Teaching from Twain to Twinkies

Published in Wisconsin Week, University of Wisconsin-Madison, April 14, 1999, written by Jeff Iseminger

For a break in your busy day, let’s play…Early American Literature Jeopardy! Your categories are Politics, Literature, Culture and Authors.

You’d like Literature for $300? This genre of early American literature was considered dangerous. [muffled shouts] Please, audience, no coaching. “Comic book” is the wrong answer anyway. What’s that, Contestant No. 2? Yes, it’s the novel!

You choose Politics for $400? Mrs. Lucy Sumner in the 1797 novel “The Coquette” associates tragedy, luxury and excess with these two countries. Andorra and Liechtenstein, you say? No, and Monaco is wrong, too. The answer is…England and France.

Those questions and others whizzed around the classroom on Jeopardy Day this semester in Major American Novelists, a course taught by Dale Bauer, professor of English and women’s studies. The game is part of her teaching tool kit, a way to have her students kick in instead of nod off.

Jeopardy Day brought lots of laughter to her classroom, along with cries of “Yes!” when one of the three competing groups won “dollars.” One wag kept whispering wrong answers to his opponents, such as “Kafka” when Bauer asked for the author of the best-selling American novel of the 19th century (Harriet Beecher Stowe for “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”). They wisely ignored him.

Bauer gave the winners the choice of two prizes: copies of one of her essays or full-size candy bars. Declaring themselves to be blatant sycophants, they chose the essays.

“The game galvanizes their energy,” says Bauer. “It focuses them on details that later in the semester they put in historical and literary context.”

The galvanizing agent in Major American Novelists is not the game, but Bauer, who’s won several teaching awards. Even before Jeopardy started that day, she elicited an active discussion of a novel as she moved around the room of 35 students. Bauer develops a rhythm of walking and talking and listening in class, a rhythm that gives birth to a lively and sustained Socratic dialogue.

“They can never expect a class-long lecture,” she says. “It feels more like a seminar.”

Her teaching doesn’t travel down a one-way road. During the semester, each student leads the class for 10-15 minutes in any way he or she chooses. “I want them to get more comfortable with leading a group, because at a large university they don’t get enough public-speaking experience,” she says.

She schedules Groundhog Day, named after the life-turned-retake movie where Bill Murray relives the same day in different ways. In Bauer’s cut, student panels discuss the same story by Henry James, but each person uses a different lens such as sexuality or race.

There’s a point to shifting pedagogical gears, she says: “The more interactive the class is, the more invested the students are.” And the more invested they are, the less they fear the bogeyman called Being Wrong in Class. That makes learning ignition-and-liftoff much easier.

But mere interaction is not enough to thwart the forces of disconnection that roam the landscape of history instruction.

“Students feel little connection to history, so I try to show the ties between 19th- century and 20th-century culture [one set of links: the “Die Hard” films, Twinkies and Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”]. I want students to see themselves as agents of historical change and take that consciousness away with them.”

In short, Bauer is a missionary for American culture, a zeal she says developed while attending Catholic school in Buffalo, N.Y., where she grew up. Education again made an imprint on her future at UC-Irvine, where she was part of a first-generation women’s studies program. “I still have an energy from there that hasn’t dissipated,” she says.

That energy has brought her national attention as a feminist leader – and feminist teacher. “All teachers express themselves politically in the classroom, whether they use the Great Books or something else,” she says. “No classroom is the neutral space that some once imagined it to be.”

Occasionally, Bauer shows up as a surprise substitute for another English professor, Gordon Hutner. They do share the same intellectual interests, but there’s another reason they’re so collegial – they’re connubial. Hutner was here when Bauer joined the faculty in 1990, and two years later they married.

Their partnership has been a boon for their teaching. “Gordon is a masterful lecturer, and my strength is leading discussion,” says Bauer, “so we share our ideas on presentation.” This pair of professors, by the way, recently accepted appointments at the University of Kentucky, starting this fall.

They now have twin three-year-old sons, Dan and Jake. “They give me a whole new realm of examples to use in class,” says Bauer. “Their current obsession with Batman and Robin, for example, shows me the binary of self and other and helps me look for that binary in literature.”

Avidly seeking refreshment – in twins and Twinkies as well as books and journals – is what Bauer does for the life of her mind. Every year, she says with a smile, “I want to invent my teaching anew.”