Ask a college student about a time that changed their life, and they will cite their study abroad experience. Prof. Daniel Schwarz, English — who this year celebrated 50 years at Cornell — is no different.
In his junior year of his undergraduate studies at Union College in the early 1960s, Schwarz studied abroad in Edinburgh for one year, a time he called a “turning point” in his life.
“I think being in a different environment gives you the chance to look at yourself more objectively and see what you really like to do,” he said. “I got a sense of myself not only as a student and an intellectual but also as a human being.”
Studying in postwar Europe, Schwarz found himself experiencing a unique historical moment firsthand.
“The shadow of World War II and the Holocaust was very much in Europe. I had a great historical sense at that point. I began to think of the world in a much larger sense and I thought about what I wanted to do in that world.”
His “passion for teaching grew gradually,” and he knew by the end of his senior year that he wanted to pursue a Ph.D.
Since 1972, Schwarz has been teaching ENGL 3500: The High Modernist Tradition, a course about modern literature in the first half of 20th century. The class has grown and changed over the years, evolving with classes from over 100 students to a smaller course with enrollment currently capped at 30 students. Schwarz said he finds the smaller format more intimate, as he is able to sit with students around a table and engage with them one on one.
“I have a mantra when I teach,” Schwarz said. “It’s called ‘always the text’, which means close reading, and ‘always historicize,’ which means put those books in context.”
In the class, Schwarz and his students examine “the way the literature changes and evolves in response to historical circumstances” and “the process by which a text shapes the reader.”
Schwarz also teaches a course on James Joyce’s Ulysses. “Once in a while,” Schwarz said, a student comes to take that course whose father or mother took the course.”
Outside of the classroom, Schwarz is a prolific author and a public intellectual, having written 18 books to date.
Reflecting on his time at Cornell, Schwarz noted changes he witnessed occurring on campus. Increased diversity in the student body in terms of race and gender, he said, was a major change.
“When students from the 70s and 80s come back they can’t believe the current ethnic diversity,” he said.
He also discussed the unique impact technology had on the liberal arts.
“The internet saves you a lot of time in both writing and researching papers,” he said. He cited the advent of word processors as being responsible for greatly reducing the time and effort required to produce a single paper.
Schwarz noted a decrease in students majoring in liberal arts that occurred over time. Stating his belief in the importance of a practical component of university education, he nevertheless argued on behalf of the liberal arts.
“In humanities courses, you learn how to read powerfully; you learn how to think critically; you learn how to write lucidly and precisely; you learn how to speak articulately. That’s why you should take small liberal arts courses,” Schwarz said. “Small liberal arts courses also teach you to participate in democracy. The give and take of ideas takes place in small liberal arts classes. What liberal arts does is teaches you also to think about people, about how people function, and about historical cause and effect.”
Schwarz advised students to embrace the “privilege and pleasure of reading and learning.”
Schwarz said that although today’s students have many preoccupations outside of the classroom, he still thinks the “college years are a treasure and the process of learning can and should be a joyful experience.”
“I love reading, I love spending time alone,” Schwarz said. “I love thinking and I think we don’t want to diminish that part of college too much. We may overemphasize the importance of nonacademic activities.”
Schwarz said his proudest accomplishment was witnessing the transformation of his students into contributors to society and participants in the world. “Teaching and learning are an invisible chain,” he said.
“What I give, you give to somebody else.”