By Cheryl Toomey, University Relations Graduate Assistant
English students at UTC have the chance to take classes from Allen Wier, an accomplished author, in this inaugural year of the UTC Department of English’s Visiting Scholar Program.
“It’s good for the scholars to meet new students and be in a new place, but more particularly I think that it’s good for our students to get to work with someone who is a very high powered person within their field and also someone who is outside the department and the departmental culture and who brings a different and a fresh perspective to the University,” says Dr. Chris Stuart, the head of the English Department.
The program is intended to bring in scholars from outside of the University to teach one class each semester in the English Department. Appointments will last for two years and would bring in specialists from various fields within English.
“We hope the program can move forward and bring in more scholars, not just creative writers, but scholars in any field, whether it be Renaissance or American Literature or whatever.”
Wier, a creative writing professor who has taught at the University of Tennessee Knoxville for nearly twenty years, is no stranger to Chattanooga – he has participated in the Meacham Writer’s Workshop, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, the Southern Lit Alliance’s Celebration of Southern Literature, and he’s given the George Connor Lecture.
“Over the years, I suspect that I’ve given more talks and readings and been on more panels in Chattanooga than any other city in the country,” says Wier. “I really like Chattanooga.”
Wier is a widely published and well-reviewed author. He has published four novels: Blanco (1978), Departing as Air (1983), A Place for Outlaws (1989), and Tehano (2006). He has published a collection of short stories, Things About to Disappear (1978); edited an anthology, Walking on Water (1996); and co-edited a collection of essays on style in contemporary fiction, Voicelust (1985). He has been published in numerous magazines including The Southern Review, Five Points, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, and The New York Times.
“Our students get the special opportunity to work with someone who already has a long career and several well reviewed novels and very fine short stories,” says Stuart, “There are some things Wier can do in the classroom and some experience he can draw on that none of our fiction writers can quite do.”
In 2001, Wier was voted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers and has since served on the board and been elected Vice Chancellor and later Chancellor. He has won numerous awards, such as the John C. Hodges Chair of Teaching Excellence, the Chancellor’s Award for Outstanding Research and Creative Achievement, and the Robert Penn Warren Award for Fiction. The English graduate students at UTK elected Wier the department’s “most outstanding professor in the classroom.”
“We’re really happy that Allen Wier is here. He’s a really gifted teacher and I hope that as the Visiting Scholar Program continues, the department continues to seek out people that are not only well published, but also great teachers like him,” says Stuart.
Wier enjoys the opportunity to meet the English students of UTC.
“I’ve done a lot of short term residencies, from a week to a semester, and the most fun is meeting the young writers in the program. It’s kind of neat to realize that there are these little pockets where people are creating a different atmosphere in which poems and short stories and novels can be written with different local interests. I’ve benefited from that. You gain a little more diversity and a sense of energy from all those different places,” says Wier.
This semester, Wier is teaching an advanced fiction writing workshop consisting of nine undergraduate students and five graduate students, not all of whom are focusing on creative writing.
“I’m impressed by the quality of work of the students in my class. I think this group is one of the nicest groups of people I’ve ever had. Genuinely, I look forward to being with them. We have a lot of fun laughing and joking, which doesn’t mean we’re not serious about our work. I love Ezra Pound’s dictum, ‘Gloom and solemnity have no place in the study of literature intended to make glad the hearts of men.’ So we take writing seriously without taking ourselves too seriously,” says Wier.
In addition to teaching classes, visiting scholars also give public presentations, such as lectures or readings relevant to their field. These presentations are free and open to the public.
“It’s partly about community involvement, and not just about teaching our own students. So every time we were to bring in a visiting scholar, it would be partly about the involvement aspect of that as well,” says Stuart.
Wier has done two presentations this semester. The first was a public lecture on the habit of the craft of writing. The second was a reading from his novel, Tehano, at the Meacham Workshop.
“In the lecture, I talked about the relationship between fact and fiction and the notion that sometimes you have to alter the facts to get to the truth. So it was anecdotal and more philosophical than technical. It was followed by a lengthy Q&A because I wanted to interact with this community and I wanted writers in the audience to have a chance to let me know what they wanted to talk about too,” says Wier. “There were a lot of great questions. I had a good time and I think that if you’re giving a talk or a reading and you’re having a good time, it’s probably a pretty good deal.”
Wier also emphasized the potential benefit a visiting scholars program could have for the entire University.
“Not only do visiting writers bring a different kind of energy and perspective to UTC classes, they go back to their institutions and communities and talk about their great experience here,” explains Wier. “When I go other places and people ask how I’m liking UTC, I say that I’m loving it. If visiting scholars go back to their own universities and speak highly of UTC, it will have that kind of nice ripple effect. And it’s beyond advertising, because it’s personal,” says Wier.
The Visiting Scholars Program was initiated by Dr. Joe Wilferth, the previous department head, with support from the UC Foundation.
“Wilferth started an alumni organization and that organization, along with the UC Foundation, was able to bring Allen Wier to campus,” says Stuart. “He wanted to bring a fresh perspective to the English department so students get an opportunity to take courses with professors from outside who already have a strong national reputation.”
The English Department is hopeful that the Visiting Scholar Program will become a permanent fixture.
“Whether or not this program continues is contingent upon funding, whether we manage to secure a grant and whether we can convince the UC Foundation and private donors to fund it,” says Stuart.