking today that I’m glad you came in today because I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the changes in the English Department, not just your English Department, but the field of English. It’s been huge. Perhaps it’s been more gradual than it seems to a lot of outsiders, but for example, you have the whole, I guess there’s been some conflicts, some people think English has become too theory-based or perhaps political and then other people are…

Dodson: I think it depends on where you are. I’ve heard some horror stories from other campuses.

Lack: About the strife between the two camps?

Dodson: Yeah, and I know one of the first people to graduate from our graduate program, absolutely brilliant young woman, went to Duke to get her doctorate in English and she left, I think ended up in law school and she told one of my colleagues in the English Department that the English Department up there was a bunch of Nazis, left wing Nazis, and that the students were constantly getting drawn in to their squabbles and so forth. I heard that the people, what was it, at Syracuse, that most of the department didn't speak to each other and that sort of thing.

Well, you know, without as Blake says, without contraries, there’s no progression and without some conflict, I think you stagnate. When I was chair, the big new thing was composition and to have composition accepted as an academically and intellectually legitimate sub-field of English.

Lack: Though traditionally that might be taught by part-timers, mostly women or grad students.

Dodson: Yeah, everybody in the department probably went through grad school as a T.A. and the T.A.’s taught what the regular faculty didn't want to teach, composition, but that’s a long and old story for one thing. Until fairly recently, most people in English were not trained in composition. They were trained in literary study and in linguistics and yet they were asked to spend an extremely large part of any department’s activity in teaching something that none of them had chosen as a field or been trained to do, you know, so you can understand I think it was kind of paradoxical. Without the composition programs, most English departments would be very small and yet at the same time, it’s historically been the least popular course to teach and so forth.

Well when I came as chair, composition was emerging as a you know, a real legitimate sub-field and so there was that you know. And a lot of departments were going through that very same thing, you know. I established the Office of Director of Composition and made, in a sense, the mistake of hiring an assistant professor to do it who didn't have tenure and so it made her job doubly difficult, but then there were no senior people who were in composition in those days, certainly none that we could lure here, you know. There were some big names in composition, but if they moved at all, they were going to go to Michigan or Harvard or Stanford or something like that.

But, you know, we weathered that storm and it wasn't a particularly bad storm and most departments have and now, you know, nobody would consider not having a director of composition. The people that have held that position have been people that specialized in composition in grad school.

As far as theory is concerned, theory has always been around in one form or another and it’s constantly changing. When I was in grad school, it was so-called new criticism and a myth criticism. Theory was not as major a part of the curriculum and just the general professional discussion that goes on in the journals and in meetings, conferences and so forth. It wasn't nearly as important as it is now.

And I think there has been some conflict between people who see themselves as literature people and then the other guys are the theory people and you know you’ll hear people say well some people think you don’t need to know literature, you just need to know theory which is not true. My objection to it is the ugliness of the language of post-modern theory, whether it’s feminist theory or Marxist theory or cultural criticism or whatever. The jargon quotient seems to have increased enormously. I know a few years ago somebody posted on the bulletin board in the department a parody of post-modernist criticism and I frankly couldn't tell it was a parody, you know, except that every single sentence was opaque instead of every several sentences.

So my objections to it are largely aesthetic. I think there is also a danger that some people tend to look on literature as a political statement and not as an aesthetic entity.

Lack: So you’re saying with the onset of feminist criticism, we had to take a little break, but that was accompanied by a proliferation. You can back up if you like, whatever you feel comfortable doing.

Dodson: I was just saying that I think that every new theory is in response to the prevailing methodology and that’s happened time after time. The methodology of the 19th century literary study was essentially philological and biographical and historical and so then you have the new critics coming along in the 30’s saying you don’t need to know history, you don’t need to know biography, what you need to do is look at, if it’s a poem, look at what takes place between the first word and the last word and it should be able to stand on its own as an aesthetic construct.

Then you have mythic criticism coming along and Marxist criticism has been around for a long time, but it became more and more influential as more and more people got interested in it and then you had this just in the last 20 years or so a proliferation of theories, feminist criticism, Marxist, new historicism which I don’t see as much different from the old historicism of the 19th century except that it’s got a tinge of Marxism in it. And cultural criticism and post-colonialism and many of these things were, I think, needed and useful. I think especially feminist criticism has opened up a lot of eyes.

When I was in grad school about the only women writers that were studied were Jane Austen, George Eliott and Emily Dickinson with a little bit of Virginia Wolfe thrown in and not too much more than that. And of course, well there were some others, but you know, not very many. And the whole feminist movement and especially feminist criticism has led to the discovery or rediscovery of some very fine literature. I think the whole post-colonialist approach has opened people’s eyes to what imperialism was like and how it repressed people even when it didn't think it was doing it. You know, the British thought they were doing the Indians a favor by bringing Christianity and British culture to India, you know.

So there’s been this proliferation, but I forget who said it, but he is one of the leading lights in the profession right now, and then of course I can’t forget deconstruction. I guess that was the first one that started people, getting people ahead. But this fellow said, in a book that was kind of a history of literary studies, he said something to the effect of today’s theory is outdated tomorrow and tomorrow the current theorist will be just as contemptuous of today’s theory as today’s theorists were of new criticism or whatever it was and he saw that as essentially healthy and I think he may be right because if you don’t change, you stagnate.

Lack: Right, if you don’t question.

Dodson: Yeah, I mean there are many ways of looking at a piece of literature and I try, when I’m doing my own teaching, I try to utilize whatever seemed to me appropriate and whatever worked and whatever would be interesting to the students, you know. So you take a poem like “Goblin Market” by Cristina Rossetti. Well you can look at thing, if you want to look at it historically, you know, it’s a moral lesson for Victorian women, girls, about the importance of obeying their parents because terrible things will happen to you if you don’t do what you are expected by society to do.

But you can also look at it as a poem about addiction because what happens to the one sister who eats the goblin fruit is very much like withdrawal from a heroin habit you know. And there are all kinds of allegorical interpretations, you know, that Cristina Rossetti’s sister saved her from marrying a Catholic and so forth. So you know there are a lot of ways that you can look at it. And I think that’s what most of us are doing.

I don’t think you should burden undergraduates with a lot of theoretical reading. What you do is take the theory and use it in your teaching without saying well now I’m going to give a post-colonialist interpretation to this. Instead you just go ahead and do it and you try to do away with as much of the jargon as you can and put it in the language that the students understand.

I think it’s tempting for all of us highly trained literary analysts, it’s hard for us sometimes to remember that undergraduates, no matter how bright they are, simply have not had the kind of training and haven’t read as much and so forth as we have and I know I didn't give a hoot about literary theory when I was an undergraduate. I just wanted to read as much literature as I could and talk about it with the instructor and the other members of the class. I became, I suppose you could say, a new critic without knowing it. When I got to grad school, nobody said now, you know, you are all going to be taught to approach literature from the new critical perspective. Nobody said that. It was just simply the way they taught literature at the time.

I think most of us, even though we may have some doubts about some of the excesses, I think most of us adapt, you know. I think in the profession as a whole.

Lack: And in your department, I suppose that’s kind of a universe or a representative perhaps of what’s going on throughout the world.

Dodson: I mean we have people in the department who are primarily interested in theory, but they’re knowledgeable about literature texts. I mean one of the things that theory has done, I don’t know whether for us or to us, is that we no longer can call a book a book. We have to call it a text. And we have people in the department who are trained primarily in literary analysis rather than theory, but we use theory.

I can think of one person who had the same kind of traditional graduate education that I have who has become very interested in theory and now uses it, you know, as a primary source of her academic writing.

Lack: I guess what’s nice is once you become a professor, you can do what is needed.

Dodson: Yeah, well you want to never stop learning. Then you really do become dead wood.

Lack: A couple more things, one is do you find that since you started teaching, which I suppose was in the early 70’s?


Lack: You started teaching then.

Dodson: As a T.A., yeah.

Lack: How has it changed now with media occupying a whole different realm. When you taught perhaps, television was not anywhere as influential as…

Dodson: Oh no, when I started teaching I had the idea, nobody told it to me, but just sort of by osmosis that if you used audiovisual aids, you were not doing your job. It was okay to play recordings of Shakespeare, you know, but if you spent a class period showing a film, you were slacking. And of course that’s all changed now and in many ways has passed me by, you know. There are people now making these multimedia presentations in their classes and they’re marvelous, but that came along so late in my career that I just never, I decided there was no point in my trying to pick up on all that.

I’m essentially a Luddite when it comes to computers anyway. I think too often the tail wags the dog when it comes to computers. I know my wife said this is the case in the public schools, that the schools seem to think if they have enough fancy computers, then everything is going to be fine and the students will learn and so forth and that just is not true.

I’m of course astonished at how much more my students know about computers that I do, but by the time I retired, I was communicating with the class, sometimes the whole class, other times individuals, by e-mail and it was extremely useful. I just don’t think we should fall down on our knees and worship computers as some people I think do.

Lack: Sure, with everything there’s certainly some risks. It’s hard to imagine, when I was an undergraduate, we didn't have e-mail so how do you get by. You learn, you communicate with your professors and it’s hard to remember. I’m not even that old, but it’s hard to imagine.

What about the role of television and film? You seemed to imply earlier in your career a literature class would probably shun the idea of teaching film, but now is it much more integrated?

Dodson: Oh yeah and I may have mentioned earlier, in one of my courses, I regularly used films.

Lack: What has brought about that change besides just times have changed?

Dodson: I think it’s just that the times have changed and the technology has changed. I can remember one of the first things I did when I was department chair was get a movie projector for the department and at that time I think it was, I talked to Terry Rogers who was the chair of, or who was in theater and he told me the state of the art was I think this 8 mm film projector so I got one for the department. Well now, you know, that’s totally passé.

Lack: We probably have it in the library (laughter). We keep some of the older technology because we keep some of the films.

Dodson: But now they have these wonderful gizmos hanging from the ceiling that do all kinds of things and film studies itself has become a sub-field in English studies and we hire people with specialty in film now.

Lack: Right, it’s not considered to be secondary and that’s perhaps reflecting the world. I do remember people used to think it’s terrible, that we are just acknowledging that people want more pictures.

Dodson: Yeah, and I think the students’ attention span has decreased thanks to television. They’re accustomed to these images flitting by. I’ve noticed that especially on a lot of commercials. I usually mute the commercials and you just see this quick, less than a second procession of images. I mean your attention span now is what 10 minutes until the next commercial, you know, and then another 10 minutes and more commercials and so forth. I think the students’ attention span has gotten shorter.

Lack: Do you find that there are students who like to read just as much, but maybe not as many students?

Dodson: Certainly not as many. One of my chief frustrations is how little general information our students have about history about geography and I don’t know, maybe I’m not being fair, but it seems I can’t make an illusion to something in class, some event without getting blank looks. On the other hand, they have plenty of information about some things, about current television programs and about pop culture.

I think the primary evidence of the fact that our students don’t read as much as they should is the way they write. Their limited vocabularies. I have very few students who have serious problems with basic grammar and sentence structure and haven’t had for a long time, but the students just have, it seems so many of them have really limited vocabularies, you know. They’ll pick a word that isn’t quite right or is completely wrong, but more often, it just isn’t quite right. They’re not aware of nuances and it makes teaching of composition very frustrating for me anyway.

And, you know, more than once I’ve had a student say you know, why did I get a C on this paper? There are no serious grammatical errors in it. And I’ll say that’s right, but look at these sentences, what do you mean here. This word simply won’t do what you want it to do in that sentence and it just, it breaks the chain of communication. A reader should never have to go back and reread a sentence in order to figure out what’s going on and I find myself having to do that a lot.

Lack: Right, perhaps they’re not reflecting enough on their sentence.

Dodson: I think they just don’t have the vocabulary at their, they just don’t have the vocabulary at hand many times. I have very few really bad students here, very few. I found out somewhat to my surprise I was one of the lower graders in the department, but about the only time I assign an F is if somebody has disappeared or doesn't turn in work. I guess I didn't give a lot of A’s, but I sure gave a lot of B’s and there’s that great gray area of the C+, C, C-, B- and an awful lot of students I think fit in there and as I say often because they’re not articulate.

I don’t want to be unfair, they’re young, they’re 19, 20, 21. But I have students of that age who are very articulate and so it’s possible and if they’re not articulate, it could mean of course that they’re simply not very verbal and there are a lot of people like that, who are extremely intelligent who just aren’t verbal, but I think in a lot of cases it’s because, you know, they don’t like to read. They consider reading a chore, well you read your assignments and they read them in good faith, but they don’t sit down when they have some free time and pick up a novel or a work of non-fiction. Even a biography of a rock star.

Lack: Even the English majors, are they exceptions?

Dodson: No. Well somewhat, but I’ve had a number of English majors that as I would read their tests or their papers, I’d think what in the world were you doing in English. You clearly aren’t adept at it. As I said, very few students who are really inadequate, I have a lot of students who are mediocre and mediocre is acceptable, that’s okay, you know.

I learn from my wife’s experiences teaching in public schools that there’s an awful lot of kids out there that are just abysmal for whatever reason. And of course we don’t get them. They select themselves out. They don’t go to college. It’s just that I wish my students were readers and I don’t think a lot of them are. The English majors are, much more so, but you know, it’s hard to make generalizations. One of the best composition students I ever had was a chemistry major.

Lack: But perhaps a reader.

Dodson: He probably was and he was probably verbal to begin with.

Lack: That can really make a difference I suppose, when you have the interest in reading. What do you think is a way to help people get interested in reading? There’s so many other things to do.

Dodson: Yeah, there’s a lot of things competing for the students’ attention, yeah. Although I don’t think that many more than when I was in high school. We had television when I was in high school and popular music and going on trips and so forth. I think a lot of the problem too comes from a lack of encouragement by parents and role modeling by parents. My wife tutors elementary students who are having trouble with reading and there’s this one really sweet kid that she’s been tutoring for some time and by the end of the session, he’s shown marked improvement and she always tells his parents, you know, now you’ve got to reinforce this, but they don’t. The only time he works on his reading and reads is when he’s having a tutoring session.

Lack: That child will always be at a disadvantage.

Dodson: Yeah and so if, I mean neither of my parents were intellectuals. Neither graduated from college, but there were always books around our house when I was a kid and I just got interested in reading because the books were there. I didn't see my parents reading much. My dad was working two jobs often and wasn’t around and my mother was a traditional housewife so she had all she could handle in keeping the house clean and doing the cooking and so forth so I don’t remember my parents reading much, but they had books and they bought books for us.

I think in a lot of households, parents, kids don’t see their parents reading an they’re aren’t books around. I know one person who when he wanted to discipline his teenage son, he said okay you’ve got to read a book, you know, so that had negative associations.

Lack: Definitely.

Dodson: You have to stay home tonight and read a book.

Lack: Well I think it’s interesting to hear that because on one hand we’ve accepted so much that film, television, pop culture are all acceptable areas of academic inquiry, but there’s still perhaps a privileged position for reading that it still might be intellectually beneficial to read even though other fields of study, in terms of interpretation, have gotten a lot more acceptance.

Dodson: I mean I don’t care what they read, you know. They can read trash. I read a lot of trash, you know. World War II Nazi shoot-em-ups as I call them and so forth and spy novels and all that sort of thing. I don’t care what they read as long as they’re reading something. I mean if they want to read Mademoiselle and Good Housekeeping, that’s fine, just read something and have that habit. But evidently a lot of kids do read, look at Harry Potter. They’re just lining up by the thousands, the millions to get in to see that film. It’s clear that they've read the Harry Potter books and they know them intimately so that’s a good sign.

Lack: In a whole range of ages. I think if you’re a good reader at age 9, you enjoy them, but middle school kids like them too. And some of these complaints or issues I remember hearing when I was young, I’m 33 now, so as long as we have television occupying such a prominent role, there’s always going to be these laments.

Dodson: Oh yeah, well somewhere in my files I copied out a statement from a college professor at Harvard about the poor quality of the writing of Harvard students and how little they knew.

Lack: When was this?

Dodson: It was 1897 I think. So it’s all relative.

Lack: And people learn so much after college.

Dodson: I’m sure my teachers said the same things that I’m saying here.

Lack: That’s important to remember, not to get down, not to be totally critical of the generation that’s coming up. Well I think we’re running out of time so I would just like to finish up saying thank you for coming back and sharing some more of your thoughts with us, Dr. Dodson and hope to see you again.

Dodson: My pleasure, thank you.

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