Longtime prof Read reflects on Denison past, present

Associate Professor of English Dennis Read is a worldly, well-rounded guy. Resting on a shelf in his Barney Davis office is a row of trophies from the many marathons he’s run, flanked by tomes of William Blake, and books on writing and pedagogy. Where did he grow up? “A lot of places,” he says.

Though he was born in Butte, Mont., his father’s job as a mining engineer led him to live in a variety of locations, including Raleigh, Mich., and western New York, before settling in northwest Iowa for high school. Read does not describe his childhood as tumultuous, however. He cites his constant moves as one root of his love for travel writing. “What I resented was staying in a place for too long,” he says.

A specialist in the English Romantic movement, Read came to campus and to academia after spending some time doing social work. “When I finished my masters at NYU, I got a job at the Bureau of Child Welfare, and worked there for a year. It was very powerful, very educational. I learned more doing that than from anything I did in or out of school.”

Read was turned onto teaching when he was offered a job at a new campus at the City University of New York. He’d never taught before. “It was very exhilarating, very exciting, and that’s when I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Teaching writing, literature.” Though his experience teaching was very different than social work, it was not completely divergent from his academic work. “Before I did the social work, I wanted to pursue something that involved writing…my first thought was that I would become a novelist. I never could write decent fiction, but I did love writing.” Read pursued a Ph.D. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and began at Denison in 1979.

Today, Read has spent nearly 35 years teaching literature. Next semester, alongside curriculum-regular “The Literature of Travel,” he plans on offering a new course entitled “Literature of Place.” Describing “Literature of Travel,” Read says, “It involves serious writing, mostly nonfiction — I consider all of these works literature, but they feature locations off the beaten path, like Afghanistan, Patagonia.”

Featured in Read’s “Literature of Travel” course is Mark Twain’s 1868 travel book, Innocence Abroad. In Read’s estimation, Twain’s work remains relevant even after 150 years, as “a lot of the places mentioned in the book are still the way he writes about them.” When it comes to Rome, and the Holy Land, Read says, “you could use his book as kind of a travel guide.”

Read’s “Literature of Travel” course began as a part of the now-defunct Denison Honors Program, which started up in the mid-1980s, shortly after Dr. Read began teaching at Granville. The course came about, Read reports, when “the faculty was invited to think of seminar ideas for the Honors Program and I thought, that would be a course I’d love to teach. So I proposed that, and I began teaching it.” Though the Honors Program is no more, Read’s passion for travel literature has not waned.

Adam Weinberg is the fifth president that Read has taught under. Robert Good, the university president when Read began teaching on the Hill, established Monomoy Place as the president’s residence. Though Good only served as president for a short time, Read spoke at length of the impact and dedication that Good had for campus, committing himself to attend events and perform his presidential duties even while being treated for an eventually fatal case of brain cancer.

Following the term of an interim president, Andrew G. DeRocco served as university president for a few years. “Denison was something of a party school,” at this time, says Read. “There were serious students, but they weren’t all that evident. The students who were more evident were the partiers, were the people who spent a lot of time drinking and not too much time studying.”

It wasn’t until Michelle T. Myers (who succeeded DeRocco) made the step to revoke the residential status of Denison’s fraternities that the school began to gain the intellectually rigorous reputation it has today. “A lot of effort was put into giving good awards, merit awards, which is something that hadn’t happened before. They were always financial aid based before. And things really turned around, improved, [there was] a steady climb.”

The Val-Sal program also boosted Denison’s clout. Instituted by Myers, this program gave anyone who graduated as the Valedictorian or Salutatorian of their high school in Ohio a full ride to Denison, attracting new demographics of students such as students from rural communities, and, Read suspects, Jennifer Garner ‘94. Myers eventually extended the program to neighboring states.

Speaking on Myers’s successor Dale T. Knobel, Read says, “He’s very affable, and very good with groups. Somebody once defined a president as someone who lives in a big house and begs for money. I think he was very good at begging for money, which is to say raising the endowment and getting dollars into the university. He improved our physical plant enormously,” says Read, referring in part to the Reese-Shackleford Common. “He was really a guiding light.”

When Read arrived at D.U., 25 percent of the student body lived off campus. Because of the excessive student partying and backlacsh from Granvillagers, off-campus housing was reduced. Current Denison seniors may remember a time when satellite housing was a living option, but when Read began teaching, it was faculty who lived in Bancroft and Monomoy house. With assistant athletic coaches now living there, things are now as they once were.

As an English professor, Read is aware of the national “the attack on the humanities,” casting shade on humanities degrees. “It’s a combination of things,” he says. “The recession makes people very aware of finding jobs and then the rising cost of places like us, so that students often have a burden of debt when the graduate. It makes people think…I need to know that I will be employable when I graduate. So some people will say that a liberal arts education doesn’t do that. Of course, we would argue that it does.”

To any English and humanities majors worrying about their marketability in the job world, Read offers some solace. “To be a critical reader and to have strong writing abilities is very marketable, it applies to virtually any job worth talking about. And so those communication skills will carry you very far. There’s a lot that’s involved in being able to read in a very efficient and complete way.”

Interested in reading with Read? Be sure to make room in your spring schedule for “Literature of Travel” and “The Literature of Place”!