HC: We’ll start off with something easy, Where are you from?
Prof. Wilhite: I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, originally. I also lived in Iowa City, Iowa, Durham, North Carolina, and now Albany, New York is home.
HC: Is there any particular reason why you came to Albany?
Prof. Wilhite: I wanted to teach twentieth- and twenty-first century [American] literature at a small, liberal arts college. The opportunity came along when I saw the position open at Siena College and I was lucky enough to get the job. That’s how I ended up in Albany.
HC: How many years have you been teaching here? Have you taught anywhere prior to Siena?
Prof. Wilhite: This is my fourth year at Siena. Before this, I taught for four years at Duke University in their First-Year Writing Program, and I taught at the University of Iowa, where I was a graduate student.
HC: You said that you like to teach twentieth and twenty-first century literature. What is your favorite class to teach?
Prof. Wilhite: Good question. Contemporary American Literature is one of my favorite classes to teach because it allows me to talk and think critically with students about literature that seems closer to their own lives. Maybe a little bit? Maybe not in depressing ways like in The Virgin Suicides, but in terms of time, historically. I think students are more apt to get cultural and historical references with contemporary literature, and I like that experience. I also like to teach the whole span of American literature. In the fall, I will be teaching Literature of the Jazz Age, which is a fun course for me to teach. I also like teaching the Cold War course, and the Survey of American Literature. I like the challenges that the survey puts in front of the students and me, as a teacher, because it gets me out of my comfort zone. All my research focuses on American literature from roughly the late nineteenth century to now, so it is interesting to have to go back and teach Benjamin Franklin, or letters from Christopher Columbus, or Ann Bradstreet’s poetry, or other works of early American literature. But I like it, it is a challenge that I enjoy.
HC: In the courses that you create the syllabi for and are in charge of, how do you decide on the literature that you will use?
Prof. Wilhite: How do I choose the texts? Well, it depends on the course. I’m responsible regardless of the course. For example, in my Contemporary American Literature course, I’m trying to find a representative body of work that gives students the sense of the range of literature and the multiplicity of voices that compose American literature. So we will look at what people may consider more straight-up, white-guy, patriarchal literature like Jeffrey Eugenides or Raymond Carver, but I also want students reading things like short stories by Louise Erdrich, or the collections by Jhumpa Lahiri or Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. I also want to think about different modes of literature and exposing students to those different forms of literary texts, such as Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, Fun Home. So it gives students not only a sense of different voices but also of the different forms that those literary texts take. Sometimes I’m looking for that range, but when I taught the City and American Literature class, I was looking for texts that gave us different lenses onto urban spaces; different ways of how the city intersects with characters and thematic considerations of authors. Therefore, I chose texts that were more central to that approach to literature
HC: Who is your favorite author, what is your book, and has that changed from your undergraduate days?
Prof. Wilhite: It has… I mean, for the longest time the answer was always William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. That was always my favorite work of American literature, and I still think The Sound and the Fury is one of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature. However, as my research interests have shifted, I have made room for other, more contemporary, texts. Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine is one of my favorite novels to teach. I have read it multiple times, and I find it rewarding every time. Jeffery Eugenides’ Middlesex is a novel I’ve taught before, not here but at the writing program at Duke. That is a novel I would like to teach again because it is a good example of the rich, global complexity of contemporary American literature and this sort of vast historical sweep that a number of contemporary literary texts take. And I would add, in addition to Erdrich and Eugenides, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. That is a novel that I have taught a few times [now], and I find it equally rewarding when I go back to it. I think that, for me, is a measure of my favorite literature. I could keep going on, and the more I think about it the more works I would be happy to name. For me though, the key is does it reward multiple readings; can I get excited about reading something for the fourth or fifth time as I prepare for class? If the answer is yes, then that is a great work of literature.
HC: You have spoken of your own research, your publications of scholarly works and your editing of anthologies. Could you tell us about your work outside of the classroom?
Prof. Wilhite: Sure. In terms of scholarship, as I mentioned, I tend to focus on the modern and contemporary novel. I focus a lot on the literature of place, that is what I’m most interested in, and how works of literature, as an aesthetic form, help us to think critically about built and lived in environments. How we interact with the places we inhabit as private and public individuals. Therefore, I am most drawn to works that are set in urban spaces and in the suburbs. I am teaching the Honors seminar in the fall on suburbia in fiction and film, [and] my City and American Literature are good examples of where my teaching and research merge. I have an article coming out [in March] on The Virgin Suicides in Modern Fiction Studies. I have published works on Jonathan Franzen’s The Correction and Chang-Rae Lee’s Aloft. Those are two other novels that focus on contemporary suburbia. I’m currently editing a [volume] called The City After 9/11 which is a collection of essays looking at how filmmakers, novelists, and producers of television represent and imagine the city in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the ongoing war on terror. How [has] our thinking of [urban] spaces changed because of these traumatic, destabilizing, and disruptive events?
HC: You teach almost completely fiction, have you ever tied your hand at writing it?
Prof. Wilhite: Do I write fiction? Not that I’m willing to disclose [laughs]. I think, like every other professor of literature, that we all have notebooks with embarrassing poetry and attempts at novels rotting away in a closet somewhere. And yes, I am guilty of having half finished novels and what I would imagine would be highly [un-publishable] short stories from literary presses that no one would be interested in reading. Yes I also have those around but I don’t share those with the world [laughs].
HC: I believe many people would be interested in your writing. In terms of both fiction and nonfiction, do you find any time or place especially conducive to writing? Music on or off?
Prof. Wilhite: I don’t have music on when I write… I do when I grade, sometimes. That is really a great question. I write in the mornings. I wish I wrote every morning as I used to. I found as a graduate student that that was how I plowed through the very difficult work of writing a dissertation. Get up every morning, pour a cup of coffee, and just sit at my desk for at least an hour writing. You learn quickly in graduate school that the idea of inspiration is a myth and if you want to write you have to sort of clock in at the desk and write. So ideally, I would like to get back to that, but I’ve found that the responsibilities of teaching and service that go along with being a professor at a college are quite demanding so it’s not every day like I wish it could be. I do still write in the mornings. I have a desk that I have been writing at for the last, I want to say, fifteen years. It is a desk that I found abandoned by a dumpster when I lived in St. Louis. A beautiful, old, wooden desk that had been painted over multiple times. It was desperately in need of being stripped down to the original wood grain and stained, and I did that as a summer project. That’s been my desk, and now it has all of these lovely worn-away patterns on the desk top from my years of writing and grading papers. That’s where I write, is at that desk in the mornings.
HC: In your classes you have the students interact or juxtapose with films that relate to the literature. Do you have any that have a more profound meaning because of their connection to the literature?
Prof. Wilhite: I do like Sofia Coppola’s film adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, and I like idea of watching it first, not that it necessarily shapes your reading of the novel, but maybe it draws your attention to some of the more visual, voyeuristic aspects of the novel which I think are important. I think it can be an intriguing experience for students who often times will, with works of literature, encounter film adaptations of works of literature first and then are intrigued to go read the novel. So I wanted to see what that looks like in a classroom, if we watched the film first and then talked about the novel because I do think that that replicates [a] common experience. I also like what I do with Man on Wire and Let the Great World Spin because that draws out some of the historical and cultural context that is important to [McCann’s] novel, even though the wirewalker fades into the background of Let the Great World Spin. Watching the documentary Man on Wire gives us a larger sense of the world in which the novel operates. When I teach the Cold War class, I like to show Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Strangers on a Train. Two very different films, but they deal with some of the same thematic concerns that we are dealing with in the literature about the Cold War era. In regards to Strangers on a Train, [I’m interested in] what that film is doing with the red scare and its association with homosexuality and homophobia in the Cold War era. In terms of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, what it is doing in terms of technology and the notion that communism could turn people into a sort of slave race and how that’s depicted in science fiction and how that plays against more realistic depictions of literature from that era. I like to do that as well, not just showing films as adaptations but to offer a different approach to the same idea.
HC: I know many students struggle with this, so how do you motivate yourself and get yourself to class when you just aren’t feeling it in the mornings?
Prof. Wilhite: Your teachers never struggle with this; we always want to be in class [laughs]! So, that’s a joke [laughs]. Quite seriously though, this is true for me, and I would imagine it is true for many of your professors, that the classroom is the best part of what we do; sitting down with you guys, talking about literature, hearing your perspectives. In some cases, [perspectives] that in turn challenge how I’m thinking about the novel or add a unique perspective that I can work with as we continue the conversation. That to me is the fun part. Sitting down and grading? No one likes grading essays. I like to read your essays, but I don’t like to grade your essays. Prepping for class can be laborious; it takes a lot of time and effort to put together a syllabus and to prepare for class, but getting to the classroom, sitting down with you guys, hearing your ideas. That’s good stuff! I look forward to that.
HC: What do you think of writing organizations like Her Campus that are bringing together English Majors and getting them to do something less formal than essays and papers but still getting their creative juices flowing?
Prof. Wilhite: I think it’s great! I think we need to think about writing across a variety of contexts and platforms. This is something that I actually experimented more with [in the] writing program at Duke, to do different kinds of writing projects, different web based assignments, blog assignments, multimedia essay assignments. It is something I want to find a way to incorporate into my teaching, but I think that organizations like Her Campus that get students writing is great. I am fully in support of that, and I think all writing is ultimately helpful in, as you said, getting those creative juices flowing, but also your critical faculties engaged. You are thinking critically about the world whether that takes the form of a blog, a newspaper article, or a traditional research essay I think that is great. I want to incorporate that sort of thing more often.
HC: Now I have some more personal questions that you can feel free not to answer. The first is about your wardrobe choice. Many students believe that you are a very well dressed gentleman and have an interest in how you select your fashion choices.
Prof. Wilhite: My sartorial excellence? Not a lot goes into it; I dress pretty much the same all the time. This is just my wardrobe; I guess I have no comment on that [laughs].
HC: The second question is, how do you make your hair so perfect?
Prof. Wilhite: No comment [laughs]. [under his breath] I made a deal with the Devil. There is an ageing picture of me in the attic somewhere [laughs].
HC: To wrap things up, What music, artists, or composers do you listen to? Any specific genres?
Prof. Wilhite: I feel like I’ve been listening to more podcasts than music recently. In general, though, my musical tastes tend toward Americana and Alternative. I enjoy listening to bands like Wilco, Son Volt, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and Shovels and Rope. On rare occasions I’ll dip back into The Smith’s catalog. Lately I’ve been alternating between Neko Case and The National as my go-to musical artists. I listen to classical music when I read student essays, and Bach is always first on the list.