Stephen Schuler grew up among the cornfields of northern Illinois where he was homeschooled. The more he learned, the more he wanted to know. That’s easy enough when the world lies at your fingertips waiting to be explored – one page at a time.
“I grew up reading the Bible, along with lots of books from the local public library,” said the University of Mobile professor of English. Now, as director of UM’s Honors Program, Schuler shares with students his passion for exploring literature, philosophy and theology.
We asked Schuler what makes UM’s Bachelor of Arts in English, Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, and Honors Program stand out – and why it’s not always a bad thing to have a tree fall down in a hurricane.
Q: How did you become an English professor?
A: After a year of community college, I went to Grace College in Indiana where I met my wife and graduated with a degree in English Secondary Education. But after student teaching, I decided that teaching high school was not for me, so I went to Baylor University in Texas and earned my Ph.D. in English. There I not only learned about literature, but also about theology and philosophy.
Q: Who is your favorite author and why?
A: My dissertation studied the ways in which a modern English poet, W. H. Auden, picked up and used concepts from St. Augustine’s Christian classic, “The Confessions.” I first got interested in Auden in probably my senior year of college. I heard an interview with Auden scholar Alan Jacobs in which Jacobs read out a long prose passage from Auden’s Christmas poem, “For the Time Being.” The passage was funny and thought-provoking, and it moved me so much that I replayed the cassette tape several times so I could write out the passage longhand. Auden, I knew, was someone I needed to keep track of. I loved the fact that Auden was both a serious poet and a thoughtful Christian — though, I hasten to add, his personal life was often a mess. As it turned out, a lot of Auden’s admirers in the world of poetry really do not understand his Christianity, so my dissertation was a small attempt to uncover the theology that informed some of the major themes of his poetry.
Q: Why should someone choose to study English at the University of Mobile?
A: In the University of Mobile English program in the College of Arts and Sciences, we read great books together. We read novels, epics, plays and poetry. Our students are friendly and mutually supportive, and we cultivate real-world skills like clear, effective writing and oral presentation. Our classes are very discussion-oriented, so we learn to listen carefully, think critically and respond respectfully to what other people have to say. We are intentionally cultivating a love and reverence for the written word, both past and present. We offer courses in older literature, from Medieval literature and Shakespeare to Victorian novels, but we also have a creative writing major that emphasizes contemporary work.
Q: What is your favorite class to teach?
A: My favorite course to teach is usually the one I’m teaching right now! In my British Literature survey courses, I get to lead students from the earliest Anglo-Saxon poetry right up to the end of the 20th century, and we learn not only about the works themselves, but also about their historical context. I love teaching Shakespeare, who is still such a readable, moving author even though his plays are over 400 years old. But I think one of my best classes is my senior-level course on John Milton, in which we read all his major works, especially “Paradise Lost.” A lot of my recent scholarly publications have focused on Milton, so in that class I get to integrate my teaching and my research.
Q: What do students learn in the UM Honors Program, where you serve as director?
A: In the Honors Program, students and faculty from many different disciplines devote themselves to the study of great books. We read literature, philosophy, theology, and many other kinds of classic texts. Our Honors classes focus on student-led discussions, and Honors students learn to debate passionately in class and then still walk out as friends. A lot of Honors students go on to graduate programs—master’s programs, seminary, etc.—and they often come back and tell us that Honors was the best preparation they had for graduate-level coursework. Honors students are pretty studius, but they also have a fun side. We always end the semester with a big creative project that allows the students to show off what they’ve learned. Sometimes they put on a play or a festival or do a big art project—I really never know what they’re going to come up with next!
Q: What do you enjoy outside of class?
A: I am an avid amateur woodworker. I’ve built a lot of the furniture in my house, and I frequently make wooden spoons and other utensils to sell at local craft markets. I have learned to work mainly with traditional handtools, and I’ve published a few articles in woodworking magazines. I often use wood from local trees, and I get a lot of free wood come hurricane season!
(Learn more about Dr. Schuler’s woodworking at The Literary Workshop Blog.)