As a postdoctoral student 20 years ago at the University of Chicago, Paul Peppis was teaching an Aristotelian dialogue, Nicomachean Ethics, to a group of undergraduates, when a student raised his hand and asked a question about the perplexing text. Peppis provided what he thought was a reasonable answer. Even now, Peppis vividly recalls the student's reaction to what he said. "He sort of went back in his chair," Peppis says. "You could see that something had happened in his head." Today, in his English literature courses, Peppis tries to cultivate a learning environment where every student can achieve that kind of quintessential "aha!" moment.
When teaching material such as Shakespeare's Hamlet, which can seem distant and intimidating to students, Peppis finds creative ways to make texts relevant by tying the literature to students' everyday lives. For instance, people often think of Prince Hamlet as middle-aged, but Peppis points out, to many students' surprise, that the prince is about 17 years old. Suddenly, students see themselves in Hamlet and their own everyday conflicts appear more akin to the Dane's bizarre family drama—if perhaps less bloody.
Peppis also aids students in gaining a deeper understanding of characters in stories by performing dramatic readings. An accomplished speaker and self-described frustrated actor, he uses his oratory skills to perform tricky texts like William Faulkner's classic As I Lay Dying, a novel narrated from multiple perspectives. By reading dialogue from the book aloud in the voices of Faulkner's characters, Peppis helps students understand the novel, while giving life to complex characters in a way that lifts them off the printed page and into the real world. And, he notes, "The students seem to enjoy it."
Peppis trains his students in the literary techniques necessary to comprehend and analyze each assigned text. Through close reading and analytical exercises, his students develop strong arguments about the material. But Peppis, not one to let his students off easily, challenges their views about the reading by playing devil's advocate, forcing them to think critically and support opinions with textual evidence. By opening their minds to new strategies and ideas that support their claims, Peppis aims for his students to achieve literary revelations. "Even things that seem utterly incomprehensible can become understandable eventually," he says.
Name: Paul W. Peppis
Education: BA '84, Williams College; MA '87, PhD '93, University of Chicago.
Teaching Experience: Lecturer and instructor of graduate interns in 1993 at the University of Chicago. Joined the UO faculty as an associate professor of modern British literature in 1995. Served as director of undergraduate studies from 2003 to 2006.
Awards: 2012 Thomas F. Herman Faculty Achievement Award for Distinguished Teaching
Off-Campus: When he's not listening to jazz records or taking in a new film with his wife, Peppis can be found cheering on the sidelines at his daughter's soccer matches or Skyping with his son at college.
Last Word: "I'm interested in thinking about literature as being a part of the world rather than apart from the world."
—By Brenna Houck