After nearly 50 years of teaching, Prof. Jonathan D. Culler, English, plans to retire from teaching at the end of the semester. In his time at Cornell, he has been decorated with accolades and has become a renowned figure in the literary world.
“I’ve been thinking of retiring for a while and taken extra leave in the past five years of phasing out of teaching,” said Culler. “I’ve been teaching for 50 years and now seems like a good time to retire, and to let younger generations teach as well.”
Over the years, Culler has taught multiple classes but recalls enjoying teaching a literature and theory class most of all. However, he gave that up to teach “Major Poets” in the past few years, an English class set on deconstructing traditional views of poetry. In teaching this class, Culler wanted to reintroduce poetry to students as something interesting and “not simply a puzzle to be solved.”
Miguel Soto ’20, a former Sun staff writer and an English major, had never taken a class with Culler before but had heard tales of his expertise. When he stepped into class for the first time in Goldwin Smith Hall, however, he was immediately captivated by Culler’s instruction.
“The poems he chooses are ridiculously brilliant,” Soto said. “He will quote poems by heart precisely and can talk about them forever. If you don’t understand, he’ll bring the conversation down to your level. You can see the muses in him when he’s speaking about poetry.”
Culler’s genuine enthusiasm and love for his craft create a sense of excitement in the classroom that resonates with his students.
“It’s obvious from his first class that his passion is in what he teaches,” said Connor Greene ’22, another student in Culler’s “Major Poets” lecture. “His command over the material and seemingly infinite knowledge [are] inspiring for anyone interested in English.
Culler graduated from Harvard University in 1966, then traveled across the pond to England, studying at Oxford University for three years before teaching for eight years between Cambridge University and Oxford University from 1969 to 1977.
“In those days, there was a ‘spirit of amateurism’ that was completely different from the culture that exists there now,” Culler said. “That’s why I came back to America: I wanted a university culture that valued publication, research, and other work of that professional nature.”
Culler arrived at Cornell University in 1977 as a Professor of English and Comparative Literature. In 1982, he became the Class of 1916 Chair, a title which he still holds today.
Since coming to Cornell, Culler has written and edited a total of 16 books; over 200 articles, essays, and translations. He has also been awarded multiple fellowships and was elected a fellow at renowned humanities research institutes such as the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. One of this books, “Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction”, has been translated into 27 languages worldwide.
Despite his fame, Culler remains humble as ever, and is modest about his accomplishments. And even though many of his achievements stemmed from research, Culler’s colleagues say he still dedicates as much to teaching as to researching.
“He’s teaching surface-level stuff when he clearly knows so much more, and he never makes his books mandatory reading,” Soto said. “He’s so unsuspecting, and that’s why I revere him. He refuses to pretend to be anything more than he is as a professor even though he’s seen as a literary master.”
“For all his international fame, Jonathan Culler has been an enormously dedicated colleague and teacher here at Cornell,” said Prof. Roger Gilbert, English. “I would particularly emphasize his mentoring of graduate students in a very diverse range of fields, many of whom have gone on to have stellar careers in their own right, thanks in large part to Jonathan’s generous support.”
But as much as he loved teaching, Culler said he is ready to leave the job behind and looks forward to retirement.
“The unfortunate thing is that it’ll take more effort to interact with colleagues, and I’ll miss the constant regular contact with them,” Culler said. “However, people who have retired say that they recommend it, and I will be looking forward to all the new freedom.”