WestConn students hit the road to learn about literature

DANBURY, CONN. — By retracing the footsteps of some of the country’s finest writers, students at Western Connecticut State University are becoming road scholars. A new course offered to WestConn undergraduates, “Road Scholar” takes students out of the classroom to learn more about the lives of famous authors and playwrights who helped shape American literature by visiting their homes in and around Connecticut.

“As professors of American literature, we felt that WestConn is ideally situated in the very heart of the region in which American literature came of age and announced its presence,” said WestConn English Professor Dr. Margaret Murray, who came up with the idea for the course with English Professor Dr. Donald Gagnon.

In Hartford, the students visited the homes of Mark Twain and neighbor Harriett Beecher Stowe. Stowe is best known for her anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

“The officials at each site were complimentary about the students’ reading, their experience with the texts, and their familiarity with the cultural and literary significance of the works and authors,” said Gagnon. “They all realized the value inherent in making the authors and their works tangible, the product of not only genius but also of rich humanity. Our docent at the Mark Twain house even said he’d like to register for the course!”

The setting for playwright Eugene O’Neill’s “A Long Day’s Journey into Night” is based on the living room of his home in New London. As WestConn student Dusty Zima walked through the home shortly after reading the play, he said it all came alive for him.

Zima, who will return to WestConn as a graduate student this fall, said the trips added to the experience that the reader has with an author — more than just reading.

“On the surface, it wouldn’t seem like you get much,” said Zima, who graduated in May. “But you see the things that inspired this play. O’Neill’s New London home is where ‘Long Day’s Journey’ takes place. It’s believed to be inspired by the living room — to feel how small it is, especially with three kids. You really feel that it’s his own work.”

The undergraduate course focuses on several classic authors who lived within a few hours from WestConn. It gives students the opportunity to study great works of literature in the milieu in which they were created and to appreciate the personal, social and historical synergistic forces that helped shape these works.

“You get a much more hands-on, tangible feeling of what the authors were trying to say in their work by visiting the places where they lived and wrote,” said Zima. “It’s a quite different thing to walk around where these authors lived. That’s something you can’t see in the classroom.”

Visits included the Massachusetts homes of Edith Wharton, author of “The Age of Innocence,” and Herman Melville, who wrote the classic whaling tale, “Moby Dick.” Students were required to read one or two works from each of six authors and write several response and research papers. Classes were held twice a week on campus.

“Most of what we read was social commentary works, so it’s important to know how they lived,” said Zima. “It’s surprising how little people know about the authors’ personal lives and that was the whole conundrum of the class — did that help or hinder with the interaction of that author’s work? I think it’s helpful to know about the author’s life. It’s important to know what was going on in the culture when they were writing.”

Zima said it was a great all-around experience, as the students would bring lunches and talk about the readings during lunch or while riding to the different homes.

“It was a classroom from the minute we left WestConn — it was like a traveling classroom,” he said.

Western Connecticut State University offers outstanding faculty in a range of quality academic programs. Our diverse university community provides students an enriching and supportive environment that takes advantage of the unique cultural offerings of Western Connecticut and New York. Our vision: To be an affordable public university with the characteristics of New England’s best small private universities.

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