Living Writers: Breathing Life Into the Core

Tom Bailey's enthusiasm gets students reading in preparation for the Visiting Writers program.

There are two words that can make just about any student groan: literature core. For those who are not excited about reading or writing, a required literature course can seem like a daunting task. Indeed, a sense of dread is almost tangible in the classroom on the first day of Living Writers—that is until Professor of English Tom Bailey walks into the room and says, “Get up!,” his voice booming through the classroom.

No one moves.

“I mean it! Everyone get up!” Slowly, students push themselves from their chairs. Sighs ripple through the room.

Bailey has the students arrange their chairs in a circle around the perimeter of the room. He wants everyone to see one another for the discussions that will follow. So begins Living Writers, the kind of class many non–English majors take to fulfill the university’s literature requirement. However, Bailey pioneered the class with a different concept in mind than the typical literature core. The difference lies in the focus of the class—reading works by the professional writers who are visiting campus in that semester through the Visiting Writers Program.

Students are then required to go to the on-campus readings and Q&A sessions conducted by the authors. “I think the most valuable part of the class is reading living writers and then having the chance to meet and talk with them,” Bailey says.

The wide-ranging latitude of reading and interpreting contemporary literature is an advantage, too. “My favorite part of the class is the discussions we get ourselves into,” Bailey says. “There is no ‘received knowledge’ on how to think about the writers we read and meet.”

Bailey keeps classroom discussions casual and upbeat, so students feel comfortable speaking their mind. They are encouraged to be excited, enlightened and even outraged by what they read. But perhaps the most attractive aspect of the class is Bailey’s love for the subject matter.

His passion for literature is contagious, and by the end of the semester, even the nonbelievers—those students who only took the course to fulfill a requirement— are completely engrossed.

Silas Zobal, assistant professor of English, also teaches the class, and it’s clear he shares the same passion for the material. “I want every student to begin seeing literature as a living, breathing thing. We’ll try not to see the work we read as hallowed or untouchable, but [rather] as human,” he says.

Contributing writers to The ’Grove section are Victoria Kidd, editor; Charlotte Lotz ’12, a creative writing major from Sugarloaf, Pa.; and Megan McDermott ’14, a creative writing and religion major from Lewisberry, Pa.

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