Teaching Lessons

Books Should Be Read Before They Are Taught


Dive into our newest Monday blog, in which guest columnists recall the wisdom imparted by their favorite mentors

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By William M. Chace

March 28, 2016



I met Thomas Flanagan in 1961 at the University of California at Berkeley. He taught the first class I took in that, my first year as a graduate student there. Unlike many of my fellow graduate students, I was instantly drawn to him. What I liked they did not: his fusion of wit, irony, wide-ranging reading, and a worldly disdain for the tedious routines of academic life. These things bound us together, and I was proud, in an almost proprietary way, to have been his student and even prouder still to have been his friend for 41 years until his death in 2002.

Tom gave to me a life-saving reminder: that the writing coming into the academy was made “out there”—amid the surprise and turbulence of life, and not within the quiet chambers where it is studied. For many teachers, as I discovered at Berkeley and as I have seen on campuses for 50 years, writing is interesting only when it gets to be “literature” and can be included in syllabi and then inspected. Tom believed otherwise, and to make fast his point, wrote three novels about Ireland that sprang from his devotion to its history and his living there. Sooner or later, he knew that what he had written would be taught. But he also knew that he had gotten the order right. The books are there before the classroom claims them. Tom also honored those living writers who created the books he admired. He made them his friends. In the generosity of his friendship, he drew me, too, into his wider circle. For my encounters there, as for his wit and friendship, I am forever grateful.

William M. Chace is professor of English emeritus at Stanford University, where he teaches courses on James Joyce, Irish fiction, critical thinking, and poetry. He was president of Wesleyan University from 1988 to 1994 and of Emory University from 1994 to 2003 and is the author of One Hundred Semesters: My Adventures as Student, Professor, and University President.

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