Graham School News

David Bevington on the Intellectual Excitement of the MLA Classroom

When David Bevington, Phyllis Fay Horton Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago, agreed to teach a class in the Graham School’s Master of Liberal Arts (MLA) program for its inaugural year in 1992, he did so because he saw in it the potential for a new and appealing experience. The idea of teaching police officers in the same classroom as lawyers, along with other adults advanced in their various careers, seemed certain to set off engaging discussion and new insights. His hunch was borne out and he hasn’t passed a year since without discussing works of English literature with students in the MLA program.

David Bevington

“I have the confidence in an MLA classroom to put forth whatever I might be thinking about at the moment,” he says. “I know the discussion will move forward without much prompting on my part and take interesting turns and arrive at significant places. Whether it’s Hamlet or The Tempest—plays I’ve spent almost my entire life thinking about—I’ve never taught a work and not discovered something in it that I hadn’t seen before.”

He notes that there’s a certain strategy to teaching MLA students works of literature from the sixteenth century that goes beyond the simple fact that the Renaissance is his area of expertise. The otherness of the texts poses a unique challenge to the students, many of whom have been out of the classroom for multiple decades, and forces them to leave their areas of intellectual comfort and to question their presuppositions. Whether it’s a lyric poem, a play, or a piece of discursive prose writing, he strives to impart to his students the various ways close reading can illuminate these texts whose intellectual preoccupations are now quite distant from our own.

“The works that we read in class are really quite strange by today’s standards,” he says. “They describe and take place in a world organized in a measurably different way from our own. What does politics look like in a world as hierarchical as 16th century England? How do people behave when living under a monarchy? It’s important not to think anachronistically about these texts. Though students may be inclined to stay close to their personal experience when making their observations, the strangeness of a poem by John Donne or a work like Thomas More’s Utopia pushes them to get out of their heads and confront the Other with a capital O.”

And yet despite the authority Professor Bevington is eager to give these masterworks of English Literature, this in no way means that these texts have anything like a single correct interpretation or meaning. What keeps it fun, he insists, is the endless potential a play like King Lear provides for not only finding new angles onto scenes and particular words, but even discovering whole new perspectives that illuminate it. It’s actually more than just fun, he says. It’s thrilling.

“I love being alive at this time when the postmodern revolution is aging and mellowing out,” he says. “We have such a multiplicity of ways to read and understand a writer like Shakespeare, whether it’s from a political perspective, a feminist perspective, or any other. The question is how far can you take it? It’s certainly possible to take it too far, but the question is how do you know when it’s gone too far. Now this is a very difficult question and one whose answer seems always to shift and evolve. It’s very similar in important ways to debates that are going on socially today.”

In the end, Professor Bevington sees the MLA program as firmly rooted in the University of Chicago’s long history of interdisciplinary inquiry. Whether the debate takes place within comparative literature or across the various social sciences, he sees the University’s dedication to fostering such an approach as key to sparking new intellectual discovery. The broad liberal arts curriculum of the MLA program emerges from this tradition and is designed for students excited to make connections and explore the gaps between disciplines.

“MLA students are self-selecting,” he says. “These are people who know about the University of Chicago’s reputation and they’re eager to take part in the life of the mind. Maybe they’re finding that the work they do during the day lacks enough intellectual stimulation. That’s what brings them out to the Gleacher Center on Thursday nights or Saturday mornings. They’re yearning for the intellectual excitement the MLA program provides.”

Having taught in the MLA program now for 26 years, most recently this past fall, Professor Bevington remains as eager and excited as ever to explore works of English literature in the classroom. In fact, it’s hardly difficult to discern why. His wonder before the richness of the texts he teaches, even after doing so at the University of Chicago for over 50 years, remains palpable—as does his desire to explore this richness with students eager to follow him and expand on his latest path of inquiry.