Letter from the Chair — Reading Beyond the Present Moment

Chair Mark Mossman, 2018.

This Spring my undergraduate mentor, Dr. Jeffrey Skoblow, retired from teaching.

Jeff Skoblow will always be the embodiment of “English” for me. A deeply read Marxist theorist, specializing in William Morris and Victorian culture, Jeff opened my mind to numerous perspectives critical of our current cultural moment—he asked his students to stop watching television, to think about how our everyday actions hurt other people on this planet, and to consider how our very dreams themselves are a part of a larger enterprise of which we are only dimly aware.

More than anything, this English professor taught me how to read, and how to read critically and with a deep seriousness. What does this mean? I have been trying to figure that out for a long time: as a student, as a professor, and even as the Chair of the department.

In part what reading critically means is adopting a perspective that is distant from the moment.

Reading, and reading with seriousness, gives us distance. In the moment, we experience the chaos of the present; in its first blush of practice, reading gives us a distance from that chaos.

Instead of the moment-by-moment crisis of twitter, or snapchat, or any other kind of instantaneous media communication, reading, and especially reading the historical traditions, opens up an entirely different, slow field of experience, which allows us to then rethink that present. Being imaginatively separated from the urgencies and crises of the moment, reading allows to think in new ways, to imagine changing that chaotic world into something better.

In this way, like laughter perhaps, reading is a profoundly political act.

And in this way, again like laughter, reading is a profoundly hopeful action.

Thus, as citizens of our present moment, I ask everyone reading this letter to pause and read, with seriousness, every single day.