Our Teaching Spotlight posts highlight ways in which Hemingway is currently taught. Veteran Hemingway scholar Peter Hays inaugurates this series of posts by describing his experiences at the University of California, Davis.
I retired earlier than I had intended because my grandson had leukemia; we cared for our granddaughter while my son stayed with his son in the hospital and our daughter-in-law kept working to maintain their health insurance. After our grandson recovered (he’s now a sophomore in college), I began publishing again, no longer hampered by committee meetings, but I missed teaching. Davis has a program of freshman seminars, taught by faculty, lecturers, researchers about subjects they’re passionate about, whether it’s fly fishing, vampires, or learning how to negotiate the university (a curriculum committee reviews all course proposals). This fall, 92 are offered, including “Humanizing Deportation,” “Global Issues of Food Safety,” “An Introduction to Comparative Odontology,” “Taking the Rudder of Your Boat,” “Mitochondrial Dysfunction in Schizophrenia,” etc. The courses can be one or two units of credit, depending on length of time per class, and can be pass/no pass, or letter grade. It enables new students to meet with often senior faculty in 17-student seminars, as opposed to several-hundred-student lectures, and talk one-on-one. Instructors volunteer—there is no pay—but, for me, it was great to get back in the classroom again.
My nominal subject is Hemingway’s short stories, “nominal” because I’m more concerned with making them read closely and write well; there’s a paper due each week, and they have to learn to defend their opinions with textual evidence. Most students now come to class skimming through texts; they don’t read. Hemingway’s stories are a good place to demand close reading. And I’ve gotten some very good students.
Those of you who were in Paris may remember Michael Montgomery. Michael, a fisheries biology student, recognized that “geld” could be a bilingual pun, the German for money, and the English for emasculate. He wrote a paper on “Out of Season” that was accepted by The Hemingway Review and then delivered in Paris. (He’s now in graduate school, in marine biology). This year, Annie Tran recognized that in “Up in Michigan,” when Liz Coates drapes her coat over sleeping Jim Gilmore, she is voluntarily bestowing part of herself on him, despite her rape. Her paper has now been accepted by Jim Nagel’s new journal, Studies in the American Short Story.
These students are rare, like the one many years ago who fell in love with The Great Gatsby, before Matt Bruccoli had published the manuscript, and who took the train over winter break to go from California to Princeton to read the original text. It’s why I teach: to ignite minds; it keeps me engaged and makes me feel as if I’m still a teacher despite having retired.
Peter Hays is professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis, and author or editor of six books on Hemingway, the most recent being Simply Hemingway, forthcoming.