Professor of English remembers students, courses fondly

Professor of English on the Mary Scott Chair at Vassar Patricia Wallace, who will retire at the end of the semester, reflects fondly on collaboratinig with students and faculty alike. Courtesy of Vassar Alumnae/i Hub

A first-generation college student, editor of “Poetry 1945 to Present” section of “The Norton Anthology of American Literature,” a contributor to the Columbia History of American Poetry, a poet herself and the Professor of English on the Mary Augusta Scott Chair at Vassar, Patricia Wallace never imagined going to graduate school.

Her college professors, however, supported her, challenged her and inspired her to become a college professor. “I like to think that my own teaching is a way of passing on their gifts to me,” said Wallace. With the help of her great professors, Wallace later made her way to the University of Iowa and received a PhD in English.

In the summer of 1976, Wallace began working at Vassar College. The first couple years here were challenging. Not only was she a female assistant professor striving for a tenure in a male-dominated academe, she was also a single mother of two young children. At the time, there was no full-time nursery school or childcare, and it was very difficult for Wallace to balance her role as a teacher and a mother.

However, she holds deep love for her students. She praises them as “imaginative, brave, curious, smart, funny, dedicated, challenging in the best way.” She would feel upset if she could not find a way to reach and support them. During the 1980s, she saw many of her students agonizing over the AIDS crisis, so she tried to address this issue by designing a course called The Literature of Aids. As she recalls, “There was an especially urgent feeling in those classes but everyone devoted themselves to the material and discussion. It helped me to feel I was doing something when I had felt powerless … I try to think about how to support my students both as minds and as hearts.”

While performing the role as a teacher, Wallace also actively learns from her students. For many years, Wallace has been the editor of the “Poetry 1945 to Present” section of the “Norton Anthology of American Literature.” Constantly, she needed to seek out new poets to include in the anthology. Some of those poets’ works were taught in class, and she would take notes of how her students evaluated, identified with or got fascinated by these poets.

She considers her works indebted to what she learned from her students, and feels grateful to be able to work with “such talented young people.” Her current work, an essay on J.D. Salinger, is also partially inspired by her students in the Salinger Seminars.

Rachel Ludwig, a junior currently in the Salinger seminar with Wallace, comments that Wallace has a very interesting approach to literature and education. Besides the take-three-breath ritual ceremony that starts the class, in most days, everyone comes in with a memorized quote from the readings and spontaneously speaks out their quotes, says Rachel:

“It’s very theatrical. [Wallace] will start…and then whoever wants to say the next, just does it. [Sometimes] we awkwardly interrupt each other a little bit, but I think it works out very smoothly.”

Wallace encourages other experimental classroom practices. Once, a student in her Modern Poets class made fortune cookies that contained lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” In her Verse Writing class, each student designed and made a chapbook of their own poems.

Wallace also enjoys the collaborative relationship with colleagues both within and outside the Department. She recalls a story of team-teaching Documenting America with Professor Cohen in the History Department:

“[The class] combined art, history and politics from 1920s to 1940s. We did a big section of the course on Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers and both of us loved combining our interest around those fascinating images. Our students did curatorial presentations of individual photographers and they were amazing. Thanks to Professor Cohen, I now know all about the FSA and the resources of the Roosevelt library. For their final experience, our students did a scavenger hunt at the Roosevelt library involving course materials. We then all went to lunch at the Apple Pie Cafe at the CIA…”

Matthew McCardwell ’17, a senior who was in this class, deems the scavenger hunt the most memorable moment he spent with Wallace, as well as “an excellent coda to a semester of study and growth as a seminar of about 12 students.” The work they did during class also gave him more insight on his thesis.

Wallace plans to retire at the end of this semester. She intends to keep writing, combining creative and critical writing and researching.

She also wants to explore teaching in other ways. Her current interest is in finding ways to enhance creativity by collaborating with, possibly, public school teachers or hospital works.
Wallace also wants to pass on a gift to current Vassar students on how to dwell poetically: “Take a walk, learn a poem by heart so that you will always have it with you and available as nourishment (even if you think you don’t like poetry you can find a poem you love). Learning by heart is a form of indwelling because it takes the poem into the body and there is a level of knowing beyond the mind. It is a very deep experience. One student once told me, ‘Don’t never do this!’ To dwell in a poem is to dwell in mystery and deep understanding you might not be able to explain, but simply saying the poem from your heart is the true understanding.”

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