New Professors Look Back At Their First Year

As the end of the semester approaches, the English Department blog is looking back at the past year. Since one of our first posts announced the new faculty who had arrived at Berkeley this year, we checked back in with Professor Emily Thornbury and Professor Namwali Serpell to see what their first years had been like. In what follows, Professors Thornbury and Serpell give two brief accounts of their experience settling in at Berkeley. Oddly enough, as you will see, spiders are the linking theme.


Professor Namwali Serpell: “Students and Spiders”

As of yesterday, one academic year has passed since I made my way across the continent to begin my time as an assistant professor in the Berkeley English Department. My office, which seemed at the start incredibly—undeservedly—large has now acquired masses of unfiled paper, three small neglected plants, and just enough décor to suggest that it is Namwali, lover of bright colors, who works here. I did all of my course preparation in my office and of course, I held office hours there. It is within its tall and still mostly bare walls that I learned a great deal this year about teaching at Berkeley.

I learned, for example, that students will come to you to talk about nothing, about everything, and wonderfully, on occasion, about one singular spectacular thing, an idea that will light up our eyes and lighten my workload. Indeed, I learned so much—so, so much—from the wonderful, gifted graduate and undergraduates students I’ve taught and advised. I am still startled that in this jaded day and age, they can still be so wildly curious. I am growing used to their acuteness—as Sam Otter once said to me, “They see inside you!” A tad gothic, but I think he’s right. I also learned how lovely it is to encounter my colleagues in the labyrinthine hallways of Wheeler, to have a 5 minute chat that will make me laugh or make me think or make me change my syllabus. Thanks, Scott Saul, for that passing reference to Taxi Driver. Thanks, Elizabeth Abel, for letting me know about the Toni Morrison reading in San Francisco, the occasion for my first “field trip” (I managed to get free tickets for my students) and my first “teaching meltdown” (I managed to get stuck on the Bay Bridge driving there; bless cell phones and savvy students for saving that near disaster). Thanks, Charlie Altieri, for saying the word “tone.”

I wrote 40 or so lectures in Wheeler 464 last semester; its corners are thoroughly familiar; if gazing cast stains, my window would be dark as night. The most surprising thing about writing lectures is how weirdly the writing translates to speech. In graduate school, I pretty much just read my guest lectures out loud with a measure of panache. After a week of trying to replicate this at Berkeley, my lecture process become far more amorphous: sometimes I’d read, sometimes I’d chat, sometimes I’d ask the students questions, sometimes I’d pause for what seemed like forever, searching for a word that probably wasn’t that important. Often—and this was a revelation to me—I walked. Who knew? Namwali is a walker-talker! I found myself strolling up there, just meandering back and forth in front of (most of my) 66 students. They didn’t seem to mind. I would speak off the cuff on what I found interesting about this or that, occasionally pausing in my peripateia to glance at notes on the wooden lectern, which I barely touched because one time a spider emerged from a crack in it, floating over my page like an afterthought, then scurrying away to its presumably better business. A first, indeed.

Yes, spiders are a first for me in Berkeley. They are legion in my apartment and each time I encounter one, I suffer the same moral quandary: do I release it into the outside world where, for all I know, it will perish or do I ignore it altogether? This is possibly true for firsts as well, many of which I have ignored, but some of which I have aired to friends and colleagues as sources of grief, delight, angst, surprise—thereby diminishing their newness. But as with the spiders, these firsts at Berkeley—and my varied responses to them—have taught me less about them and more about me. One thing I now know about Assistant Professor Namwali Serpell is that I don’t know as much about her as I thought. This knowledge is more pleasant than you might imagine. I am, for instance, not actually afraid of spiders.

Professor Emily Thornbury: “Unpacking my Library (with apologies to W.B.)”

Between June 2007 and December 2008 I moved five times, so liberating my books from their boxes is something of an act of faith. Most of mine were introduced to their new home in Wheeler on a Saturday in mid-October: it took about six hours and had to be done with some caution, because book boxes are a known vector for Tegenaria domestica, a spider that in my experience ranges from 1’-2’ in diameter and can render rooms uninhabitable for days.

Fortunately, the books were uninfested, and are now distributed about the shelves according to my relation to their subject. The ones I need and use often are close to hand (The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records); the ones I can imagine myself using in the near future a little further off (The Riverside Chaucer); those I’d be tempted to amuse myself with out of line of sight on the bottom shelves (archy & mehitabel); and those I bought for reasons I can’t recall clearly visible across the room, in case I ever remember (Teach Yourself Visual Basic). Most of my older and rare books are directly across from my desk for purposes of admiration, although a few are just behind me, in the ‘working collection’. I have calculated that if there is a major earthquake I shall most likely be killed by Napier’s 1883 edition of Wulfstan’s homilies. It is an excellent edition and quite a rare book now; it would be an honor to be crushed by it.

The other and most quickly growing part of my library is invisible: this spring I taught a course on nineteenth-century medievalist literature, which for the first time really let me use the wonders of Google Books. However one feels about their plans to digitize everything, it is splendid to be able to assign part of the Moxon Tennyson, or the attractively-printed first edition of Edgar Fawcett’s odd W.S. Gilbert-esque The New King Arthur, without requiring students to spend thousands.

At the same time, I hope those same students don’t altogether lose the chance to spend too much money on books. I still have the first book I bought when I decided I was serious about being an Anglo-Saxonist; I find from the sticker that it was only $20, but it seemed a lot of money then. Buying a book can be a kind of pledge to one’s future self; and the cost—to me, at least—can give the thing a kind of moral seriousness that even the largest PDF doesn’t seem to attain. Walter Benjamin would not have mentioned the visit to the pawnshop that paid for Balzac’s Peau de chagrin if he were not really proud of it. And unpacking books, after all, is not a burden, but a pleasure.