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Professor Michael Agnew Brings Don Quixote To Life

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Michael Agnew
Languages and Literature professor brings Don Quixote to life

Michael Agnew with his class

"I'm certainly not interested in creating intellectual clones of myself, but I am eager for my students to develop the critical thinking skills that will allow them to grapple with the intellectual challenge of confronting the unfamiliar."

Michael Agnew

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

By far the most rewarding aspect of my career has been seeing students develop the kind of enthusiasm for learning about distant times and places that led me to where I am today. I’m certainly not interested in creating intellectual clones of myself, but I am eager for my students to develop the critical thinking skills that will allow them to grapple with the intellectual challenge of confronting the unfamiliar. One of the most flattering comments I have ever received on an evaluation was from a student who said that I made them feel like equal participants in a process of discovering meaning in difficult texts. I am always thrilled to hear unexpected perspectives on a text or issue from my students. In fact, comments from several of my students directly inspired an article I am currently writing on a key episode from Don Quixote. (Yes, they’ll be duly credited in my article for their contributions to my analysis!)

A liberal arts college is the ideal place to foster this kind of thinking and curiosity. At its best, study in the liberal arts and sciences leads one to intelligently question conventions and received knowledge.

Do you have a favorite course to teach and why?

One of my favorite courses is the upper-division class on Cervantes. I enjoy helping students see the sundry ways in which Cervantes contradicts his readers’ expectations and raises fundamental questions about his contemporaries’ (and our) assumptions about society and the world at large. But I also love teaching linguistics and revealing to students the complexities of language and the ways in which it varies over time and within and among diverse linguistic communities. One of my subspecialties in graduate school was historical linguistics, and in the past I have taught courses on the history of Spanish; I have not yet done so at USD, however, and I hope to teach such a course in the near future.

Please discuss your course on Don Quixote. How did you come up with the idea to have your students take a journey through the Tecolote Canyon? How does this journey aid in their understanding and appreciation for the literature they encountered in your course?

My course on Don Quixote is a seminar in which I expect the students to actively grapple with the challenge of reading and understanding texts written over four hundred years ago—in Spanish. The character Don Quixote is certainly not a model reader, since he confuses the fictions of his books of chivalry (legendary tales of the exploits of King Arthur, Roland and the likes) with reality. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that he is an active reader, and one who delights in talking at great length about the books he loves. I intend for my students to develop their own skills as active, critical readers, which is why discussion of the readings is so central to the course. It is, after all, a seminar, a collective intellectual journey in which any one member can lead us down a different path.

The session that we held in Tecolote Canyon was inspired directly by the novel itself. Most of the narrative takes place in rural settings and often in the open countryside on country roads or in the woods. Don Quixote and Sancho meet a host of rural types in their travels—shepherds, farmers, peasants, rural gentry, etc.—and the theme of the bucolic is central to the novel, as it was for much of the literature that Cervantes refers to or parodies. In our modern, urban or suburban existences, we seldom think about our connections to the land around us, but in Cervantes’ time those connections would have been immediately present and familiar for his readers. The climate and ecosystems of southern California recall those of the Mediterranean, and we’re fortunate at USD to have a splendid natural park running along the north side of campus. A quick jaunt to the canyon allows me to point out the different sorts of flora alluded to in passing in the novel (oaks, willows, poplars, etc.), references that would have been familiar to people in Cervantes’ time, who could easily imagine a lovelorn shepherd singing alongside the banks of a creek like the one that runs through the canyon.

The park has a well-tended dirt path running along its entire length that recalls the country roads Don Quixote and Sancho would have been following in their travels. The motif of the road is also central to the novel as a metaphor: The protagonists are travelers, as are most of the characters they encounter, and all are storytellers. The road or the journey is therefore a convenient way to evoke the process, often wandering or digressive, of narrative itself.

Most importantly, by taking the students out of the classroom, I hope to drive home the importance of the idea of experience among Renaissance thinkers and philosophers, who placed new value on evidence from the physical and social worlds that they could observe with their own senses, instead of simply relying unquestioningly on received authority from books. Sure, Don Quixote is a madman who sees everything through the lens of fictional stories, but in another sense, his books of knight-errantry provide him with a pretext to escape his circumscribed existence in a rural village and to experience the larger world. That’s certainly also one of the ideals of a modern university education.

When your family visits, what do you like to show them about USD?

I always try to bring friends and family to the print gallery in Founders Hall, which hosts fascinating exhibitions, such as the one this past spring that reconstructed part of Peter Paul Rubens’ personal print collection. That exhibition in particular was an ideal complement for my course on Don Quixote, and in our visit to the gallery Victoria Lobis, the curator of USD’s print collection, helped us understand how the development of new ways of disseminating images in the Renaissance (woodcuts, engravings and etchings) paralleled developments in the printing press for the dissemination of texts after the invention of movable type in the fifteenth century. The gallery and print collection are a great resource for students, professors and visitors, and I hope more people become aware of all the collection has to offer.

Discussing Don Quixote

Video: Discussing Don Quixote
ContactCiano Ordinola | caordinola@sandiego.edu | 626-320-6391