Bringing Literature to Life
By Laura Lane
Brantlinger has served as director of IU's Victorian Studies Program, and from 1980 until 1990 was editor of the distinguished interdisciplinary journal Victorian Studies, a publication that helped anchor IU's international reputation in that area of study. He also is the author of four books about the era.
No stranger to accolades, Brantlinger says this award matters because it recognizes not only his extensive research but also the most important aspects of his professional life: teaching and service.
"It reflects my service to the university in various roles and it also reflects teaching," says Brantlinger, a man who over the years has directed 45 students in the successful completion of their dissertations.
In his 34 years at IU, he's served countless hours on university committees and councils too numerous to mention. He has worked 50- and 60-hour weeks much of the time, escaping for a bike ride or a game of basketball for relief from the stress.
"Most of us do what we love, so recognition of this sort is important to all faculty," Brantlinger says. "Flattery is great for the ego. I would do the job better if I knew how to do it better, but this certainly has inspired me to keep doing as I have for most of my career."
It's a career that began in 1968. Brantlinger, a native Hoosier, had received a PhD in English from Harvard University and was seeking his first assistant professorship. IU lured him to Bloomington, offering a $9,500 salary. At one point during his tenure, from 1990 to 1994, he was chair of IU's Department of English.
Three decades later, he's still at IU, riding his bicycle to campus daily as some university officials wring their hands over a perceived shortage of parking areas on campus. Brantlinger says he's more interested in creating and maintaining "an atmosphere of academic freedom and of intellectual exploration and exchange."
Many who wrote in support of Brantlinger for the distinguished faculty award mentioned the influence his 12 books have had on Victorian studies. His latest, "Who Killed Shakespeare?,"contains a discussion about how the English bard is alive and well, despite what some might claim. Brantlinger says English departments at some universities are taking Shakespeare courses off the required list not because studying his work isn't important, but because students take Shakespeare classes enthusiastically, without being required to. So why not require another class to expand their horizons?
Even in the midst of his book projects, Brantlinger has gone about his teaching and research, bringing literature to life and making it relevant for students in the 21st century as he encourages them to keep alive the writers of the past.
It is through the evolution of his students that this intellectual literary critic and historian finds the most gratifying rewards of teaching.
"The greatest benefit and joy of being a teacher in any field is learning more. And when that learning comes from interchange with your students, it's a special treat," he said upon accepting the distinguished faculty award in November. "The older I get, the more I realize how many great teachers, mentors, colleagues, students, and administrators I've had."
Students have come to admire and respect Brantlinger.
"His teaching significantly shaped my development as a scholar of the Victorian period," IU graduate Thomas Prasch, now assistant professor of history at Washburn University, wrote in support of his former professor. "His classes were always rich in their range of explorations of the Victorian past, fully committed to interdisciplinary scholarship, and valuable above all else because of Brantlinger's own deep engagement in the current scholarship in the field."
Joseph Bizup, now an assistant professor of English at Yale University, took classes taught by Brantlinger, who later served on his dissertation committee. "I consider my association with Professor Brantlinger one of the high points of my graduate study, and as I embark on my own professional career, I am striving to live up to the standards he exemplifies," Bizup wrote. "What most distinguishes him for me is the personal attention he gives his students and the lasting influence he has had on my thoughts and work."
David Slayden, an associate professor at Southern Methodist University, credits Brantlinger for steering him toward teaching, saying his decision was fostered by Brantlinger's example. "I regard his work as the standard to which we all should aspire," he said in support of Brantlinger. "It is not at all an exaggeration to say that I owe my career to him."
After long paragraphs praising Brantlinger as a scholar and historian, former student Randall Knoper, now an associate English professor at the University of Massachusetts, ended on a personal note.
"His intelligence always moves toward and crystallizes the issues that are especially significant and pressing for English studies and cultural studies. But I cannot end without saying, too, that he is simply a great person - generous, kind, conscientious, energetic."
His popularity extends to his peers: Twenty-one College colleagues and another nine IU Bloomington faculty members outside the English department sent letters of support for Brantlinger's nomination as a distinguished faculty member.
Beyond IU, letters from fellow professors supporting his selection as the 2001 Distinguished Faculty Award winner came from 15 American universities, ranging from Yale in Connecticut to Stanford in California, and from five international universities, from Australia to Norway.
Norman Kelvin, professor of English at the City University of New York, called Brantlinger "a pioneer who has set the questions for other scholars, and they have gladly given his work the international recognition it enjoys."
He was described as "the distinguished Victorianist of his generation" by Linda Peterson, chair of Yale University's English department.
"I admire Pat Brantlinger more than I do anyone now working in Victorian studies - and we are a large and outstanding field," wrote Nina Auerbach, a professor of history and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.
Ross Murfin, professor of English, provost, and vice president of academic affairs at Southern Methodist University, said IU is lucky to have Brantlinger on the faculty.
"Hold onto him if you can!" he advised IU in a letter backing his colleague's award nomination. "A great deal of your reputation as a place for literary and humanistic studies is resting on the backbone of his highly respected work."
Laura Lane is a reporter for Bloomington's Sunday Hoosier Times.