By Beth Bazan
Donovan Gwinner, Ph.D, is an associate professor at Aurora University who became a college professor not for fame or money, but because he harbors a love of language. Gwinner introduced students to English as a cultural studies discipline through his May term class Got Blood: Vampires in Literature. “Incidentally, I have taught a course of the Western in fiction and film, but only vampires (or zombies) count anymore,” said Gwinner. He has taught at the University of Arizona, Portland Community College, Chemeketa Community College, Clark College, Washington State University-Vancouver and the University of Oregon and has been teaching at AU since the fall of 2004. For students, it is helpful to understand why professors choose the texts they do and why they sometimes grade severely. “If students wrote better, I would not be such a hard grader! Zing!” said Gwinner.
Q: You have a long list of universities where you taught – what made you come to AU?
A: None of the other positions was a full-time, permanent position. They were all part-time, temporary. After hundreds of applications to places all over the country, I got on here.
Q: I have heard students say that you are a particularly difficult grader. Do you have a response or a defense for that accusation?
A: Grading is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, things we do as educators. I do not set out to be a hard grader, but I want students to do good work and to earn their grades. If I could do it another way, an easier way, I would, because it would amount to less time thinking things through and dealing with grade anxiety and backlash. In writing, the main type of work I grade, I think students should make sense, so I grade accordingly.
Q: Why do you choose certain texts for courses? Does the accepted literary canon in America have any influence over your required texts?
A: Text selection is fairly open at AU and, generally speaking, for our discipline. I consider the course description, the course outcomes, my strengths and interests, likely student success with the readings, length, cost, etc. I usually try to provide a mix of things.
I have my own little running dialog going with the canon of American and English (and European and World) literature, so, when it seems appropriate, I draw from those traditions. I like to teach readings that challenge or lie somewhere outside the canon, too. It is always my hope that there will be a balance of continuity and variety, so that the texts speak to each other without seeming to be all saying the same thing.
Q: How do you feel about the English canon moving toward cultural studies? Is your vampire class an example of a cultural studies class that is becoming popular because it is moving away from the canon of dead white writers and blending current literature like Twilight with canonical works such as Dracula?
A: The short answer is that I feel comfortable with the move toward cultural studies, and, yes, the vampire class is an example of that movement. In this case, it is less a matter of moving away from dead white writers and more of a case of opening up “genre” (or “popular”) literature and the closely related popular culture texts to a level of scrutiny that has traditionally been applied to “great works,” classics, etc. A premise of cultural studies is that it is all significant.
Q: What are your thoughts about redefining English as a cultural studies discipline, where students can look at diverse texts and types of media to make connections between them and learn to apply them to everyday situations?
A: I am basically an adherent of that view, and that is (not coincidentally) the approach that has come to dominate literary studies in the last twenty years or so. When you think about it, the study of literature, however defined, has always been “cultural.” For many of us, it is simply a matter of recognizing that the production and consumption of literature occurs in a complex set of contexts that are “cultural.” Traditionally, the view was that “literature,” because of its artistic uniqueness and enduring qualities, transcended its time and so on. I don’t buy that. At the same time, I acknowledge that a book like Twilight is not written as well as a book like The Great Gatsby, so I reserve a little professional prerogative to be snobby sometimes.