AFTER 35 years in the trenches as an English professor at Citrus College in Glendora, author Dale Salwak has learned a few things. In his latest book, “Teaching Life,” he assembles an epistolary memoir intended as a guiding light to neophyte academics.
The letters are all addressed to “Kelly,” the pseudonym Salwak has given to a student who died in a 1978 car accident en route to a meeting with him. But “Kelly” is really a composite of all the students he’s ever taught who have expressed a desire to become English professors. In heartfelt missives, he responds to Kelly’s imagined queries for advice and direction as she undertakes her early teaching years with the wisdom he’s gleaned during decades in the classroom.
The memoir’s tone is a cross between that of a grandfather passing along life lessons to a granddaughter and that of a minister reminding his flock about the purpose and importance of their lives. This ministerial voice firmly believes in the almost sacred role played by college professors and conveys Salwak’s immense passion and reverence for the vocation.
Meanwhile, the grandfatherly voice opines on life events outside the classroom, including how to deal with the death of a parent, and marriage: "[I]t’s preferable not to marry early in your career but . . . if you do, it’s advisable to marry someone in academia with similar or complementary interests,” Salwak counsels.
It’s clear that Salwak sees the English professor’s role as crucial in helping to keep our humanity alive and our civilization thriving. His devotion shines through in the hands-on chapters, in which he imparts concrete suggestions, including advice on lecturing and the use of technology in the classroom, as well as specific methods of getting students to interact and become engaged with the material at hand.
“A syllabus is more than a chronological listing of assignments,” he warns would-be professors. “It is a covenant of trust between you and the student, and a covenant is only as strong as the integrity of the person making it.”
Salwak’s description of the exhaustive preparation he undertakes before teaching a new class shows how seriously he takes his profession; implicit is the fact that he would hold “Kelly” and all others to the same rigorous standards.
When Salwak gets away from the concrete specifics, though, his guidance becomes vague and cliched. “When we care for others, we always strive to become better than we are; and when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too.” True, of course. Alas, all deep wisdom when reduced to a kernel of advice assumes this kind of sentimental tone.
Marring the book in more serious ways, however, is using “Kelly” as the fulcrum. It’s distracting to know from the outset that the real young woman never went to graduate school and never became an English professor because she died before she could embark on her dreams. Thus, when he refers directly to her letters, we are regularly reminded that she is an artifice, the author’s foil to raise predetermined questions so that he can answer them.
For example, when “Kelly” requests that Salwak say “something original” about the novelist Barbara Pym, we wonder why the sudden interest in Pym? Then we learn that he previously published a book about Pym’s literature and life, and see that “Kelly’s” specific question is a springboard for Salwak’s extensive knowledge of Pym and her life. When he reprises this device to discuss Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis (both subjects of previous Salwak books), the “Kelly” pretense, shaky from the outset, crumbles entirely.
If readers can forgive this failed conceit, the slim volume has much to offer prospective English professors, particularly Salwak’s passionate belief in the power of education to shape lives in countless, important ways, and the consecrated role of professors to call their students to their higher selves. “Teach as if your life (and theirs) depends upon it,” he writes, “because it does.”
Bernadette Murphy is the author of “Zen and the Art of Knitting” and co-author of “The Tao Gal’s Guide to Real Estate.” She teaches creative writing at Antioch University.