The Life and Pursuits of a Generalist

The Life and Pursuits of a Generalist

TWENTY-ONE QUESTIONS WITH DR. LYLAS ROMMEL

Lylas Rommel is originally from Kentucky. She is a self-described generalist, and the course of her life illustrates this appellation. She came to Ave Maria University nine years ago, where she iscurrently Associate Professor of Literature. She teaches courses on literary traditions, American literature, 20thcentury literature, and occasionally Literary Theory. She agreed to an interview in her office on the second floor of the Academic Building.

1. I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I began with private instruction when I was three, and I was put into a ballet class when I turned five. The studio was a feeder school for New York ballet companies. I started teaching there when I was 13, and when I was 15, I was made ballet mistress, soloist, and regisseur for The Louisville Ballet, which had an association with the American Ballet Theatre. That company sent its choreographers and dancers to Louisville to set ballets and to teach the Louisville company members. I worked with the associate director of ABT, studying choreography with him off and on for six years. I would work with the directors on the choreography, and when they were gone, I would rehearse the ballets and stage the performances. I was really interested in the technical aspects of ballet.

2. The problem was, I got too tall. I was sixteen or seventeen when I had a growth spurt. I was being pushed into modern dance, but I didn’t like it. From what I understand now, modern dance would’ve been good for me. I couldn’t see that then; I was so enmeshed in ballet technique and I couldn’t let go of it.

3. I had to go to college, so that ended that. I went to Loyola University in Chicago for a year, but really I wanted to be dancing. So I auditioned for an experimental dance theater company (The Synthetic Theatre) in Chicago. It was fun and creative. But then my father made me come home and go to the University of Kentucky. He picked me up, physically, from Chicago, took me to Lexington, got me into a sorority, and signed me up for English.

4. I signed up for a ballet class at the University of Kentucky. It was clear that the instructor didn’t know what she was doing. She came up to me during the second class and said: “You look like you know what you’re doing. Do you want to teach this class?” I said: “Do I ever, because you are going to ruin everybody’s knees!” So I taught ballet for three years as an undergraduate. I graduated with a B.A. in English and a minor in History.

5. I don’t specialize. I deliberately did not want to specialize, because I wanted to understand the imagination and how it works. After I graduated, I went back to Chicago and had a really good job with General Electric as a Traffic Systems Analyst. I thought that if I was serious about this “holistic” thing, I had to do it before I got caught up in my work. But where to start? I decided to begin with Greek, and did a Master’s program at Loyola University, Chicago. It was a true intellectual pursuit that came out of my dancing. Dance had an enormous role in Greek culture. Really, what I was doing as a dancer was very classical although that’s not what I was thinking about at the time.

6. I was six weeks away from going to Israel for a year to learn Hebrew, study archeology and live in a kibbutz. My passport was set, and I had my shots. But then landmines were found in the kibbutz. This was 1978, and it never calmed down after that. That was the trajectory I was on coming out of the Classics department—and it failed. It literally blew up in my face. I was up a creek, wondering: Now what am I going to do?

7. I decided to teach high school for a few years. I worked toward a teaching certificate in Latin, and on the side I took courses in Mesopotamian archaeology and Egyptian literature at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago.

8. The department at Loyola had focused on textual analysis, working with manuscripts and emendations. While I was teaching high school English, I realized that I didn’t know enough about literature—what it means. I wanted to know more about how you get meaning out of the text. So I went home to get an M.A. in English at the University of Kentucky. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do; it was exploratory and experimental. For ten years, I read a lot, studied Anglo-Saxon, taught writing, went to Oxford for a term where my tutor was Valentine Cunningham, then chair of the English faculty, worked on a newspaper, was first recipient of the Gaines Center Internship in Higher Education Administration, got a paralegal certificate in litigation and started a pro-bono legal services for a social service agency in Lexington and designed a liberal arts curriculum for two colleges. I was just drifting, really.

9. I knew about the University of Dallas from my time at Loyola. I had a memory that UD had a holistic way of doing things. So after I finished drifting for ten years in Kentucky (teaching at the University of Kentucky and Midway College), I applied to UD for a Ph.D. in Literature. The University of Dallas did, on a much broader scale, the same kind of integrated learning that the Classics program at Loyola had done. It was exactly what I wanted.

10. After I graduated, I taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. Then I was asked to come to Ave Maria University, where I’ve been for almost nine years. Ave Maria was just getting started, and I was interested to see what I could contribute. It was an opportunity to test out what I learned at University of Dallas, in terms of literature and the theory there, and whether it would work as a method of understanding the imagination.

11. My favorite course to teach would be the 20th Century class. It encapsulates everything that I’m interested in, and the kind of demands it puts on me uses everything in my background. It’s an example of the kind of holistic bringing-together that I think is so important. The same thing it true for the American Literature course I teach. There, I’m using a model from the Greek department at Loyola, trying to bring all the pieces of American literature, culture, history, etc. together in a holistic way.

12. The greatest intellectual influence in my life would be Ezra Pound first, and Guy Davenport second. It was through Pound that I thought about literature on my own. In my senior year at Kentucky, we were reading “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley,” Pound’s best poem other than the Cantos. It’s complex, very difficult to interpret, and has a lot of different languages in it. I turned to my best friend, who was sitting next to me, and said: “This is what I’m going to do: I’m going to work at this poem until I understand it.” And I did. That’s what prompted me to do the whole Greek thing, because that was Pound’s thing—you have to go back to the sources.

13. Guy Davenport was my teacher at Kentucky. We connected when I came back for my Master’s degree. He was very helpful to me. He got me to Oxford in 1986 for a fellowship semester. I would meet with him for lunch. He was my mentor when I was learning how to teach writing at University of Kentucky. At the time I didn’t think about it that much, but really the impact he had on me was absolutely enormous.

14. The thing I enjoy most in my office is a painting of Ezra Pound that was done by Guy Davenport in 1963, when Davenport visited Pound in Italy. Nobody really knew Davenport was a painter; it was only after he retired, having won the MacArthur Genius Award, that people became aware of his artwork. Davenport was also one of the major scholars of Pound. I didn’t realize how much the Pound-Davenport connection affected just about everything that I do. Louise Cowan developed the Literature program at University of Dallas after thinking through her experience at Vanderbilt, where she studied the Agrarians and their influence on the development of New Criticism. She invited Caroline Gordon, wife of Allen Tate, to help her construct the program at UD. Since both Tates were from Kentucky and Allen Tate knew Pound, and had been influenced by him, the whole intellectual trajectory of who I am and what I do – the origin of all of that – is Ezra Pound.

15. I love Greece. I’ve been all over northern and southern Greece and the islands. The first time that you see Mt. Olympus, and you realize it is a real mountain, it’s not just myth, you start to see what an imagination like Homer’s is. I like northern Greece better than southern Greece. Everybody knows southern Greece because of Athens and the classical tradition, but northern Greece is Byzantine. It has a completely different feel to it. The people are friendlier because they don’t have the same kind of traffic that comes through the south. In many ways, the north is more rural.

16. In terms of a book making an impression on me, in my second year of Greek, we were translating Plato’s Republic. Reading those first lines in Greek for the first time—I can still feel it as I’m talking. It was the most exciting thing in my life, actually reading that text in Greek and hearing the sounds of the original language. It just hit me, what we were really doing. We were going all the way back, just because of that ink on the page. That you could do that—it just exploded my mind.

17. My favorite film is Fanny and Alexander, written and directed by Ingmar Bergman. I watched it six times this summer when I was at the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute. I love it. It has elements of the tragic but a unifying ending. It’s about the power and the quality of imagination. It’s clearly written by someone who has spent his life thinking about imagination and its representation in film. It’s the last film Bergman made, and he’s looking at the kind of world we’re moving toward. It is beautifully made. And there are two versions of it—a theatrical version (2.5 hours), and a much longer version (5 hours). The longer one’s better.

18. You can’t go back in time. One of the problems of imagination is that we have an ability to experience things that are not necessarily in the present. But it’s an illusion. One of the problems with teaching literature is that kids like to root around in the imaginative world that they create for themselves. When they do that, they are not engaging the literature. They are using it for false emotional purposes. You have to be very disciplined in reading so that you can not only be led wherever the artwork takes you, but so that you can also come back to the outer world. You have to have a very disciplined awareness of yourself against the imaginative world. If that line gets fudged, there can be real trouble.

That’s what that film Midnight in Paris is all about. No slice of history is going to be any better or worse than any other slice of history. You have to deal with what you’re given to deal with as best as you can. The moral issue is how you are going to deal with the reality of now.

19. I like to collect snails. I like the shape. I like the fact they are very slow. This ties in with my favorite mode of travel, which is by car. It’s slow (compared to flying). You’ve got your house. You can bring your own stuff, you are free to come and go when you want. You can see the scenery along the way. You can stop whenever you want.

20. The best gift I have received is a Kindle Fire. I collected gift certificates given to me by various members of my family and I bought a Fire in July 2014. It’s the most amazing thing. I watched everything they have on World War I, I’m working through the Hollow Crown Shakespeare plays, and I watched all of the Inspector Lewis shows. I’m amazed by how much is free.

21. I do the grading for the AP Literature exams every year. There are 1.3 million answers, 2,000 graders, and a week to get through it. It’s like factory work: You come in at 8 am, you get a stack of books, and you work through them. I like being in a room with 2,000 people who teach literature. I meet interesting people. I like seeing where the national standard is that year. The grading is different from what I usually do: the essays are ranked according to a rubric; table leaders back check our work until they think we are conforming to the rubric. It usually takes a few hours the first day to let go concerns about grammar, spelling, paragraph structures, etc., and let the rubric sift out who passes and who fails. It does work and I think the AP grades are fair.