Michael Peterson: Comments on the Great Books at Wright College

Dec 27, 2015 by

GreatBooksStudentSocietyAn Interview with Michael Peterson: Comments on the Great Books at Wright College

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Michael, can you first tell us about your education and experience?

Originally, I trained as a high-school English teacher (BA and MA, Northeastern Illinois University). I taught high school for 17 years, mostly at St. Patrick High School in Chicago, where I taught AP and Honors Senior English, courses which included nearly all Great Books. After being hired at Wright College, I received my PhD. in English Literature from Northern Illinois University. My dissertation examines couplets and sententiae in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

2) Now when did you first get involved with the Great Books?

When I first came to Wright College as an adjunct professor in 1999, I began working with Bruce Gans, the co-creator and director of the Great Books program. After I received a full-time position in 2001, I became more involved in the program, teaching Great Books courses and presenting at symposia. Under Bruce’s direction, I also contributed a Great Books course module to the newly-created National Great Books Curriculum (http://www.nationalgreatbooks.com/modules/) and published an article in the faculty section of the Great Books Curriculum journal, Symposium. (http://www.nationalgreatbooks.com/pdf/issue3.pdf)

3) I understand the program at Wright College has been operating for almost 20 years. What is the general student reaction?

Students have been enthusiastic and appreciative of the program. Each semester, officers of our student club, the Great Books Student Society, meet weekly to plan events and discuss literature. Students in the general population, often those enrolled in the 75-80 Great Books courses offered each semester, attend symposia, the banned book discussion, speaker events, and various readings. Although we are a commuter college and our students tend to be very busy, events commonly attract approximately 100 students, faculty and staff.

4) Can you give us an example of some of the most beloved books or celebrated books that both students and faculty enjoy?

Each school year we have common readings for faculty and students, and this year they include Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Borge’s short stories, and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the banned book discussion, student speakers presented on George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. All of these have been popular with student and teachers.

5) You are having an event this evening (Nov 4th) at your events theatre featuring Brendon Zatirka, Daniel McClymonds and Adrian Guiu. What will these presentors be speaking about and how does this fit into the Great Books?

At the Nov. 4th Faculty Symposium, each speaker discussed a work of literature regarding this school year’s Great Books theme, metamorphosis. The works used as the basis for these discussions included Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as Buddhist teachings. After the presentations, students and other faculty asked questions and offered their own observations about the specific works, the theme, and other Great Books.

6) Who are some of the faculty members involved and what have been some of their accomplishments?

There are approximately 35 Great Books faculty at Wright College, teachers who bring to the program an extensive variety of experiences and accomplishments. At least 50% of the readings for a Great Books course are drawn from the Great Books list, and faculty supplement these readings with widely different literary, philosophical, and critical works. This assortment of pedagogical approaches and influences create a rich tapestry of Great Books instruction here at Wright.

7) What have I neglected to ask?

Wright College’s Great Books Program is the first of its kind, created by Professor Bruce Gans and then Dean of Instruction Don Barshis and maintained through the efforts of countless others.

•      The model for Great Books Curricula has been implemented at Harold Washington, Oakton College, Santa Barbara College, and Arapahoe College. This model was established through $450,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Other programs initiated through this work include Monterey Community College in California

•      The National Great Books Curriculum, a consortium found at www.nationalgreatbooks.com has Wright’s program at its center. The web site is a national resource for pedagogy and a practical, step-by-step process for initiating and running a Great Books Curriculum

•      The mission statement of the NGBC mentions the importance of Great Books for under-prepared students: “[The National Great Books Curriculum] came into existence as a labor of love forged out of practical as well as philosophical concerns about how to best help under prepared and minority student populations obtain a meaningful, sustaining liberal education while in the process strengthening such skills as critical thinking.

•      The Great Books Curriculum established Symposium, the first and only scholarly journal written entirely by students on Great Books authors and their works in the community college setting.

•      The Great Books Curriculum was started and is run entirely by faculty who have sustained it now for twenty years. Roughly 25% of the faculty are affiliated with the program.

Michael Peterson
English Faculty and Great Books Program Coordinator
Wright College, Chicago

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