A masterly teacher

Deborah Burnham, associate undergraduate chair in English DepartmentPhoto credit: Candace diCarlo

Years ago, Deborah Burnham was teaching seventh and eighth grade students, “in a town so small it almost wasn’t a town,” when she received word that she had been accepted to Penn’s English doctoral program.

“It was the greatest present under the tree,” says Burnham, a poet and writer, lecturer and advisor in the University’s English Department, who got her Ph.D. in 1989. “I moved into Powelton [Village] and never left.”

In the years since, Burnham has held a variety of influential roles at Penn, including Director of Writing Across the University, Administrative Director of the University Scholars Program and Advising Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences. These days, in addition to her role as lecturer, Burnham works as Associate Undergraduate Chair in the Department of English, which enables her to dispense advice and encouragement to undergrads.

All the while, Burnham has worked at her craft, publishing the poetry collections “Anna and the Steel Mill,” which was the Texas Tech University Press First Book Prize winner in 1995, and “Jazz in the All-Night Laundromat.” Burnham’s work has also appeared in the magazines Poetry and 5am.

In the classroom, she has taught courses about the short story, poetry and fiction, and is the recipient of numerous teaching awards, the most recent being the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence by Non-Standing Faculty.

“I just feel enormously grateful to all these people who have taught me things about how to teach and how to work with students,” says Burnham. “I feel enormously grateful to our students who are, for the most part, curious, and open and energetic and they have lots of great ideas, and to so many of the people I’ve worked with who collectively have a wonderful sense of humor, a wonderful perspective, who don’t take themselves too seriously, even though they know what we’re doing here is serious.”

The Current recently sat down with this writer and educator to talk about teaching, balancing her creative and professional roles and where she goes to pen her work.

Q. What was it like for you, as an educator, to receive the Provost’s Award for Teaching Excellence?
A.
Well it’s just an amazing compliment because first of all, this place is crawling with good teachers—people who are half my age who are good teachers—and there are also people who have been teaching forever. I think it’s particularly true of the English Department because we have a lot of courses and the courses are small. When you have a small course, there’s more responsibility to be creative and sort of varied in your teaching approach. That’s not to say somebody can’t get up and give a brilliant lecture, where nobody says a word. People do that. We have amazing lecturers in our department. Ultimately, because we have relatively few lecture courses and because a lot of our courses are an hour-and-a-half, or occasionally, three hours, you have to use every moment creatively.
One of the things that has been wonderful, especially with technology, and with these small classes, is that we can walk into a class session with three very different things to do. Our students are, for the most part, not passive. They don’t sit there with their baseball caps pulled down, saying, ‘Entertain me.’ They’re ready. They’re not as ready to talk as they might be, but that’s not a criticism. They can be a little shy. But if you give them a moment to collect their thoughts or two minutes to write something down, that allows you to just call on them, and they come up with wonderful ideas. Just in the structure of this particular department’s offerings, that is, relatively small courses, and in the nature of Penn students, I think it creates a situation in which you really can be a good teacher. That’s not to say that somebody can’t be a good teacher in many, many other situations, but I think it’s a little easier here.
I spend some time, every spring, doing a poetry workshop at a high school. It’s a relatively small high school; it’s relatively stable although there are a lot of kids with pretty disruptive lives there. I look at the teachers I work with, who teach something a little bit different every year, and deal with 15-year-olds. I taught middle school for a few years, and so I kind of know what that’s like. It was not great.

Q. So you prefer teaching college-age students.
A.
I love teaching freshmen. I love teaching adults. The adults here are beyond amazing. Almost every adult class I have, I have somebody who shouldn’t be charged tuition because they give so much. I mean, we ought to be paying them. And then there are other people who work really hard to keep up, and it’s okay.

Q. You’ve also taught in the MLA program.
A.
I’ve taught both literature and writing. Those people are just terrific. They’re extremely smart; they tend to have a wonderful individual and collective sense of humor. I’ve taught some classes where we spend an awful lot of time laughing—which is good. People are good to each other, they pay attention. They work really hard, so that’s fun.

Q. What do you do as the Associate Undergraduate Chair in the English Department?
A.
This is a position that was invented a number of years ago for large departments—Biology, Economics, English, History, Biological Basis of Behavior, probably a couple of others—where there is simply too much for the undergrad chair to do. And so, we divide the labor. I work with students who are declaring their majors. I urge them to do research, I urge them to go abroad, I urge them to take more than the minimum number of pre-1900 courses. I do some work with the graduate students—teaching letters and so forth. It’s a lot of fun. I really enjoy that.

Q. A colleague of yours noted that you seem to be comfortable teaching any period of literature to students.
A.
There’s some that I just could not, partly because I don’t have the language skills to teach medieval. I’m going to mix metaphors here—I’m kind of a utility infielder and I like that, and that has to do with market forces, because in graduate school, I did almost exclusively poetry, some fiction, mostly American. I was teaching a lot of poetry, and then there was a time when the courses I was offering—there just weren’t that many people. I was talking to the person who was rostering the courses and we looked at each other and said, ‘People don’t want poetry, do they?’ I said, ‘Well how about if I teach fiction?’ And so I started teaching short stories. Somebody has argued that poetry and short stories are very much alike—which is true. I felt a real affinity for short stories. I had read many, but I hadn’t really taught them. Then a few years ago, I started teaching courses that combined 19th and 20th century novels, either British or American.
This semester and next semester, both, I’m teaching Victorian courses and I’m really enjoying that. It’s just such a wonderful feeling. There’s something about that tension between earnestness and skepticism that I find really interesting—not to mention the fact that these are enormous, vast, roomy novels that you kind of get lost in.

Q. What’s included in those courses?
A.
I created a course which was on the novel of development and called it ‘Orphans and Martyrs’ because so many of the characters don’t have parents, so [we’re reading] ‘Jane Eyre,’ ‘Great Expectations,’ ‘Middlemarch.’ Just for a little bit of lightness in the middle of the semester we read ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ which is strictly speaking not a novel of development, but it was fascinating to read it in this context. ... We read a memoir about a child whose parents were extremely energetic evangelical Christians. His mother dies and he and his father are kind of a dyad for many years. ... It’s an absolutely wonderful book because what this man does is write about a very painful childhood with great tenderness and forgiveness. We read ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles,’ which is a sort of martyr story. Next semester, I’m teaching a course called, ‘Duty and Decadence.’ We’re reading three great big books in which the central characters have to find their way. We’re reading Charlotte Bronte’s last novel, ‘Villette,’ which is a very dark and complex piece that I love, and then George Eliot’s last novel, ‘Daniel Deronda,’ which is also very dark and serious. Then we’re reading, as a kind of bridge into the decadence piece, ‘Bleak House,’ which is a surpassingly great book and complicated beyond description, yet when you look at it carefully, you realize everything fits together. To end up, we’re reading for decadence, ‘Dracula,’ ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’

Q. Do you find that students are responsive to these books?
A.
They’re reading really difficult material. I think they’re very dutiful about it, and they work hard and some of them just sort of get it. Others go so far beyond. There are times when I’m scribbling a student comment on the board and thinking, ‘Man I wish I had thought of that!’ These are hard-thinking kids. They have a lot more trouble with poetry, and I think that’s partly a question of skill. They’re much more skilled at reading prose. With the occasional exception of somebody who just sort of gets poetry, you really do have to walk through it very carefully. There are times when I’m teaching poetry when I’ll end up at the end of the class and realize I have talked the entire time and think, ‘Why did I do that? Oh that’s right, I was going through this poem line by line and I might have asked questions, but I’m giving out a lot of explication.’ Granted, these are very difficult poems—Milton and Donne and some contemporary poems, which are sometimes extremely dense.

Q. Poetry can seem deceptively simple, can’t it? For one thing, it’s usually shorter. Are students often surprised by how difficult it can be to get into?
A.
I think so, yes. They can come at it with what seems like two contradictory ideas—one that poetry is very dense and it’s a puzzle to be solved, which is not a very useful way of looking at it, and also, well it’s short, but you just have to read it. I like to tell them about an experience I had in graduate school. I think I probably had a number of these experiences, but this one stands out. I was taking a course in Jacobean drama from a superb teacher and we were reading a play by Ben Jonson called ‘Bartholomew Fair.’ I remember sitting in my reading chair in my little apartment and saying, ‘Okay, time to read ‘Bartholomew Fair,’’ and a couple of hours later, I looked up from the last page and thought to myself, ‘What the hell was that about?’ I had no idea, thinking, ‘Uh oh, we’re in trouble now.’ I went and had a cup of coffee, and then reread it and said, ‘Oh, I see.’ Now it doesn’t usually happen that neatly, but the second time through, it was like I was looking through a window. It was amazing.
If I can do nothing else in a poetry course, I try to get them to understand that the first reading, or the first two or the first three readings where they end up and say, ‘What the hell was that all about?’—that is a legitimate reaction and a necessary part of the process. Poetry just takes a while to unfold and it’s not because the poet is trying to trick us, it’s just difficult and the difficulty is the flip side of its beauty. That’s not to say that a poem that is absolutely transparent can’t be surpassingly wonderful, because they can. Whitman is fairly transparent, also surpassingly wonderful, there are also all sorts of Asian poems which are transparent, but surpassingly wonderful, and the person who just won the Pulitzer Prize—W. S. Merwin, who has written thousands of poems in his life—many of his are transparent, but they are also enormously resonant. You can read them over and over again and keep on discovering them.

Q. As a poet, do you see your work that way, as something that’s very dense?
A.
I don’t think so, because it takes so long to write a poem, I think you forget how—you’re well into it and it’s not always easy to explain and I don’t particularly go for things that are overtly obscure, but then I also don’t always know exactly what I’ve done.

Q. Have you always been a writer? Did you write poetry when you were younger or keep journals?
A.
I write in notebooks, irregularly. I have never kept a diary or journal except for short periods of time. I wish I had, but I haven’t.
I didn’t start writing poetry particularly early. I wrote a few things here and there, mostly that adolescent stuff. I don’t remember what they were and we didn’t really do creative writing in school. I started writing badly—oh, so badly!—in graduate school but Daniel Hoffman, who was the poet-in-residence and also a faculty member here for a long time, let me sit in on his class, which he didn’t have to do. There was one semester where I was sitting in on a class with Susan Stewart and Ed Hirsch—both of whom have gone on to much greater things. It was an interesting room.
That was extremely helpful and I was extremely grateful for that. But mostly, I learned to write poetry from reading and also from teaching. The other wonderful miraculous teaching experience I’ve had was this program called the Governor’s School for the Arts, which alas, has just been axed because there’s not enough sympathy in Harrisburg for things that aren’t strictly curricular.
For about 25 years, I taught in this program and it was a scholarship program, which meant we got kids from all over the place who could not have otherwise afforded to come. Some of them were just okay. Some of them were truly remarkable, and we have had former students from those classes who have gone on to publish and become teachers and writers and so forth, including Alice Sebold, but that’s not why we did it. We weren’t a little Tanglewood. We were a school that specifically existed to show kids what they might do if they took an art seriously, but we were not pre-professional. It was quite wonderful and I learned a lot about teaching there. It was a great experience.

Q. What did it teach you?
A.
We had to be patient with each other, if for no other reason than the classes were so long. We had three-and-a-half hours of class in the morning, we had two hours of class in the afternoon and most evenings, we had another three hours of class. So we did all kinds of things. They wrote and I sat down with them one-on-one and we read to each other and so forth. It was a really intense experience. That’s how we got things done. It was five weeks long, so it was quite a bit of what the education people call ‘contact hours.’ It was full contact poetry.

Q. How do you balance between your creative life and your teaching life?
A.
Not well! I say, ‘Oh yes, I’m going to write every day’—and that lasts about two days. I’ve become better at it but not good at it, and I just have to say to myself every once in a while, ‘Okay it’s time to get back to work.’ I do have a sort of writing partner, someone who I’ve been working with for many years. She and I have kids who are the same age, and we used to go into a room in her house with a glass of wine in one hand, our poems in progress under one arm, and a child [in the other] and put the children on the floor and the wine up where they couldn’t reach it and talk about poems while they were sort of tumbling around the floor like puppies.
I think this is something that most writers will admit to—having a deadline helps. And so if we were getting together on Friday afternoon, on Thursday night I’d say, ‘Okay, time to write a poem.’ I’m not saying I would just turn one out; I would do something and then I would work on it more, but just having that—the very positive pressure of that upcoming meeting—was very helpful and so that has helped keep me on track.
I also belong to a work-in-progress group where I write some fiction, and that has a longer arc. I have learned a great deal about fiction from hearing some extremely good people in that group talk about their stories and I’m very interested in the underbelly of the creative process.
When I did my dissertation, I did what we now call a genetic project. I looked at the drafts and revisions and notebooks and so forth of the poet Theodore Roethke and it was fascinating to see not how bad his first drafts were—that’s what you see with [William Butler] Yeats. When you look at early drafts of Yeats, you want to say, ‘Don’t quit your day job!’ It seemed so utterly unpromising. Roethke’s were much more fleshed out and imaginative, but they were all over the place. He’s somebody, as Robert Frost used to say, whose stock is not very high now. But I don’t care, I’ve never been a fashionable person and never will be and still love him because he was so utterly serious about writing and because writing was so infinitely difficult for him.

Q. Do you have a particular place where you go to write?
A.
I often get ideas when I’m doing something else—it’s a shower thing or swimming laps, which is even more inconvenient, or long walking.
I’m lucky enough to have a study. We live in the city, so it’s right over a traffic street, but [I can write] anywhere I have a piece of paper and a book—because I have to read before I write. It almost doesn’t matter what I’m reading, but I need to grease those wheels. I scribble in longhand and then put it on a screen and then just mess with it.

Q. What are you working on?
A.
I have a volume of poems that is pretty much finished and I’ll try to get rid of it. I have a manuscript in process that is quite different. The poems are looser, they’re more open-ended. I wouldn’t call them experimental [but] they’re experimental only for me. So I’m interested in working at them. A lot of them are poems about my father who died a number of years ago, yet I’m still thinking about that. They’re kind of meditative elegies. And then I’ve also begun in the past year or so to write about [my mother] and thinking about her in a kind of noble old age. I have written a number of poems that are going to be a section in this new volume, which I think without saying it in so many words, are essentially a celebration of this nobility. I’m pleased with this because there could be dozens of people writing about this and I don’t know it, but I don’t see a lot of poems out there on this particular topic.

Click here to read a poem by Deborah Burnham.

Originally published on May 7, 2009