Anacapa Scholar: Dr. Harper

A scholar of Irish culture and literature joins us for the fall trimester.
All year long, the campus welcomes visiting scholars, artists in residence, and other guests who share their special expertise. Some become members of the campus community for extended periods of time, others are here only briefly to deliver lectures or meet with students. 

This fall trimester, we welcomed a professor from the University of Limerick to the English department.

Visitor: Dr. Meg Harper, Glucksman Professor in Contemporary Literature in English at the University of Limerick in the west of Ireland.

Her current work: 

I’m on a research leave this academic year, and my large project is a sort of biography of a house. It’s the house where my partner Rick and I live in Ireland, which we rent from descendents of the man who designed it just after the turn of the twentieth century. It’s a house full of stories, including a lot of untold stories of Ireland in the troubled nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and I want to tell some of them.

The research I did while I was at Thacher didn’t really involve this project, other than the “letting it stew” part of any creative project. I wrote an article about the Irish poets Seamus Heaney and W. B. Yeats, and I finished it (with beautiful interlibrary-loan help from Bonnie LaForge at the library and also from fellow writer Katherine Halsey, who kindly read a draft). Writing the essay meant a lot to me, because Seamus Heaney was a friend as well as a great poet. He died three years ago, and I felt I needed to do my best in his honor. Living in the great beauty of Thacher was certainly a help to my sorting out my thoughts and emotions. I also wrote and presented (electronically) a paper about Yeats and modern dance at a conference in Ireland.

What she did on campus: 

I taught one section of eleventh-grade American literature, which was great fun! Five members of staff taught on this course, so we formed sort of a teaching team. One of the highlights of my time at Thacher was certainly the ongoing conversations with brilliant fellow teachers about literature and about America: Logan Brown, Katherine Halsey, Derick Perry, and Blossom Pidduck (the head honcha of the course). Another highlight was the students in the class, who bore with me as I swapped college-
level teaching for a term with remarkable high schoolers.

My partner Rick has a lifelong love of national parks, and we had as a goal for our time here to camp at every park in southern California. We made it—to breathtaking, magical wild places, from Sequoia and King’s Canyon to Yosemite, the Channel Islands, Joshua Tree, and Death Valley. I will take back with me to Ireland the beauty of deserts, billions of stars, coyotes howling in windswept valleys, ancient trees, much more ancient mountains, and the deep ocean.

Her impressions of Thacher:

I have heard of Thacher for years from Bo and Julie Manson (Bo is my first cousin), but I don’t think I could have anticipated its uniqueness. The community of young people and teachers (not to mention the nonhuman members of the community, from horses to dogs to mountains to blazing sunsets and night skies) aims to be and is diverse, caring, hardworking, and creative. That people live near each other means that friendships happen far more quickly, and I hope enduringly, than they might do elsewhere. I feel as if I spent my short time at Thacher reveling in the joy of learning, as well as laying the foundations for connections that will endure. The physical setting is stunningly beautiful, which certainly adds to my impression of a place that surrounds students with a nearly ideal place to grow and thrive.

More than one person told me that the horse program is part of what sets Thacher apart from other schools, and I would bet they are right. Other outdoor activities, too, give students lots of chances to challenge themselves in situations that are just this side of being dangerous—just what teenagers typically need.

This autumn was of course colored by the presidential election, a complex and wrenching experience for everyone in the community as well as the nation at large. I was impressed at the thoughtfulness, energy, and compassion of the students as well as the faculty, who reached out to students who were shaken by the unprecedented ugliness of the campaign. Students were keenly aware that they were living through the making of history, and they analyzed political and social contexts as well as their own emotions in often profound ways.

Generally speaking, I was often struck by how mutually supportive the students seem to be, moving beyond their immediate groups and enjoying the company of kids with different interests, of different ages, and from different backgrounds. Speaking of differences, one aspect of Thacher I loved is the presence on campus of young children, whose parents are teachers or staff, and also of dogs, who come to class with their humans. 

Additional thoughts from our scholar: 

My next hope for linking Thacher to my family involves my daughter, Grace Pettis (www.gracepettis.com), who is a touring singer/songwriter who also does workshops on songwriting. She tours in Southern California sometimes, and I enjoy imagining her giving a concert and maybe a workshop sometime.

Our impressions of her:

“Thoughtful,” “caring,” “razor-sharp,” “open-minded,” and “helpful” are just a few of the words that the Dr. Harper’s AP American Literature students used to describe her.
 
One student noted, "Working with Dr. Harper this term has been like a breath of fresh air." Said another, " She has an infectious intelligence."
 
A third said, "Dr. Harper was awesome. Having someone with such an immense dedication to her craft encouraged me to be far more deliberate in my writing. She was particularly careful in terms of word and structural precision, guiding the class to create intelligent pieces that concisely articulated our arguments using some of the rhetorical strategies we covered throughout the trimester."
 
Another told me, "I really liked that our discussions with Dr. Harper wasn't necessarily restricted to and confined by the context on the syllabus. Her extensive knowledge on and expertise in the field of literature allowed our class to explore numerous facets of American literature and history beyond the topics at hand. Her teaching allowed us to explore other fascinating aspects of America and incorporate them in our writing."
 
And finally another junior wrote, "One of my favorite parts of class was when Dr. Harper went on tangents. I don’t mean to say that I enjoyed when we got off topic because then we wouldn’t be dealing with the material we were “supposed” to be learning, but that when we got off topic, we always learnt something new and interesting. Her knowledge of the history of language and culture in general was really astounding and quite inspirational."
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