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The Professor Is In: Daniel Bender

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Daniel Bender, PhD, is an associate professor of English and Modern Language Studies. In this edition of The Professor Is In, we talk about literature’s unique ability to address contemporary issues, the uncanny beauty of the Pleasantville Campus, and much more!

You’re an associate professor of English and modern language studies. Can you talk about what distinguishes this field from others?

I think the traditional value of studying literature and language is that it makes you much more precise in your reasoning and much more responsive in the language that’s going on around you. I embrace those traditional benefits, but I don’t like the idea of long, discursive forms—you’re going to write a 50 page paper, etc.

The direction I’m trying to take my own teaching is toward civic problem solving. What I now do is teach literature courses, and we look at how that literature activates contemporary issues that call for civic solutions. For example, I’m teaching Robin Hood—a 14th century folk hero, a wildly popular guy, and I say to my students, “why do you think he was so popular?” And they say, “because he’s helping people who are screwed over by the system.” So then we’ll look at something that’s going on currently, like the recent issues surrounding Wells Fargo Bank, and analyze how Robin Hood relates to what happened—Wells Fargo didn’t have a Robin Hood.

What I’m trying to do with the future of English is to apply literary issues on real-life problem solving, that will enable college students to think of themselves as problem solvers, change-makers, capable of coming up with solutions and confidently articulating those solutions. Pace students can emerge as civic leaders, if I succeed. 

Is there anything you’re working on right now that you’re particularly excited about?

I’m excited to see the work I've done on education—history and the present state of—is ready to become a collection of essays. My field of academic study is the Renaissance, less grandly known as the early modern period in England. For most people, including me, this period is top-heavy. Tudor Kings like Henry VII, Queen Elizabeth, and of course, Mr. Drama himself, Willl Shakespeare usually take top billing. But the price of studying those at the top is that it leaves out...let's see...99% of the populace. 

There were schools in Tudor England, but they were not places where you learned to help the commonwealth. You were expected to study ancient Roman orators and five-star generals like Caesar, so that you could become a power player for the 1%. Are we liking an educational system for the 1%? The outlook of my research does not lighten up when we get to education in the present. Students are assigned a curriculum designed by experts, told to stand up at the sound of a bell, and exit the room. This is not fertile ground for high self-esteem or democratic participation. Another concern in my work is with commoners, the ones who could not read or write, but managed, after seeing much of their land bought up by the Big Tech of the day, Big Wool, to write a petition to King Edward. They wrote a moving petition, calling for economic relief and the end of illegal land-grabs. They were told to go home; very briefly, a minor war broke out, with the commonors facing off against British regulars and German mercenaries. You can guess how that turned out.

In the essays on workers, I try to connect the past to the present. Workers now have little power to ask for economic relief; a waitress who earns a small salary is expected to pay twice the medical insurance premiums that members of Congress pay. And their salaries, are on average, about seven times greater than the hyopthetical waitress (who might be named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez). The title of the book I'm putting together will now have some meaning to many in the Pace Community and well beyond. It's titled The Other Tudors: Essays on Politics and Education for Students and Workers

Academic studies are written for people in the ivory tower. Knowledge circulates within this intramural closet. The essays were written with the hope of opening the academy doors to the vast public, and I try to provoke public debate. Students should be allowed to have some choice in their own education; there should be a curriculum open to their own interests. Workers are generally overlooked in literary study, where the red carpet is laid out for VIPs, but literature can illuminate the lives and frustrations of working class folks—who don't have Shakespearean powers of expression, but do need living wages. The five essays connect the past of Tudor students and workers to the present predicaments of students and workers. I call it living history; others might call is rabble-rousing. ;)

What I really want these essays to do is to come up with an action plan. In other words, this is what current students could do to help their own situation in terms of an education that's responsive to their needs. 

You’re talking about themes that were applicable both in Tudor England and today. What’s an example of one?

I look at an early comedy by Shakespeare called Love’s Labour’s Lost. A group of royal women from France come to visit four noblemen. The four royal ladies explain their financial-diplomatic mission. "Your father never repaid a loan to my father, the King of France. You really need to repay that loan!" The four young men, lacking financial record-keeping skills, stare at the women. Then they start to send them sonnets.  

These are young people, they have no training in finance! So what I then do in the article is lay out the ways that a high school curriculum might help students become financially literate. Students today have to take out loans, and these loans could be loan-shark quality—the interest is often too high. So the article gets very practical. I want courses where students could learn financial literacy, what that might look like. I also convert the "problems" in Love Labour's Lost to other areas for current, real-world curriculum; the young women and men have trouble conversing. Why not study what successful conversation looks like? One of the characters, a working class girl named Janquenetta, becomes pregnant. How about a literature course in high school that includes sexual education—not just birds and the bees, but boundaries and decision making?

In Love Labour's Lost, you have a comedy of young people who are fumbling around. They recite books, but their life skills are underdeveloped. The article says in effect, "look, we're failing young students because we need to help them acquire life skills, not just book smarts."  

What is your favorite thing about working at Pace?

What I’ve always liked about the Pleasantville Campus is that it has this really beautiful landscape. It has remnants of a previous culture that balances buildings and nature. It has ponds, it has farm animals, it has rolling hills. It’s a campus—meaning that it’s a place where the quietness and comfort of nature focuses your mind and allows you to be calm.

You were a Wilson Center Fellow this past year. How was your experience?

I’m very grateful that the Wilson Center approved and funded my grant proposal. My application was about helping students become active civic agents, in helping take part in democratic processes. Though I've read and amired Walt Whitman's Democratic Vistas, I had to learn about this as much as the students I worked with. 

My project, called Democracy Entrepreneurs, asked Pace students to look at that tattered, embattled thing—democracy in America. I think we are all seeing how democracy suffers—what things are preventing ordinary folks from speaking up, to be recognized as citizens on the six o'clock news? The grant allowed me to work with some students to identify one problem in democracy and one proposed remediation. 

I had two students who were actively involved. One student, Elsie Yeargin ’21, grew up in an environment where you’re supposed to take part in politics. She had no fear of jumping in. Elsie decided to look into look into reforming the electoral system—she did a field survey on what people think about the Electoral College, and how people would replace it. She did all the fieldwork, and concluded that the Electoral College should have proportional allocation.

What is proportional allocation? Let’s say the state of Florida, one candidate wins 49% of the vote, and another candidate wins 49%the electoral vote should be equally distributed to the proportion of the popular vote. The winner-takes-all system—which was what Elsie was opposed to—discounts millions of votes on the losing side and allocates all of the electoral votes are given to the winner. Elsie argues that this is contrary to the spirit of citizens voting and participating. As a Democracy Entrepreneur, Elsie created exactly the kind of civic reform that takes college out of the ivory tower and into strategic leadership. 

We made a great presentation at the Student/Faculty Research Day this past May.

You are hosting a dinner party for any four people, living or dead. Who would you invite?

My dream table is Medea Benjamin, Bob Marley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and William Shakespeare.