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  • “Art, Imagination, Storytelling”An Interview with Karl Kroeber
  • Michael Mallick

This interview with Karl Kroeber was originally published in English Department Updates (Fall 2009), a semiannual alumni newsletter of the Columbia University Department of English & Comparative Literature. Mallick is coordinator of the newsletter.

Although Kroeber did not want a memorial service after his death, he asked that this interview and his “Address to Columbia College Students” be assembled in a pamphlet for distribution. Jean Taylor Kroeber, his wife, and their children combined these with a short biography in “Karl Kroeber, 24 November 1926–8 November 2009,” which was distributed at his commemorative service, April 8, 2012, in St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University.

michael mallick (mm):

You taught your first class at Columbia in 1952 and your last this spring—any changes in fifty-seven years?

karl kroeber (kk):

A scholarly answer: yes and no. In the early fifties the students were all male, all white, everybody wore a tie, and you addressed each by his last name prefaced by Mr. A high percentage of students were from the twenty or so excellent Catholic high schools in and around New York; a smaller but solid percentage were Jewish—in those years the other Ivies had harsh quotas, which meant we got a lot of wonderful boys from Bronx Science and Stuyvesant; almost nobody from New England prep schools. Probably 80 percent were from New York City and environs and the “Middle Atlantic States,” a euphemism for New Jersey. Essentially these were the same kind of students—sons of immigrants—who entered Columbia College with my father, son of a German immigrant, in 1892. Probably 70 percent of my students entered wanting [End Page 68] to become doctors, another 15 percent lawyers, the rest various kinds of professional men. They wanted to make a decent living, most of them came from non-affluent circumstances, but their primary aim was not money but to become fully educated so they could, as trained professionals, effectively contribute to improving society, making it a better place for themselves and their children. Teaching such students—especially the ones who were the first in their families to attempt higher education—was to me profoundly exciting and rewarding.

Today’s classes, besides including two genders shading into earth-tones away from zinc, never using last names (just as well, many are hyphenated), and dressing as sloppily as possible, come from all over the world—many foreign-born and those not seeming to have lived in fourteen exotic countries before coming to Columbia. They all appear to have four-figure IQs, take far too many classes, and have absorbing extra-academic interests. Teaching such students is profoundly exciting and rewarding.

So I see vast shifts; but all I remember from my actual teaching is one year after another filled with fascinating students, every one unique, from whom I learned most of what I know, and whose individuality provided continuous stimulation and pleasure. I’ve always worked hard at teaching; I held long office hours, assigned a lot of writing and took pride in getting the papers back very fast, heavily annotated, and, at the other end (too often forgotten in discussions of teaching responsibilities, which don’t finish with a final exam), written many thousands of recommendations. I enjoyed doing these things as the central part of academic life, all of which (even some committee work) I have found exhilarating. Maybe, I’ve reflected, a little too much so for being the husband and father I might have been.


To me, and I know others, the most remarkable feature of your teaching is the extraordinary range of classes you have taught—can you explain that?


Well, maybe I’m scatter-brained. Maybe I get bored easily. But also, I suspect that that if you look closely you’ll see I’ve been teaching the same three things disguised as different topics. All my [End Page 69] courses are at root about art, imagination, and storytelling, always inflected by a persistent fascination with natural science.


I can live with the three topics, but the science puzzles me.


Well, it is tricky, and I’m not confident...


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