Began writing part 2 of blog Sunday, May 9, 2014, 7 am
I’m a 38th Voyager in part because I’m a teacher. I have taught Moby-Dick at Northern Kentucky University for more than forty years. i have taught a course in Moby-Dick and the Arts for more than twenty. In the latter course I leave the last two weeks open for a final project in which each student has the option of writing a research paper or creating an artistic response to the novel. I have been surprised, and delighted, at the number of students who have taken the artistic plunge. Very few have been art majors. Most are English majors or Honors students, and many say, as they present their proposal at mid-semester or share their creation at the end of the semester, “I’ve never done anything creative since the fifth grade.” This voyage is like one of the in-class artistic projects for me. Open space that I have to fill with what feels like the most personal and expressive way of responding to what I and my fellow voyagers have been experiencing from the Training Day until the Charles W. Morgan has carried us from the island of Martha’s Vineyard to the port of New Bedford.
I was not teaching Moby-Dick and the Arts during the current 2014 Spring Semester. My upper-division course this semester was Emily Dickinson and the Arts. For more than twenty five years, I had taught the poems of Emily Dickinson alongside the novels of Henry James. But ever since 2001 students have responded so strongly to Dickinson that I finally decided to drop James and devote my course entirely to her—and the visual and musical artists who have responded to her work. The current course is the second one in which I have offered Dickinson and the Arts. The entire class took the creative plunge. The final projects by fourteen students included two artist books, one pop-up book, one series of original poems, one series of original songs, a painted box with found items, a white dress with inscribed poems, a blog combining dance and photography, and a rich array of visual art: a garden in watercolor on paper, a landscape in charcoal on paper, purple orchids in acrylic on canvas, a cleaving mind in acrylic on canvas, a human drama in mixed media on canvas, and Dickinson poems as graffiti on a nearby city wall as a public art project. On the final exam day, we had a lunch that I brought in from Chipotle and we took a group photo outside of the Honors House in which our class had met.
In a course like this, you have the voyage and the aftermath. The art work created by students in my Dickinson and Moby-Dick classes have been so expressive that I am currently working with Emma Rose Thompson, a BFA in Art History who took Moby-Dick and the Arts during the 2013 Spring Semester, to curate two separate exhibitions in northern Kentucky during the 2015 Spring Semester. The first will be an exhibition of student art inspired by Dickinson in the Eva G. Farris Reading Room of the W. Frank Steely Library at NKU from January – May 2015. The second will be an exhibition of student art inspired by Moby-Dick at the Covington Arts Gallery from April 17 – May 30, 2015. For the Dickinson exhibition we have selected 40 works by 39 student artists, including many from the recently completed class. For the Moby-Dick exhibition we have selected 106 works by 53 student artists reaching back to 1994. We will be designing and producing a catalog for each exhibit, and each work that will appear in each catalog and exhibition has been photographed during the current semester so we can design the catalogs during the summer. When I will be sailing on the Charles W. Morgan in late June, Emma Rose will be using the In-Design editing program to design the layout for the catalogs we will be self-publishing through Blurb.com. We have selected Kathleen Piercefield’s multi-media Moby-Dick print as the banner image for the xave-the-date message Emma Rose is preparing for Facebook.
I mention all of this here because of the many ways in which teaching courses like these is like voyaging in a whale ship. Here is Ishmael’s description of the moment in which he and Queequeg “stood on board the schooner” that would carry them from New Bedford to the ship they would board in Nantucket: “At last, passage paid, and luggage safe, we . . . glided down the Acushnet,” sailing into the realization that “one most perilous and long voyage ended, only begins a second; and a second ended, only begins a third, and so on, for every and for eye” (“The Wheelbarrow,” chapter 13). For each entire voyage, you have the preparation , the voyage itself, and residue, either physical or metaphysical. How does Dickinson’s poetry play into the voyage I will be taking this summer? Or into the artistic plunges my students have been taking with their final projects? In a stanza such as this:
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity— (J 76, c. 1859)
Later on May 9, 3 pm
I have just returned from the Spring 2014 graduation ceremony on our campus. Two of my Moby-Dick graduate students graduated today, along with two of my Moby undergraduates, two of my Dickinson undergraduates, and one who took both courses. During the ceremony I sat between two colleagues from the Art department who had some helpful advice for the exhibitions Emma Rose and I are planning for the 2015 Spring Semester. The morning ceremony today was for the graduates in the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Informatics. Sue Rowlands, our new University Provost, crafted a ship metaphor for her message to the new graduates, encouraging them to toss of the bowline from the ship, to set their sails boldly, and to make the life for which they have now prepared themselves an open-ended adventure. Our Commencement speaker, Dr. T. Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, was even bolder in his use of the sailing metaphor. He advised our new graduates not only to launch out boldly from the shore, but to prepare themselves for the treacherous, mountainous waves they will surely encounter along the way, emphasizing that it is only by failure that you can succeed. Or, as Melville put it in his 1850 essay on Hawthorne: “Failure is the true test of greatness” (NCE 527).