Why I Study—and Teach—Literature

By Dr. Zachary Dilbeck


Image Courtesy of Dr. Zachary Dilbeck

Zac Dilbeck earned his PhD in English and English Education at Idaho State University (2015), where he wrote a dissertation titled “Middle-earth, Middle-margins: Seeing Dwarves in the Shadows of Elves.”

Prior to this, he earned his MA in English at Western Illinois University (2008), where he wrote a thesis titled “Tolkien and His Dwarves: Crafting a Legacy.” Currently, Dr. Dilbeck serves as Assistant Professor of English at Columbus State Community College in Ohio, where he teaches courses in Composition, British Literature, American Literature, Science Fiction, and Poetry. His passion is the work of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Professor Dilbeck’s participation in Tolkien Studies has led him to specialize in Fantasy Literature, British Literature (especially Anglo-Saxon and Medieval literature), and Fairy Tales. He has presented his work at various conferences, including Tolkien at The University of Vermont, the Rocky Mountain Medieval and Renaissance Association, and the Illinois Philological Association. As a graduate student at Western Illinois University, he participated in the 3rd and 4th annual graduate conferences, and he just recently presented at the TEDx event in Hilliard Ohio.

I have witnessed the death of Boromir hundreds of times and wept without fail.

This, perhaps, requires some context. I am a 40-year-old man.

More context:

Thirteen years ago, I moved to Macomb, accepted a teaching internship at Western Illinois University, enrolled in the MA program in the English department, and received the first (and last) D- I would ever receive on an essay.

At this point I had already cried dozens of times over Boromir’s lifeless corpse. I had never before wept over my own prose.

There is something deeply, inextricably intimate in the act of writing; we place a part of ourselves on the page and, in a classroom setting at least, we hand the page to a professor to pass judgment. It is quite literally an act of self-sacrifice, even penance. We come, supplicant, pitiful.

This is the great winnowing. Those of you reading this have (or will have, soon enough) survived, and have seen friends and colleagues fall away like so much seed sown along the rocky path.

An aside: I may have earned a D- for what Dr. Banash may have noted as an effusive style, a lack of conciseness.

Let me be direct. Northrop Frye, in his wonderful work The Educated Imagination, asks this question: What good is the study of literature? The question is rhetorical, of course, and Professor Frye goes on to argue that the study of literature is the most essential practice in which we can engage—as pressing as finding shelter, or food to eat.

My students—now that I am a professor—tend to find Frye’s sentiment overly dramatic. Food is, they say, obviously more important than the study of literature. Allow me to defend Frye’s position—the position of we who have elected to walk this path.

Following the 2016 presidential election, many of the students at Columbus State Community College, where I teach, felt anxious, disillusioned, frustrated, angry, elated, justified, bold, confused, or downright afraid. The aftermath of the election resulted in such a disruption to the daily activity of the campus and to the academic lives of our students that it became clear that we would need to provide a formal opportunity for discourse. A colloquium was held. Three faculty were asked to speak to students from a position of authority: a psychologist, a historian, and a literature professor.

The point of this anecdote, if I may be blunt, is that our students had shelter and food aplenty; what they needed was something that comes only from the study of literature: a deeper understanding of the breadth and depth of the shared human experience.

This, to answer Frye’s question, is the good of the study of literature: empathy.

But how, how, does literature foster empathy? Another anecdote is in order.

During a portfolio norming session (a practice I sincerely hope the department has not abandoned) at the end of the 2008 school year, Dr. Alice Robertson said to me, rather hurtfully, that in regards to films and books, “The book is always better than the film, except for The Lord of the Rings.” This offended me both personally and professionally at the time, though I have since gotten over it (and suspect she may have been teasing me); here is why it matters. The movie death of Boromir (played brilliantly by the great Sean Bean) has moved millions to tears, however, it has done so through a combination of good acting, exceptional slow-motion cuts, and a near-legendary musical score. This is not empathy, nor is empathy stirred up by such tricks.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, empathy is commonly used to mean “The ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings, experience, etc.” Beware a definition featuring “etc.” But this is the common usage. This is really about feelings, and feelings can be stirred through tricks of pathos, as I just discussed. But the more important definition–the one that applies to literature and empathy as we (and Frye) are concerned–is “The quality or power of projecting one’s personality into or mentally identifying oneself with an object of contemplation, and so fully understanding or appreciating it.” Notice that in this definition (the one J.R.R. Tolkien would have been familiar with in the first half of the 20th century) the understanding and appreciating comes from contemplation. The difference between the two definitions is that the newer, more common (now) definition has been stripped of its aesthetic component. This is apropos for our present culture.

The simple fact of the matter is that movies do not allow for contemplation–they move on, with or without us. Literature–like a painting or a sculpture–exists in a moment out of time. Shakespeare understood this when he penned his most famous sonnet:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

   So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

The Bard is concerned with the temporality and evanescence of the summer’s day; he knows that the only beauty that can endure–the only aesthetic–is that of art. He knows that his poem will persist “so long as men can breathe or eyes can see,” and so his lover’s beauty too persists through our contemplation of it. The film is a summer’s day.

Prior to 2006 I was, like all people, capable of empathy, however, I was not prone to it. I learned, thanks to a great deal of help from Dr. Banash, Dr. Mossman, Dr. Sinex, Dr. Robertson, and other professors in the English department at WIU, to be more empathetic through the contemplation (the study, Frye would say) of literature. My own students, I pray to God, learn as much from me.

I am a 40-year-old man.

I have witnessed the death of Boromir hundreds of times and wept without fail.


Dr. Zachary Dilbeck

(WIU alumnus, 2008)