By Margaret Cahoon ’05
Andrew Parker began teaching at Amherst in 1982, when he was still working on his Ph.D. dissertation for the University of Chicago. Originally hired to teach linguistics and literature, he since has developed courses encompassing everything from Marxism and psychoanalysis to the Victorian novel. Student response has been enthusiastic, as demonstrated by the Distinguished Teaching Award he received from the Student Government Organization in 2001, and by his packed classes (even at the all too competitive 2 p.m. Tuesday/Thursday timeslot). Parker has chaired both the English Department and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, and has written or edited books on topics ranging from 19th- and 20th-century English and American literatures, literary and cultural theory, philosophy and literature, comparative literature, cultural studies and gender studies. Following are excerpts of what he had to tell us about his life, his research and his students.
ON RESEARCH AND TEACHING AT AMHERST
I find that one of the differences between teaching at Amherst and teaching at a university is that very little of what I teach students has any direct relationship to the writing I’m actually doing. Most of my friends from graduate school who teach at universities are teaching the subjects of their books to graduate students. Not having graduate students at Amherst College means you can do a lot of other kinds of things. Amherst gives you permission to continually reinvent yourself so you can find new things to teach and think about, subjects you didn’t study in graduate school but which need to be taught at a college, in part because the fields are new (which is why you didn’t study them in graduate school) but also because we have a very limited staff. If somebody doesn’t step up to the plate to teach a particular subject, it’s not going to get taught. I teach what I like to teach; I teach what I think students at Amherst need to know because they’re not getting it elsewhere.
ON HIS BIG BOOKS COURSE
Big Books is my First-Year Seminar. I hear constantly from my colleagues that it’s hard to get students to speak in their First-Year Seminars. OK, this may be bragging, but I can’t get my students to shut up. They’re just gabbing constantly, and the class is more like a reading group than a formal course. We all read about 100-150 pages of a novel together twice a week, and we talk about it and write about it. It’s a great socialization experience for them; they realize what the work rhythm is like at Amherst, how much to read per week, and it’s also a manageable amount of writing every week. It’s just an old English Department formula: students will have written more than 25 pages over the course of the semester, but they won’t have done that all at once, and they’ll be surprised how much they actually did write. They’re also living with a novel for an entire month—eight one-and-a-half-hour classes per novel, which is more time than they’ll ever have in an Amherst class with one book, and this feels luxurious and also socially interesting—to be living in a big, imaginary world, and also with each other, for that length of time.
ON RE-TEACHING COURSES
For me the optimum number of times of teaching a course is about five. I really don’t know what the course is about until I’m done with it the first time. The third time is probably the best time, and there’s a bit of a decline in number four, but number five is just ridiculous, where you go into class and you sit down and think, ‘Wait a second, didn’t I write Great Expectations?’ So I don’t think I’m a very good teacher when I basically just send it in; I need to reread all the novels I teach to feel like I’m doing my job. I also kick myself for doing this, of course: “So why did I assign these three 800-page novels?”
ON COURSES HE'D LIKE TO TEACH
I’m thinking about a class on forgery and imitation that would feature texts from the ancients to the moderns, but that would focus on the way everything changed in the 18th and 19th centuries, when a premium was put on originality, and when copyright law codified a set of regulations that define the modern character of literature. I’m also interested in a multi-college course that would be about the process of archive formation, how knowledge is classified, preserved and retrieved. The history of communication runs from scrolls through the codex to the digital age; the archive in principle encompasses each of these forms of writing. And I’m not talking only about texts in their customary senses. Think about seeds, for example: you have your heirloom tomatoes that you get at the farmers’ market, and you wonder how those tomato seeds have been culled, catalogued and recycled. . . . There are formal issues as well as political issues about how archives are constituted and maintained. As an exercise, I would want students across distant campuses to use the Internet to collect and archive some kind of common material. That you can use the Internet in this way to link students who may never cast eyes on each other seems to be quite an exciting part of the project, because the decisions made about what makes an archive an archive are aesthetic as much as social. That’s the kind of possibility I’m interested in exploring in a future course, which seems much more fun than simply repeating an old course where the mystery is gone.
ON BALANCING TIME AT AND AWAY FROM AMHERST
My partner, Meredith, lives in Hoboken, N.J. I go back and forth from [my home in] Montague, Mass. every other weekend, except for the weekends that I’m away giving a talk somewhere or when Meredith is away giving a talk somewhere. I’ve never liked Amherst more than now, when I don’t live in the Amherst area exclusively. It’s having one foot in an urban environment and the other in Western Massachusetts that’s made me appreciate both in a way that I wouldn’t if I lived only in one. Until moving three years ago up to Montague I lived really close by to the college; I couldn’t at first imagine living 25 minutes away, to have to get in your car and go home at the end of the day. I used to cross back and forth up that hill between Johnson Chapel and my faculty house on Woodside Avenue twice or three times a day; if I left my notes at home by mistake, it would take me five minutes to go back and fetch them and return. All that has changed; I’ve actually had to learn how to be a commuter. But when you become a long-term faculty member, you have to discover new things to keep you interested, and it turns out that for me at, least, living up in Montague was part of that process.
I’ve always wanted to say this to someone. You asked me about what kinds of students are attracted to my classes. It turns out that word of mouth circulates between specific groups of students. At one point I had the female singer-songwriters—like all the female singer-songwriters at Amherst, all the famous ones, all the up-and-coming ones. Then there was the moment for the women’s and then the men’s cross-country teams. And last year and this year, I’ve had the radio station. I’m big with the radio station crowd. Who knew?
Margaret Cahoon is a freelance writer in Jackson, Miss.