Meet our Staff: Academic Director Spring Greeney
Our passionate Academic Directors have been working year-round to plan exciting readings and discussion topics for summer 2015. In the Summer Sneak Peek series, we introduce you to the educators leading the academics of Great Books this summer, and their weekly discussion themes. Great Books is so happy to be welcoming back longtime Academic Director, Spring Greeney to the Amherst program! Spring sat down with us recently to talk about Great Books and to give us a sneak peek of her themes for weeks two and three.
Themes: Outer Space, Humans and Animals
Sessions: Amherst Intermediate, Weeks 2-3 (July 5-18)
GBHQ: Can you tell us about your life outside of Great Books?
SG: I’m a doctoral student in the History Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I study 20th-century US environmental history. In a sentence, this means that I’m interested in how and why US household energy consumption has skyrocketed over the past 100 years. Is it just convenience that pushed us from clotheslines to electric dryers? Century-old home economics textbooks and mid-century suburban blueprints would suggest that the story is so much more complicated—and surprising!—than that. So I’m trying to piece that story together, and also trying to hone my abilities as a teacher and writer. UW is an incredible institution at which to be doing this work, and Madison is the only US city built on an isthmus. That’s what we call a non sequitur.
GBHQ: Can you tell us a bit about your theme and why you picked it?
SG: This year I’m teaching two different themes: “Outer Space” and “Humans and Animals.” My priorities as a GBSP Academic Director are always three-fold: to give my classes a sense of narrative arc, to push my students to read in a variety of genres, and to keep things FUN. So those are the principles guiding the readings I’ve selected for this summer, everything from Italo Calvino’s gorgeous short fiction to Maya Angelou’s timeless poetry to NASA’s catalogue of manmade objects on the moon. It’s an eclectic reading list, and intentionally so. I value synthetic thinking in the face of eclecticism and prize reading as a pleasurable pursuit. “Let’s entertain them!” exhorts the novelist Michael Chabon, and I couldn’t agree more. I want to create curricula that challenges and welcomes as many different types of students as possible.
I’m excited about my “Outer Space” theme because I think there’s something inherently intriguing about the places beyond our atmosphere. How can we talk intelligibly about that which we aren’t even sure exists in stable physical or temporal form? So reading about outer space means that we’ll get to read classical writers and poets alongside science communicators and astrophysicists. I love blurring the lines between what is the work of the writer or scientist, and we’ll definitely need all the different perspectives that campers will bring to the readings.
GBHQ: Is there particular text you’re most excited to teach this summer?
SG: Gosh, yes. Naming favorite readings as a teacher feels dangerously like picking favorite children as a parent—don’t do it—but if pushed, I’ll enthuse. Speechwriter William Safire’s 1969 “In the Event of Moon Disaster” is one of the more breathtaking historical documents I know. He wrote it as the speech that then-President Nixon would read live, on air, if the Apollo mission had proven itself unable to return to earth with its four crewmembers. Nixon was instructed to call the soon-to-be widows of each astronaut—the crew of the Apollo 11 was all male—and then read the speech to the millions of Americans listening, then to let the Houston command center cut off communication with the astronauts. How’s that for counterfactual history?
GBHQ: How did you first join the Great Books community?
SG: Despite having grown up in Amherst, it wasn’t until I moved away from the area that I heard about GBSP. One of my classmates at Harvard, where I did my undergraduate work, had been a PA and an Arts Elective Leader. She thought I might also like the place and … she was right!
SG: I love the energy and intensity of the first day of morning lectures, but mostly I love the moments you can’t predict: the morning poetry competition at which an 11-year-old camper recites Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” with all the gusto his 4-foot 6-inch person can muster; the moment at the end of a free-write when a student who, despite being in a wheelchair, comes to the front of the class and reads a poem about how “happiness makes you want to jump;” the riotous percussion solo from the PA who had never mentioned his drumming. GBSP manages to encompass so much in just a short week.
GBHQ: Why do you like working with Great Books students?
SG: If the above didn’t express it, I’ll say it here:
GBSP students keep me on my toes. They keep me honest. And they … well, they keep me coming back every summer.