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J.M. Coetzee at Penn State

As the temperatures begin dropping, the leaves burst seemingly overnight into those fiery colors that remind me of jumping in huge crunchy leaf piles as a child, and the morning air turns crisper during a State College October, the days get a bit crazier for the graduate students of the English department. The thrill of teaching new groups of students, immersing ourselves in new seminars, getting to know new professors, exploring numerous possible projects and interesting ideas, starts to fade slightly into the crunch of the mid-semester, when we are settling into a sometimes hectic routine.

But then, a special event causes us all to pause in our tracks, to collectively inhale, and to remember the passions that brought us here in the first place. The IAH presentation of its medal of honor to South African novelist and Nobel Prize recipient J.M. Coetzee this past week was one of those events. Students and professors from the English department occupied almost the entire middle section of the State Theatre, and the buzz of excited chatter beforehand was invigorating, a reminder of how strongly connected the English community is here. Hearing Coetzee read the first chapter of his forthcoming book The Childhood of Jesus, his quiet, measured voice casting an almost musical spell, I felt a renewed sense of certainty that what we do matters, that teaching and writing and literature make a difference, and that people from across the Penn State community are in this incredible educational endeavor together. And I think, judging from the looks on the faces around me, that many of us felt the same way, impassioned, fired up to go home and take one of his books down from our shelves.

In the first half of October I also attended three readings by world-renowned poets, a talk by influential scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, and a lecture at the law school about the California state prison system that felt far outside my field of expertise. Each of these events brought fresh new ideas to my attention, ideas that as they have quietly percolated are influencing how I look at the teaching and research I am doing. The combination of these special visits, talks, and readings with the casual everyday conversations in our offices and seminars are what make the Penn State English department an invigorating place to live, a place that never lets me get complacent, a place that reminds me over and over—whether through enjoying the simple pleasures of the crisp taste of the early morning fall air, or through hearing world-famous scholars and artists speak—that State College is an exciting location to call home.

Too bad the pre-order for The Childhood of Jesus is currently only available in the UK…