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Art / Literature

Interview with Professor David Collings: Giving and Receiving in Literature and Life

Outside the white-latticed window of Massachusetts Hall, I witnessed the fall of the last ruddy leaf in November with my Oxford edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in hand. With Professor David Collings, I had my first “French pronunciation” class–The Ravages of Love, a first-year seminar through the English Department. Lost in his soothing voice, we explored the myriad forms of love in both literature and real life. When Charles Bovary’s “Fate is to blame!” marked the end of my first semester at Bowdoin, I didn’t expect it to mark the starting point of my pursuit of literature and an unbelievable friendship with Professor Collings, who has inspired and transformed me in many ways.

I climbed up the creaking stairs of Mass Hall to the second floor with a pounding heart, full of expectations. It was late afternoon and the sky was inky blue, on the verge of total darkness. As usual, he greeted me with an understanding smile and expressed no urgency. As I rubbed my eyes and complained of tiredness, he was as energetic and focused as ever, without any fatigue from three hours of teaching and one hour of meeting with students.

Photo by D. Francis

I took a seat on the comfortable red armchair in front of his chronologically arranged bookshelf. After some small talk, we started the interview.

Professor Collings came to Bowdoin in 1987 to teach English romanticism and British literature, queer theory, and literary theory. Having taught at Bowdoin for over thirty years, he has also published three books (with a fourth one under consideration), two essay collections, and many critical essays. Being a serious and diligent thinker, he is grateful for Bowdoin’s contribution to his intellectual development and scholarly work.

Beyond the academic sphere, Professor Collings has a fulfilling life. Falling in love with his wife, Terri Nickel, reading Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, and travelling to England are his three life-changing events. He loves seeing the fish swim up the stream in the spring, swimming in the ocean in the summer, picking apples in the fall, and eating oysters in winter. He enjoys reading out of his field for the sheer pleasure and curiosity of being a human, reading The New York Times every day to keep up with everything that’s happening around the world, and having moments of simple happiness that “aren’t about accomplishing anything or being important.”

Coming across his third book, Stolen Future, Broken Present: The Human Significance of Climate Change, online, I was enthralled by its unique perspective on the disastrous implications of climate change for human ethics and secular values. Even though it is for the common reader, it has the potent argument, clear analysis, and convincing proof of academic scholarship. At the same time, its deep concern for the human race and emotion impactfully appeals for people to take action. The other two books he has published are Wordsworthian Errancies and Monstrous Society.

More than thirty years ago, the recent graduate from California drove all the way across the country to southern Maine, which was less prosperous than it is now.  He and his wife found themselves three thousand miles from family and friends. The only comfort, I believe, was literature and his wife’s unwavering support. But was it a worthwhile decision to abandon everything once familiar to him? Professor Collings has not had even one moment of hesitation: with a fanatical love for learning, he just “didn’t want to do anything else.”  He replenishes his spiritual wealth by drinking the nectar of wisdom out of books. He believes, “A lifetime reading humbles us greatly; it constantly teaches us how ignorant we are.”

In fact, “humble” is a word that studs his speech. He mentioned in our previous email exchange that the greatest scholars, whether scientists or humanists, are also often the humblest people, as they realize more of their finitude as they delve deep into one field. Yet sometimes the knowledge of finitude and human limitation is distressing, as one is aware that one is never able to completely solve the riddle of life.

So what is the set of moral standards or philosophy he abides by that keeps him motivated? In contrast to the spaceless and timeless conversation with authors in history, how is he inspired by the mundane, the ordinary, and everyday life? He replied: the philosophy of relation.

Professor Collings believes in giving to and sharing with people and receiving what they can offer. As a teacher and a writer, he generously offers his knowledge, and at the same time receives others’ offering in diverse ways. The reciprocation may not be equal; one “can never keep track of who’s benefiting from the exchange.” Yet he assures us that it is fine because it is “an open process from both sides.” In the act of this mutual exchange, everyone experiences a radical generosity that is deeply humbling and transformative. Life is a web of relationships, including that between people, between nations, and humanity and nature. Perceiving life in this way leads to equal human dignity as each person is vital in this net of connection and holds a potent position in the life of others.

As building relationships is an ongoing project, his pursuit for knowledge is similarly never complete. He enjoys researching unique and niche areas, such as South Asian literature and environmental thought. Beyond the steady diet of literature, The New York Times is a daily read. Familiar with 18th and 19th century European politics, he easily adds a political dimension to his literary interpretation. Perusing philosophical monographs thoroughly, he brings Lacanian psychoanalysis, Kantian rationalism, Hegelian idealism, and Žižekian radicalism into play as well.

His indiscriminate reading habit is represented by the countless quaintly decorated bookshelves in his house. When I stepped into the home where he and his wife live, the first thing that caught my eye was a book by Lu Xun, the greatest Chinese contemporary thinker, writer, and revolutionary. While global literature of different origins occupies bookshelves decorated with pictures and figurines, still, English literature dominates. Organized chronologically, literary books flow continuously from Professor Collings’ to his wife’s study. Many more books that cannot fit in the shelves are piled high on the ground, with twelve more tubs of books in the basement. Books on birds, travelling, gardening, and cuisine also have their own sections, revealing the amazing life this couple has within and beyond their scholarship.

Photo by Jiankun Wu

Inspired by his wholesome way of living, I wondered what connects everything he does. What is the underlying theme of his work? He addressed my question by mentioning that each of his interests comes out of an overwhelming urgency. Most modern concepts of democracy, capitalism, and literature first came up in the Romantic period and led to the secularity, subjectivity, and modernity that we still explore today. Queer study is “absolutely urgent” because it seeks to understand sexuality, which “can ever be reduced to knowledge or something firmly grasped.” He believes “every person is queer, every person’s sexuality is odd, intrusive, perplexing, and difficult.” Environmental studies also have an obvious urgency when climate change has put the future of the planet and human beings at stake. Yet it is extremely difficult to evaluate its disastrous implications. While he directly combines queer study and romanticism in teaching and research, he finds climate change so challenging and its cultural legacy so profound that it is supremely hard to grasp comprehensively. Having written Stolen Future, Broken Present for the common reader, he is considering writing another book for a scholarly audience. “I still haven’t made up my mind whether I will write that book.”

Having been inspired by Professor Collings in so many ways, I have regarded him as my spiritual role model. He embodies the goodness of literature in his daily action. Benefiting from the transformational power of a good teacher, I asked him if there was a particularly inspirational person in his life. While denying such a person, he confirmed that his love for literature actually started even before college. “I think the book that transformed me was Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, when I read it, a portion of it for a class, in maybe 9th grade. It blew my mind. And after that I knew literature could be great. So, I owe my transformation to Walt Whitman. He’s the one who revealed to me what literature could be.”

Sometimes I feel distressed over the fact that much less emphasis is put on literature in today’s efficiency-oriented world. When artificial intelligence is no longer a pending mystery but a palpable reality, what distinguishes humanity from machines? Do we still need to understand our decisions consciously when we can potentially realize everything in our imagination? In other words, do we need the humanities at all? Full of concern, I asked Professor Collings about his opinions on his field’s supposed existential crisis. He gave me positive responses and argued that such concerns about AI  reveals the significance of the humanities. They teach us to fully grasp the importance of science and technology. He finds AI fascinating because for a machine to truly behave like a human, it has to possess human qualities, which can only be programmed into them by someone who has a thorough knowledge of humanity. He believes it has to be a “philosophically nuanced person” who could finally bring out the full potential of technology. In his view, artificial intelligence is the harmonic amalgamation of humanities with science and technology.

The conversation moved on with my occasional digressions. Professor Collings generously accepted my whims, replying with either a sophisticated response or light-hearted laughter. We proceeded to talk about his relationship with students at Bowdoin. Taking a class with him for two consecutive semesters, I know he is not only a keen-eyed observer and fabulous facilitator in class, but also gives specific and insightful comments on papers. This close-knit student-teacher relationship has benefited my writing skills and taught me to enjoy grappling with complex ideas. Yet when humanity can only know so little when confronting literature’s infinite offering, why does he constantly encourage us to formulate our inevitably less-than-solid arguments? He answered my question by stressing that encouragement is essential for Bowdoin students to learn quickly: apart from challenges, students need encouragement, support, and helpful comments. The ethos of Bowdoin, he believes, is to “push people hard and give them a lot of support at the same time.”

Going forward, I sought his general advice for students interested in the humanities. He prioritized close reading, comparing it to patient listening. He acknowledged the challenge of not imposing our thinking on the text, but allowing its inner layers to surface slowly. While we tend to come to certain conclusions about a passage in haste, Professor Collings argues that we need to “curb our narcissism, read closely, and be patient enough to hear someone else’s thought.” In his mind, details and peculiarity are the keys to interpretation. Moreover, close reading is a necessary skill across disciplines: in the humanities, it bridges people’s thoughts and feelings; in sciences, it provides a more precise and accurate way to deal with data and findings. “Close reading may simply be what we teach at Bowdoin in general.”

I then asked him about how students might get the knack of leading a successful life, despite the different definitions for “success.” He told me that instead of thinking about the career potential of an area of study, “ask if it will open up areas of life to you that you don’t know already, or if it will change you in some fundamental way.” He believes students should be deliberate in the process of choosing classes and consider not just their difficulty but also whether they will challenge their beliefs. (This comment reminds me of his Convocation Address in 2004, about the importance of a “deep play” attitude necessary to thrive in college.)

The interview ends, but his story will continue. We still keep a regular email correspondence, talking about study, books, life, and more. Sometimes I see him as a lonesome traveler, with a fierce will to engage with lifelong learning, to surpass who he has been. Yet he is not lonely at all: his patient attention, determination to widen the interpretive dimensions of literature, and unwavering belief in everything he does give him the ability to build meaningful connections with others, regardless of age or nationality. One of my favorite sayings in Chinese is “Friendship between men of virtue is as light as water, yet affectionate.” It means that the relationship between people of high ethical standards is not cheesy or cash-driven–it is plain like water yet runs a long and steady course. This saying encapsulates my relationship with him and his relationship with life–not over or little, but elongated and powerful, like the force of water dripping on stone. As Max Weber argues regarding the importance of academia in his lecture on Science as a Vocation, I believe we should all undertake study as a vocation: even though there is no end in learning, simply knowing one can always learn is the best thing that life offers to us.

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P.S. For a book recommendation, Professor Collings thinks highly of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated by Richard Rothstein, published in 2017. He appreciates the book for its commentary on the segregationist policy imposed by the federal government on American housing in the 20th century and how it severely disadvantaged African-Americans as a matter of policy. This policy of housing discrimination openly defied the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution as well as congressional civil rights legislation passed in 1866. It provides a well-supported examination of the federal policies today when the fight for desegregation in the United States remains ongoing.