Thoroughly Modern MatzIt was a dramatic move-from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Knox County, Ohio-and Jesse Matz admits he was apprehensive.
"I thought I would feel bored, isolated, and freaked out by rural Ohio," says Matz, an assistant professor of English, who left Harvard for Kenyon last fall. He has been happily surprised, in a number of ways.
For one thing, like most people who relocate from the east or west coast, he has been delighted by the kind of home he could afford here. He notes (and insists he's not exaggerating) that his entire Cambridge apartment could fit into the living room of the house that he and his partner, Assistant Professor of History Jeffrey Bowman, bought in Mount Vernon-and his share of the mortgage is no higher than his previous rent.
Of course, the house is not exactly ordinary. Matz bought one of the historic homes on East Gambier Street, an 1837 residence whose simple grandeur shines through the fussy landscaping and florid add-ons (including a front-yard fountain) installed by previous owners. The floors need refinishing, the kitchen is carpeted, and there are "weird gaping holes where built-in fixtures used to be," says Matz. But he is excited by the prospect of do-it-yourself improvements and has already completed a quintessential professorial project, constructing an ambitious set of bookcases.
Which leads from the pleasures of real estate to the realms of intellect. "There is a lot to prefer about a location like this," Matz says, explaining that, for a professor of literature, Kenyon allows for a good deal more freedom than Harvard, where the hope for tenure lies in "grinding out" highly specialized academic books.
While Matz certainly engages in specialized scholarship, he values the opportunity to "do more adventurous, innovative kinds of writing" as well. For example, he's planning a book about the twentieth-century novel that will be intended for a general, rather than strictly academic, audience-something he says would garner little credit at Harvard. And he has started writing some fiction.
"Before, I was too busy, too stressed out and self-critical" for creative writing, he says. "There's much less stress here, and so I can actually do a lot more. Paradoxically, more would be expected of me at Harvard, but I feel more able to be productive here."
Matz's scholarly interests range widely. He will offer an intriguing course on narrative theory next year ("Why do we tell stories-and why do we do it the way we do?"), as well as a course on Anglophone African fiction. Much of his work, though, has been devoted to Modernism, a period (roughly between 1890 and 1939) when writers, reacting to social and cultural upheavals as well as to major developments in technology and psychology, produced experimental, often very challenging literature.
Originally drawn to Modernism by writers like E. M. Forster, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, he observes that today's students find it hard to see what was so revolutionary, even shocking, in the Modernists' linguistic innovations. But students still respond, he says, to the Modernists' belief, during a time of crisis, "that art can make a difference ... that art can have a redemptive effect."
In the classroom, Matz has been impressed by Kenyon students' "capacity for productive discussion." He elaborates: "I'm astounded by the speed with which we get right to the point; students often are able to take the idea that I had hoped to conclude on, get to it right away, and move on to more interesting topics.
"I'm also really pleased with the way that students are able to make their personal responses intellectually engaging. They don't just discuss the reading in dry intellectual terms, and they don't discuss it on the shallow level of what they enjoyed and what they didn't. Rather, they can discuss their likes and dislikes in rigorous intellectual terms."
The roots of Matz's own love for literature are entangled with a collection of Marvel comic books that he amassed as a boy growing up in New York City. "The writing was quite good," he says, noting that, in addition to immersing him in reading, series like "Avengers" and "X-Men" gave him a strong feel for genre. With a smile, he says, "I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't for them."
The path to Kenyon also led through Hunter High School, one of the city's prestigious selective public schools; and Yale, where Matz, now thirty-five, received both his B.A. in 1989 and his Ph.D. in 1996 (the year he started teaching at Harvard). As an undergraduate, Matz was not only an impressive student but also a fine singer, active in musical theater. He was one of the fourteen men chosen to sing with the fabled Wiffenpoofs, founded in 1909 and one of the first great collegiate a cappella groups.
The intensity of the Wiffenpoofs' schedule-they performed several times a week, toured nationally, and after graduation did a ten-week international tour-left him "a little bit allergic to a cappella singing." At some point, however, he hopes to get involved in singing at Kenyon.
"When I learn to play the guitar," he says, with that smile again, "maybe I'll sing at the Red Door." Asked when that might be, this accomplished, multitalented young teacher says simply, "I'm always beginning to learn the guitar."
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