Great Professors: Melanie Benson Taylor

Melanie Benson Taylor

Melanie Benson Taylor

The Dartmouth Review (TDR): When you were younger, did you have any idea that one day you might be a professor, or ever envision yourself in such a profession?

Melanie Benson Taylor (MBT): The short answer is no, absolutely not. Not in any way. I grew up in a working-class environment in Cape Cod and what I did know was that I loved books, I loved literature, and I loved writing. The idea of being a professor was not on my radar at all. It didn’t seem possible at all for someone like me. So, I went off to college and was suddenly basking in the glory of reading all day long and talking about books. I dreamed that maybe I’d be a famous writer, or a librarian or something, but I had a great professor, and one day I went to his office hours. Although I usually never went to his office hours, he drew me out and had me do some research for him. That opened the door for me in terms of seeing what scholarly life was like. On another occasion, I was sitting in his office talking to him about some work that I had been doing and he just happened to mention graduate school. He told me that I should go to graduate school and asked me if I had considered it, and I said “No, what’s that?” He explained the path to academia and that was a new revelation for me. From there, graduate school was my new mindset.

And through some resources at the college, they sent me to an academic conference for William Faulkner, and I got to hear professors discuss Faulkner’s works, and this was the whole social-intellectual synergy that really cemented for me that this was a world that I really wanted to be in. From there I went to graduate school and was very certain that this was what I wanted to do. Pursuing a future in academia is a very difficult path because so few jobs are available. I knew that, but I was so starry eyed and idealistic that I couldn’t think about anything else that I would prefer to do. I got very lucky because I got several tenure track jobs right away. Dartmouth, however, was not on my radar at this point. Dartmouth just seemed like the kind of place that somebody like me would not get a job at. I was teaching mainly American literature, multi-ethnic as they called it. It was very much cross-racial and cross-cultural. And then I saw this job come up for Native American Studies at Dartmouth, and I thought it would be a cool job. So, I submitted an application. Later, my husband and I were driving through New Hampshire, and we thought we’d just stop by and check out Dartmouth’s campus. When we saw the campus, the energy was kind of magical for me. I thought, “I’m going to be so crushed when they don’t even read my application.” Then through a series of events, I got the job. So, it really has been an unlikely series of events that led to getting my job here.

TDR: How have things changed at the College since you first arrived?

MBT: I remember just a month into being here, and I was talking to a colleague, and I said “Dartmouth students are the ideal students.” And I had taught at three other places before coming here, and I also taught at my PHD institution, so I had gotten a very good sampling of what different students were like. And coming here was just so amazing, because students here are so motivated and so naturally curious. They actually do the reading, or at least they make it look like they did. Don’t crush my illusions if that’s not the case, but I think for the most part students work really hard, and they do it not because they feel they have to do so but because they want to work hard. However, that’s not always the case. Often there’s this feeling in higher education of compulsion. But at Dartmouth I think students are really drawn to the idea of knowledge, and how they can serve themselves and the world. I think it’s an amazing combination of motivations. Being in the classroom here has been so much fun for me. It’s been great talking through literature, but for me literature is just a vehicle to talk through some really big life issues. I remember a student once giving me what I thought was the greatest compliment. She said, “I don’t think this is a literature class, it’s a life-studies class.” For me, I think that’s the truth. It’s great talking through books and literature, but that should not be the end goal. We should all feel like we have a window through which we can sympathize with each other. It’s such a great way to cross the kind of borders and boundaries we have in society. It’s a lifeline to each other. And that’s why, though I’m obviously in Native American Studies now, it’s really just a piece of what I do. My work is really in southern literature, though I don’t think you can talk about any one piece of the American experience by itself. Even when we think they’re very separate experiences, which is a common belief in indigenous studies, every culture has that kind of narrative. I think that establishing separate narratives is important, and it serves a purpose, but I think that the most important thing that we can be doing is to find where our narrative meets up with someone else’s. Because, for better or worse, we are locked into this world together and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to get along: by figuring out how to communicate, converse, and empathize. Being able to do that kind of work here has been so much more productive and exciting for me because students are so eager for that kind of work. The most exciting thing for me is to teach majors, but I really love teaching non-majors who are just taking a class for fun so that they can read books. It’s nice to have a space for students who might not normally take this kind of class to meditate on these kinds of themes for a while.

TDR: In your view, how has Dartmouth, the faculty, and the administration’s relationship changed over the course of your time here? Do you think it’s become more positive, or do you think that the fissures have widened?

MBT: I’ve been here for about eight years, and I would say that for the first several years I was just in my own little bunker of working towards tenure, so I wasn’t necessarily aware of the way those relationships work and what the architecture of an institution like this really is. As a member of the faculty, you can sort of ignore the way that works, but as you get more involved in committee service and the community you begin to see a lot more. I definitely have done that over the years. I think there are always conflicts and disagreements, but maybe it’s because of the kind of work I do that I always see both conflicts and fruitful moments. I think it’s a little bit more dangerous when things are too quiet or things seem too harmonious because that means that there are probably some different kinds of issues that are not being discussed. As a result, change and progress become more painful and difficult to attain. I guess that I am relentlessly optimistic because while there is a lot of tension and stress in the world right now, the important thing is that we must move forward. I do not mean to conjure up the image of Moving Dartmouth Forward, but that’s definitely on everyone’s mind right now, so I think it’s important that we all think about how we get that done for the good of everyone in the community, and especially for the students.

TDR: Along the same lines, given that you’ve taught at a lot of different institutions, what do you think is most salient about the Dartmouth culture, and what do you think best characterizes Dartmouth students?

MBT: As an English professor, I’m looking for the word that would best capture the Dartmouth experience. Dartmouth is all of those things that I mentioned before, and its students are often ambitious, motivated and curious. Dartmouth students are also instructive: they see problems, and they want to know how to solve them. They’re doing that in so many different ways: disciplinary, social, intellectual, and cultural. Those things are very salient features. For the community as a whole, the word that comes to mind is intimate. That seems like a strange word to use to talk about a college campus, but I think it’s a product of our location. We are very isolated. It’s not a huge campus. Thus, the Dartmouth experience is really about the relationships that get formed here. Professors are here because they want to be in the classroom. They want to forge lasting relationships with students. And I think students choose to be here for that reason too: to have relationships with each other and with faculty that really carry them through their lives and their careers. That seems like one of the defining characteristics of Dartmouth, and a fantastic one indeed.

TDR: What has been your fondest experience here? For example, has there been any time that you’ve taught a course, and it was just a far more pleasurable or enjoyable experience than it would usually be?

MBT: It’s tough because every class is so different and I feel like each new class I teach, I think, “Wow, that was my favorite class so far.” Classes just seem to get better every time. I think the reason for that is that it’s always a new class every time. It’s always surprising that I can teach the same set of texts and have an amazingly different experience each time. I feel that’s so important because it seems like the course is so much more organic. It’s not like I’m creating a course for students to consume, but rather it’s what we’re creating together. I think that’s the best way to approach literature. It’s about what you see in it. It’s about when you help people to see it from your perspective. Maybe you struggle a little bit to see it from the other person’s perspective, but we always land on different themes or experiences that become the central topics for the course. I really love how that changes every time, and how that means that we as a small community have built something together in a class. In particular, I really like a course I teach called “Indian Killers,” which is about violence in our society. It’s always a surprising course for students because it’s not necessarily focused around the themes of colonial genocide that you would normally think of. It’s really about how American culture is saturated with ideas about violence and how that often engages the indigenous experience. That’s really just a thread which takes us to the bedrock experience of the course: about what it means to be an American. The settler and colonial experience is certainly a part of that, and we as Americans find ways of repressing that part of our identity, or connecting it onto the experience of another group. So, it’s an enormously complicated topic which we take on from a number of different angles. It’s always a very powerful and difficult course to teach because the issues are so big, vital, and scary. Of course, we feel like we’re all “Indian Killers.”  We feel like we’re all constructing the narrative together, and hence robbing Indians of their own agency. So, there’s all kinds of ways that we’re implicated in this process. There’s a lot of really big issues and themes that come out of the class that can be disturbing, but are important nonetheless.

TDR: So you think that particular class is particularly interesting to you because it exposes students to a completely new set of ideas and way of looking at things, while focusing on a topic that they have been tacitly involved in their whole lives without being aware of it?

MBT: Exactly. And that is the most exciting thing that can happen in a classroom. Students tend to leave that class or many classes that I teach because they’re so embedded in that way of thinking. They’ll leave and keep having conversations with me years later, sending me an email saying, “Oh, I just saw this film and it made me think of our class.” They just start looking at the world in a different way, and they start seeing that subtext that they probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. I like to say that when you take my classes you’re ruined for life. I think for good reason, my classes allow students to move through the world seeing that it is often very discouraging or frightening.

TDR: With regards to your interactions with students, and being a professor in general, what are some feelings or misgivings that you see in students that in your class or other classes would help you to teach better?

MBT: I think, this goes for most people who are really driven and ambitious, sometimes students think very conservatively, in that they find it difficult to take risks and be creative because they want to be good and do the right thing. I think Dartmouth students tend to fall in that category: being really anxious to succeed. I would say for me, being open to failure, and really encouraging a lot of stumbling through the process of creativity are valuable life lessons. For example, writing a paper that has a wild argument that’s not the safe one — not the one that we all agree on in class. An argument that comes at me from a completely different angle. I try to create an atmosphere in which students are not afraid to challenge themselves. I try to never say, “this is the way we should read this text…this is what it means.” I try to be out there and open to different viewpoints.

TDR: It’s hard. As a follow-up to that, how do you balance the inclination to be creative, versus the unknown implications of being creative and the unknown consequences on your grades, and thus the opportunities you have post-graduation?

MBT: That’s where we get stuck. We only have 10 weeks here. It’s not like we have a long meandering time to get back and learn from our mistakes and incorporate them. I understand completely, and I’m very much the same way, and that’s why I’m alert to it. It’s really hard to push yourself to failure when you just want to complete something, and get to things you want in the future. I would say as long as you’re always doing things with great integrity, care, thoughtfulness, and respect for your own ideas and those of others… As long as you’re really listening to the ideas that are really important, and just taking some small steps to creativity: for example, writing an introduction that tells a story, rather than just saying, “in this essay I will argue.” It’s a small thing, but it can make you think, “Ok, I kind of worked outside the mold there. I told a story that led me down a pathway of thinking about something more deeply.” That’s what storytelling does, it cracks something open. You did a very small experiment there in getting outside of your comfort zone. It may have led to things that opened you up intellectually. I would say to approach creativity by taking baby-steps of doing things that scare you a little bit, in terms of getting you beyond the safe, expected mode of academic success, in ways that feel true to you.

TDR: With regards to Dartmouth more broadly, what are some changes that you would like to see? What are some things that you would like to see implemented, things that you think would add value to the experience of students and faculty alike?

MBT: In my mind, things are on the right track in that way. I’m very newly engaged and invested in the house system. We just started this term in North Park House. To me, that’s a really positive direction that Dartmouth is moving in. I know it’s always really difficult to see the culture of a place change when it has been a certain way for so long. I see the house communities as adding another opportunity for students, staff, and faculty to really come together and model that social and academic intimacy that I talked about. Whether that’s through doing something completely frivolous like playing broomball on the green for Winter Carnival, or something more intellectual, these opportunities are all very valuable. The house system has all of these new opportunities to get together and to talk and to learn about each other: to meet people you would never meet otherwise. I can only engage with so many students in the classroom per year, and this way, I get to know so many more students that may never have come to take my classes. I think providing more opportunities and forums for that kind of engagement is a big strength of the house system. As a faculty member before the house system, there was always a divide for me between what happens on campus after I leave. Now, there’s much more integration. The idea of building bridges between students and faculty is so important for me, and what is happening in the housing communities is not replacing what’s always been special about Dartmouth, but rather it is just adding to it.

TDR: That’s a positive direction?

MBT: I think so.

TDR: On balance, do you think some criticisms that have been cast on this new system are warranted?

MBT:  I think any time something new happens, people are more apt to criticize it and they’ll be fearful of it. In my mind, I think what’s happening right now is so experimental, and that the fear has been that there has been a preordained vision that has already mapped out how these things are going to work. What I’ve discovered is that it’s very much something that we’re building together. What I’m trying to encourage in my house is for it to be student driven. I’m trying to make sure that there’s a more robust student executive board, so that what we do in our house will be determined by what students want to do and not just what I find interesting. I mean, they’ll be a certain amount of that! I’ll always provide the food and the cookies. I think it really needs to be, …

TDR: A grassroots effort?

MBT: Yes.

TDR: To your point I think that there’s this idea that the house system is this mandate descending from those high above, and that it is being forced upon the students. Moving forward, how can students be more involved in the system?

MBT: I think at this point, the structure had to be created and the resources put in place, so it may have looked like something was being constructed and dropped down, but I see that as merely logistics. I see the substance as what is truly process driven. My goal would be for me to be obsolete in some way. I’ll write the checks, be involved, and be able to provide the nucleus for community, but I really am excited to see what students want to do. What kind of programming do students come up with? What kind speakers should we bring in? What kind of games should we play on the Green? These ideas have to come from the community itself.

TDR: On a different note, in what respects do you think the social climate at Dartmouth has changed with respect to specific movements and groups, ethnic or otherwise? Specifically, how has it changed in terms of trying to level the playing field? For example, we’ve seen a lot of Black Lives Matter protests recently. How do you think Dartmouth has changed with respect to being more or less responsive to those things?

MBT: That’s a tough question for me to answer because what has changed for me has mainly been my perspective on things or my proximity to campus life. I can say that it seems to me right now that people are really making an effort to listen to one another and to be constructive. I don’t like to use that word but it seems applicable. There are always going to be moments in this community when people say and do things that lack understanding of what’s hurtful and what’s permissible. In the aftermath of those kinds of events, I’ve been really heartened to see how much people are willing to listen to each other, even if it means they don’t end up on the same page. Those discussions are real because we’re always going to be on different pages, in large part because we come from different places in life. The end goal is never homogeneity, but an atmosphere of mutual respect and understanding. This is a place where knowledge is created and that’s something we need to be doing outside of the classroom as well. If I sound a little too sunshiny, that’s because I tend to be that way. My classes are quite depressing and my course material is quite bleak, but I think the reason I tend to discuss the dark-side a lot is because that’s the only way you find a portal into hope. We have to go through the really awful stuff and be incredibly honest about what’s there. I think it’s happening in the world and it’s happening here in our little microcosm of the world. Sometimes it means that we have to put a lot of the really ugly stuff out there in order to get to a place where we feel more like a functional community. In that light, I see things moving in a very productive direction. I see individual students and community members really caring about each other in that way, so I’m really optimistic.

TDR: I think you’re certainly one of the few optimists these days. It seems like the world has gone to hell.

MBT: Yeah… I think we have to look back through history. There have been so many catastrophic moments when we come up against these moments of intense uncertainty, crisis, trauma, fear, and great change. That’s where revolutions happen: small and large. I like to think about this moment that we’re in, and the great change that can and will result from it.

TDR: To close it up after a great and informative interview: Dartmouth is a great place and I think your experiences speak to that, but what do you enjoy the most about being at Dartmouth. I know it’s a tough question.

MBT: I guess I’ll just repeat myself. I would say it’s the kind of helpfulness and the comfort that comes from being in a place where there’s so many passionate, helpful people working together on a daily basis to address some of the greatest challenges in the world, challenges which are changing and compounding daily. It always feels like we’re working through them in a way that is profoundly constructive and optimistic. For somebody like me who has a proclivity for incredibly tragic themes and texts, a focus on optimism vital. And I’ve found constructive optimism to be more prevalent at Dartmouth than any other place that I’ve either studied or taught, either as a student or a professor.