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Teaching Life

Letters from a Life in Literature

Dale Salwak

Publication Year: 2008

Part epistolary memoir, part handbook, Teaching Life reflects on more than three decades of teaching literature and touching the lives of students. Both a reflection on a life in literature and a primer on teaching as a vocation, this soul-stirring work also provides behind-the-scenes stories of many of the authors who have influenced Dale Salwak’s career.

Written in response to the sudden death of one of his students, who died tragically in an automobile accident on her way to Salwak’s office to talk over her career plans, Teaching Life is an effort to impart lessons to the next generation of teachers: “It was the suddenness of her death, I think, along with the utter loss of so much potential, which struck me forcibly, and I found myself wondering if anything I had said in class had made a difference in her too-short life or, for that matter, in the lives of any of my students.”

By turns analytical, reflective, and exhortatory, Teaching Life unselfconsciously captures the fascination, enlightenment, and sheer joy that literary studies can offer professors and students. It also implicitly speaks to society's prevailing—and disturbing—prejudice against the profession.

Published by: University of Iowa Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xi

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” Like an anthem, my memory of C. S. Lewis’s words—written on the occasion of his wife’s death from cancer—swept over me in 1978 as I sat four rows back, aisle seat, at the funeral for twenty-year-old Kelly (as I will call her), one of my students. No one is...

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Chapter 1. Transition

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pp. 1-11

Dear Kelly, Of the many reference letters that I’ve been privileged to write for aspiring teachers, few have given me greater pleasure than yours. I remember them as easy to compose because in every respect you impressed me as...

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Chapter 2. Epiphanies

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pp. 12-21

Dear Kelly, I read with interest your answer to my question, “What do I ‘really’ need to know about teaching?” Certainly there are challenges enough in a profession that demands so much from the hearts and minds of its practitioners. While I agree that “grading through...

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Chapter 3. Only Connect

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pp. 22-32

Dear Kelly, You know by now that the secret behind a teacher’s (or a student’s) growth comes down to one essential word: study—and lots of it. But you also know that it isn’t enough merely to understand the material. As one semester leads...

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Chapter 4. A Pastor’s Heart

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pp. 33-45

Dear Kelly, You asked me what it means to have a “pastor’s heart” for your students. Well, John Milton in his poem Lycidas tells us what it does not mean. He writes of self-satisfied shepherds who...

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Chapter 5. Lecturing

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pp. 46-57

Dear Kelly, I’m sure that you can relate to the story about the lecturer who, having one week remaining in the term, meets a colleague on his way to class and says, “So far I’ve covered half the course. I’m giving them the second half today.” And no doubt as a student yourself, on occasion you agreed with the sentiment...

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Chapter 6. Choices

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pp. 58-69

Dear Kelly, On last semester’s final exam, as I do every semester, I asked my students to reflect on their work and discuss the effect of our readings, discussions, and other assignments. Among the students’ comments were the following: I feel I cheated myself from...

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Chapter 7. Reading

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pp. 70-80

Dear Kelly, “Do you read a book a week?” a student asked me one day in class, a note of sarcasm coloring his frustration with the course’s reading load. “No,” I said, after a suitable pause. “I don’t read a book a week. I read four or five books a week.” Usually, I wouldn’t have responded...

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Chapter 8. Under the Spell of a Novelist

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pp. 81-92

Dear Kelly, Forgive me for not answering sooner. I was delighted as always to hear from you, but felt some trepidation when I came to the part of your letter asking me to say “something original” about Barbara Pym that you might draw from in the classroom. As...

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Chapter 9. Life vs. Art

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pp. 93-101

Dear Kelly, You say that some of your students object to the character flaws of assigned authors. You shouldn’t be concerned, for learning to read literature well inevitably leads to lessons about being human, some of them unpleasant. Once I spoke...

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Chapter 10. Writing

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pp. 102-114

Dear Kelly, When Mozart was three years old he first sat down at his sister’s harpsichord in the family house in Salzburg “to find notes that like one another.” That became his life’s work. I enjoy sharing this story because I hear in it a metaphor for the writer—who strives to find words that like one another. We know that for...

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Chapter 11. Marriage

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pp. 115-123

Dear Kelly, I have found a passage in Jacques Barzun’s Teacher in America that is rather relevant to something you hinted at in your latest letter—I mean, the haunting fear you hold of marrying wrongly, and that the choice might well sound the death knell for your academic career. Here is the passage: “How many...

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Chapter 12. The Adventures of Scholarship

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pp. 124-138

Dear Kelly, “Whenever you feel passionate about an author,” said the biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, “go ahead and plunge into the research. Don’t worry about what other scholars think of your project.” This advice, given years ago to a student of his ...

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pp. 139-150

Dear Kelly, Now that you’ve been practicing your profession for a while, you’ve come to see academic endeavor from the other side of the lectern. Yes, the ideals and attractions of the “community of scholars” concept are very inviting. But as you know, teaching can also be just plain...

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Chapter 14. When a Parent Dies

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pp. 151-158

Dear Kelly, I’m so sorry to hear about the death of your father. I hope it doesn’t sound presumptuous to say that I felt as though I knew him myself, based on all the kind words you said about him and the anecdotes you told in our conversations and letters. My thoughts and prayers go out to you and...

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Chapter 15. Intimations of Mortality

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pp. 159-167

Dear Kelly, Set aside all distractions. Be still, listen, and soon you might connect deep inside with a universal whisper, or a constant whirring, or perhaps an ache that grows or even rages. It comes from a fact we are all subconsciously aware of every moment of our life: Time

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A Sad Art

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pp. 168-174

Dear Kelly, “Teaching is a sad art.” I imagine you are as surprised to read these words as I was to hear them from Jacques Barzun thirty-five years ago. After all, haven’t my letters emphasized the positive aspects of our chosen profession? Haven’t I ...

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pp. 175-177

During the five years that it has taken me to write these sixteen letters “to” Kelly, I’ve resisted many times the temptation to visit her grave. But with my work completed, I felt it was necessary to drive from my home to the Forest Lawn Mortuary, a mere seven miles away, and to stand as I’m now standing, beneath a beautiful...

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pp. 179-180

Many of the ideas in this book were nourished in conversations with my remarkable parents over a lifetime; and there isn’t a page here that hasn’t benefited from the fine ear and keen mind of my mother, Frances H. Salwak. I also owe a special debt of gratitude to Samuel Lee, dean of Language Arts, and Rudy Saldaña for their careful ...


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pp. 181-188

E-ISBN-13: 9781587297571
E-ISBN-10: 1587297574
Print-ISBN-13: 9781587296307
Print-ISBN-10: 1587296306

Page Count: 200
Publication Year: 2008

Edition: First edition

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Subject Headings

  • Literature -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- United States.
  • English teachers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Salwak, Dale.
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