“I just teach what I love,” says Adjunct Lecturer Jeanne-Stauffer Merle of the challenges of teaching the great works of literature from ancient times to the present. When pressed, however, this long time veteran of the Critical Writing and Great Works programs concedes that her choices are responding to some new directions in her approach to the ENG 2800 and 2850 courses.
First, there is her embrace of teaching in the hybrid format. Though she has never identified as a technophile and was admittedly skeptical about hybrid courses when the idea was introduced to her, she has found the experience of teaching in partially in a digital space freeing. “Starting to teach hybrid has helped me to become more open as a teacher; I feel more creative,” says Stauffer-Merle.
Another somewhat recent approach to managing the demands of coverage and textual diversity has been to use theme as a guide. Her ENG 2850 course is organized around the theme of “the journey,” broadly defined. Having this thematic touchstone helps students see links between otherwise disparate-seeming texts and provides a possible way to make sense of complex works. As a final project, students are invited to create their own journey model and apply it to a text.
Staffer-Merle is also on a journey of sorts in her own writing. As a poet, with her most recently published chapbook Inside This Split of Wind (Plumberries Press), she sees her work becoming more and more abstract. She links this to an increasing interest in blurring lines. In Inside This Split of Wind and her manuscript-in-progress she tacitly asks “Where does the analytical nature of prose end and the more lyrical, imagist, ironically almost “wordless” nature of poetry begin?” Also interested in the line between image and text, in addition to a new poetry project, Stauffer-Merle is currently developing a short film.
Five Questions with Jeanne Stauffer-Merle
What’s your earliest memory of writing?
My earliest memory of my own writing is from around 8 or 9 years of age, when I was spinning tales using different personas in improbable situations; unfortunately, I have only fragments of memories of those little stories. I remember starting to write poetry around age 11 or 12.
If you could recommend one poet to all incoming students at Baruch, who would it be, and why?
I’d recommend Basho (or another Haiku poet). Students are often resistant to letting go of their comfortable, analytical way of responding to texts and their world, and being alone with a little haiku poem often propels us out of our expectations for narrative and a logical ordering of events and into uncertainty. This idea of not being on solid, rational ground (Keat’s Negative Capability) not only opens up different ways of seeing, but different ways of thinking and communicating, which ultimately can lead to a much deeper understanding.
What are one or two works that you always want to include on your Great Works syllabus, and what keeps you coming back to them?
There are a few, but I would really find it difficult to leave out Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener” and Fuentes’ “Aura.” Lately, I’m loosely using the theme of Journey (as we talked about, I use various journey models) and both of these works can be seen as opposite ends of a few different models: Is Bartleby embarking on the anti-journey? Does Felipe, the protagonist of “Aura,” finally fulfill his innermost dreams and desires? One can see these complex works in many different ways; nevertheless, both of these protagonists are in some way lost to world as we know it, have left it behind, have renounced it, and are, at some point, at least, in that wonderful place of uncertainty, the place where one can begin to rethink one’s values and start asking the larger questions and, hopefully, begin to live an authentic life.
How does your creative work inform the way that you teach more “academic” forms of writing?
I’m not a fan of Frost, but I love his quote: “No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” In my own writing, exploration, experimentation, and simply having fun is essential to my process, and I do try to show students that these kinds of “free” writing are not only beneficial to the so-called finished product (the formal essay) but are really necessary to the success of that final essay. I try to make it clear that no project is really “finished”; that is, if there is a compelling question we’re working with, then it will probably continue to gnaw at us long after a college course. However, students do need to turn in assignments, so they do need to formulate a conclusion. But I try to make clear that sometimes (not always) a conclusion might very well remind the reader that there are many perspectives to consider, and that limiting oneself to a single, nicely tied up conclusion would be doing little service to the idea being explored.
If you could offer one piece of advice to students who are struggling with writing, what would it be?
Students often struggle with writing, I think, because they feel their own voice isn’t strong or important enough. We grow up hearing so many voices of authority, voices that are articulate, convincing and loud (sometimes very, very loud!) and this can easily drown out a small, timid voice. I think it’s important to keep a journal, but when I use the word “journal” I don’t really mean diary. There’s nothing wrong with having a diary; noting one’s inner feelings and thoughts can be very therapeutic. What I find helpful in mining my own voice, however, is to write the raw impressions of what I see, hear, and feel about the world (not simply focusing on myself). In my journal, I don’t hold back. I let go of that pesky inner critic, and I don’t worry about how I may “sound” to others. The only goal in my journal is to get to my own understanding of the way things seem work in the world around me, to respect my understanding and, ultimately, to respect my own unique voice. I’ve asked specific students to do this, and I have seen some positive differences in their formal writing.