Episode 5: David Sherman

David Sherman

13 March 2019


[Peter] Hi, you are listening to OpenBook, a podcast by the UDRs for English and Creative Writing in which we are getting to know members of the faculty a little bit better. I’m really lucky today to be talking to Professor David Sherman. How are you doing today?

[David Sherman] Good! Hi.

[Peter] Hi. Thank you so much for joining today.

[David Sherman] Thank you.
[Peter] Great. We are in Rabb right now, in Professor Sherman’s office, and I first wanted to ask, I know that—thank you for being a guest on our podcast today—I know that in the past, you have some experience being on the other side of the table in podcasting. What’s that about?
[David Sherman] That was really fun. So, for a few years, I went around interviewing other English professors, in the Boston area mostly, or wherever I could find them, and researched their work and asked them questions, and I just wanted to get their work out there. English professors have so much to offer readers around the world, but our research as we publish it doesn’t speak to them, so I’m concerned about the disconnect between academic scholarship and the huge world of readers, and the podcast was an attempt to open a conversation. I really liked being on the other side of it, getting people to talk about their work, and people talked about topics that could interest anybody, and it was just about trying people to think about books who aren’t in academia in slightly more theoretical ways. It was great. It was really time-consuming to edit and publish the podcasts. The relationships that came out of it were really fun, but I actually had to stop eventually because it was just so many late nights playing with the editing software, and I’m not an expert at that.
[Peter] What are you reading right now, or what is something maybe that you’ve read really recently?

[David Sherman] Does it count if it’s for a class I’m teaching?

[Peter] Sure.

[David Sherman] This week I’m reading Amos Tutuola’s The Palm-Wine Drinkard, and this is a 1952 Nigerian novel. It’s for my class Magical Realism, and it’s a really original blend of folktales, like oral storytelling traditions, and the novel form, so it’s this narrator, the protagonist, at the age of ten years old, he realizes his best work, like the thing he can do best in the world, is drink palm-wine, and he’s an expert at drinking palm-wine, and that’s the work he wants to do for his life, and he lives in a house where his parents can afford the best palm-wine tapster, tapping the palm trees to get the palm-wine, but the tapster dies, so the narrator has to go to the Land of the Deads to find his palm-wine tapster, because he needs as much palm-wine as possible. So, it’s an episodic, really playful, very inventive and original short novel.

[Peter] So, you’re teaching that class on magical realism. What else are you teaching this semester?

[David Sherman] A seminar on Virginia Woolf.

[Peter] Virginia Woolf, I feel like, is a writer that—she’s everywhere, in so many of the conversations we have. What do you feel is the reason that people are constantly coming back to her and grappling with her?

[David Sherman] That’s a good question.

[Peter] Or, what brings you to that question?

[David Sherman] She’s a very brave thinker. She is willing to go into really weird lines of thought about what makes a self, what makes a human person human, or let me try to put that better. She’s very brave in thinking about how people add up into a self that endures or doesn’t endure, and how we relate to one another across the chasm of those different life stories. She’s a beautiful writer, just stylistically. She’s able to do things with English that are just really graceful. But, she wants to get at the hard questions about how people matter over time. People come to her from all different sorts of approaches, because in her long career, she wrote about pretty much everything from some angle, in terms of fundamental philosophical questions, charged political questions. She wrote about literary history as a sort of aesthetic thinker and cultural thinker. And she moved in and out of different forms—you know, the novels, and the short stories, and the amazing long and short essays about current events and culture. And then she was a beautiful letter-writer and journal writer. So, we have this huge world of writing from her, so people come back to it because it never gets old.

[Peter] When you think of books that have never gotten old for you, can you think of any books that you read when you were relatively young—younger—like, when you were in school— that just stuck for you or that represent some kind of turning point for you when you think about your trajectory?

[David Sherman] Clearly, To the Lighthouse by Woolf was a really big turning point for me, which I came to in college. It was assigned to me in a class in college, and I had never read Woolf before, and at first I really didn’t like it. I thought it was very tiresome, very slow, moody. I didn’t get what was going on. I wanted just different stuff. I was probably 18 or 19. And then it grew on me, just because I learned how to read it more closely and slowly, and it changed what I understood the depths of literature to be able to be. So, that was a pretty important book for me. I don’t know. I think that there should always be new turning points, like every half-year. I would hope that I’m adventurous enough in my reader to have some other turning point. A novel I loved sort of recently—I guess about a year and a half ago—Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, about Jamaica. It really blew me away. So, it was a turning point? Just a high point. I’d say it was a high point.

[Peter] Speaking also about your earlier life, would you talk a little bit about what you were like in high school?

[David Sherman] Oh, wow. That’s a cruel question.

[Peter] I’m sorry.

[David Sherman] Yeah, it’s okay. So, I just wore the same blue flannel shirt every day. So, I didn’t have much imagination in self-fashioning, so I think the only thing that anybody knew about me, because I was sort of quiet, was that I was the kid with the T-shirt, but then always the same blue flannel shirt no matter the weather, and it was ripped, like the elbows were ripped, and it was like a security blanket probably. So, I was sort of a quiet, lurking, blue-shirted presence in high school. I think my teachers liked me okay. I think I really wanted more out of high school than what I got, sort of intellectually or academically or spiritually. It was a pretty bureaucratically robust high school, pretty standardized, and I was just confused most of the time about what the point of any of it was. And I think I was trying to write a little but, but I didn’t have a community for sharing writing, and you can’t be a writer without some quality of community or conversation or exchange or something. You can’t write for yourself privately really and have it go anywhere I think, at least I couldn’t. So, I think I was biding my time, more or less consciously, until there was more flexibility in how people could organize their lives. So, those weren’t my favorite years.

[Peter] At what point did you start to imagine academia as being a space that you could see yourself in?

[David Sherman] My senior year of college, actually. It wasn’t until I was on the edge of graduating and realizing I was leaving the English major where I went to school and going to have to go on and do something else, I started wanting to stay there, started asking my own professors about how they ended up in academia. I was thinking a lot about being a journalist at the time too, just because I liked writing for school newspapers over the years and it seemed like an exciting kind of work. I liked writing. But I wasn’t that good at it. I was slow as a writer, and you can’t be a slow writer and an effective journalist, and I didn’t have the skills to really seek out really important stories. I wasn’t that aggressive or smart about that. So, it was a connection to writing. Academia’s more suited for me. I graduated and then for four years I did other things. I wasn’t in school. I wasn’t in grad school. I traveled, I taught English to people who didn’t speak English, and did odd jobs, I did temp work, and then applied to grad school to get a PhD. I had sorted out, sort of, what I wanted to do. I wanted to go back into libraries and read like ten hours a day and write pretty abstract stuff for small audiences, at least for a while, like the academic, scholarly writing, because the ideas at stake were really palpable for me. Like, it didn’t seem abstract or small for me. The ideas seemed like life forces to me, that I wanted to engage. So, it felt vital to me at that point. But I needed some time to sort it out. I started to imagine it just as I was graduating, and I confirmed that about four years later.

[Peter] Speaking of small audiences, one question I like to ask is, if you could teach a class on any subject and didn’t have to worry about anyone wanting to take it, but just something that you would want to talk about for three hours a week, what would that niche class be?

[David Sherman] That’s a fun question. Maybe a class on Charlie Chaplin. Maybe that wouldn’t be too bizarre, but it would be pretty niche, like one old director. Or, maybe a class called “A Ruthless Critique of Everything Existing,” which is the name of a letter, a phrase in a letter, that Karl Marx uses at a very young age, and he’s anticipating his form of being a social critic, says we need a ruthless critique of everything existing, and I think that would be a good name for a class, and it would just be a scathing condemnation of modernity class. A boutique, niche, weird, small-audience class: I actually taught one of those last semester. I taught, to my own satisfaction, I guess it was an indulgence, it was a class on contemporary elegies. It was called Inventing Farwell, and it was a practicum. It was a class on contemporary elegies, where we didn’t do academic engagements with the poetry so much as creative responses to it. My argument in the class is that we need to be agents in the face of people dying, have some sort of creative agency, and that’s rare in the modern world because death is so institutionalized or medicalized or bureaucratically controlled or commercialized, and elegies are an inspiration for renovating a sense of contact with people at old age or after they die, some sense of obligation to them. It was a small class. The students were amazing, really committed, and it was like a workshop, so I’d like to teach that again eventually.

[Peter] Earlier, you talked a little bit about how journalism had been something that had been pulling on you before you had come into this work. Now, in retrospect, do you think that’s what you’d be doing if you had chosen a different path after those four years, or do you think that you’d be somewhere else?

[David Sherman] No. I don’t think it was ever that likely I’d be an effective journalist. I think, if I weren’t in English, like weren’t a professor, I would’ve ended up being maybe a psychoanalyst, because it’s like another form of interpreting texts. The text in front of you is the person, where you’re putting together clues or reading symptoms or telling stories or figuring how stories are being put together. There, you need a deep ethics to help people in their suffering, and one of the themes of my writing about literature is the ethical function of literature. I think if I would’ve been lucky enough to have gotten the training and done well in it, if I couldn’t have been an English professor, something like a psychologist or psychoanalyst is something I could imagine.

[Peter] What is one piece of media that you’ve been recently consuming, or actually consuming at any point in your life, that you think has a particular insight into who you are as a person? It could be a book, or a song, or anything.

[David Sherman] Yeah. So, can it be sort of weird?

[Peter] It can be very weird.

[David Sherman] Okay, so, I’ve watched—I think at this point—every Rick and Morty, because I find it useful for decompressing. I like it. I think it’s not just I like it, it does say something about me because I’m really interested… do you know Rick and Morty?

[Peter] I’ve seen a little bit.

[David Sherman] Okay. So, it’s like a ridiculous cartoon.

[Peter] Yeah.
[David Sherman] But the thing is, it’s actually sort of smart. The scientist grandfather guy, Rick, he can explore alternate dimensions, and as it happens more and more, as the episodes go on, there are infinite dimensions with Rick and Morty in them. They all become replaceable in their plotlines in which you’re not sure in the anchor universe, the anchor Earth, the anchor Rick and Morty, if they’re actually the same person or not. It’s sort of like if you were cloned and then your clone replaced you and then you were taken out of the picture, would it matter? Does it matter if it’s you or a simulacrum of you living your life, even when the person there doesn’t know whether they’re the original or the alternate? So, they make that pretty weird and creepy and funny at the same time. I’m haunted by ideas of replaceability of persons, I think, or multiplicity of identities, and so the show’s sort of funny but I think it actually says something a little bit about me.

[Peter] It’s also cool that something can be both a space of haunting but also a space of decompression.

[David Sherman] Yeah. Pleasure, definitely. We can take pleasure in some of the things that haunt us if it comes to us in the right way.

[Peter] And what’s some music that you like or that you’ve been listening to?

[David Sherman] These days, I’ve been going back and forth as I’ve been walking to catch the train to come to campus, back and forth—Iggy Pop and Thelonious Monk.

[Peter] Do you have a particular song? One thing I like to ask is if you could recommend a song that could be the outro music to this podcast.

[David Sherman] “Straight No Chaser.”

[Peter] “Straight No Chaser.” Great. That will be the outro to this. And I know that you’ve taught some courses in the popular culture realm. I know last year, you were teaching on romantic comedies. What about that genre feels to you like something urgent to be talking about and teaching?

[David Sherman] So, I think the romantic comedy genre’s amazing. The class goes back to the early 20th century, like early Hollywood rom coms, and then to the present, and so the genre keeps reinventing itself because it has to. It has to reflect the times in terms of ideas about sex, about gender identity, about desire. It’s sometimes more subtle, but just as importantly, commenting on racial reproduction and the way racial identities are passed down through generations through coupling in an American context. So, rom com has had a hard time in the last eight years or so. This is widely observed, just in terms of Hollywood investment. It’s been eclipsed. It was really big in the ’90s, a particular explosion in the ’90s, and then it was doing okay in the aughts, and then in the last eight years or so, it’s been totally eclipsed by the superhero movies, which are so much more easily translatable globally. It seems like they can make a lot more money from the studio’s perspective, so rom coms haven’t been produced as often in the last eight years. One that just came out, which I haven’t seen yet—Rebel Wilson is in Isn’t It Romantic. Have you heard about this?
[Peter] I have, yeah.
[David Sherman] Yeah. So, it’s a satire, a meta-rom com. That’s going to have to be a trend, I think, in rom coms, a self-reflexivity or new complexity in order to recuperate some of the audiences that are sort of familiar with rom com conventions. Crazy Rich Asians was really big last year because it offered a geographical twist to the most popular conventions, and that was a really good use of the formula. Like, if you know rom com formula, they hit all the notes in very dynamic ways, a very robust rom com experience, but it’s not satirical. I’m very curious of how the rom com genre’s going to continue to evolve. My favorites are the outliers. So, it’s a world of great inventiveness. It has a formula, but it’s a really inventive genre, and the outliers are things like Her, which came out a few years ago, where the guy falls in love with his operating system. And I resisted seeing that movie for a long time, because I was like, I know I’m not supposed to fall in love with Siri. I don’t need to see this movie. But, it’s actually this movie that stays with you, like, you watch it and it’s weirdly fascinating. And Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s another interesting technology question, where a technological innovation interrupts human subjectivity, changes self-understanding and love and it’s a totally beautiful movie.
[Peter] My last popular culture question—or the answer to this doesn’t have to be within the realm of popular culture, but I guess just the realm of the popular in general: What is something that you hate but that everybody else seems to love?

[David Sherman] I don’t like the Patriots.

[Peter] Do you have another team you’re faithful to, or is it a dislike of football generally?

[David Sherman] It’s not my sport that I get into. I like basketball. I follow basketball. So, I’m sort of indifferent, but I sort of just don’t like—can I even say this publicly around here?

[Peter] I think that the Patriots have enough skeletons in their closet that there’s a decent amount of Patriots hate going around, that it’s not as taboo anymore.

[David Sherman] I follow in the footsteps of those brave people who open that taboo, and I am not a fan of the Patriots.
[Peter] Describe your perfect weekend, either one that you have experienced or one that you would love to experience, or some elements of it.

[David Sherman] Okay, so this will be a jumbled list of elements. So, I’m not giving the schedule. I’m just giving the elements. There’s a few old used bookstores in Boston I’d like to be able to hit. Like, I’d go do the search through the old used bookstores. Getting to either a play or a movie, and then going to a party, like a friend’s house throwing a party, where I could hang out, eat, drink, and it’s not super expensive because it’s a party at a friend’s house. Going to MASS MoCA would be a really ambitious use of a weekend because it’s a few hours away, to drive out to Western Mass. Do you know this museum?
[Peter] Yeah, in the Berkshires.

[David Sherman] Astonishing.
[Peter] Beautiful.

[David Sherman] I’ve been there once. This would make the best weekend, is hanging out by MASS MoCA, because it’s ten old factory buildings combined and converted into these galleries of installation art of some of the best contemporary artists, so that would make my weekend. Oh yeah, if I could get to a Celtics game, that would be the icing on the cake.
[Peter] On the flipside of my question about something that you hate, what is something that you love that you think would surprise people?

[David Sherman] You don’t think Rick and Morty already covered it?
[Peter] Maybe it did, yeah. I was a little surprised. That’s true.

[David Sherman] I really like telling stories to little kids. So, this is actually another class I teach, Storytelling Performance. It’s about live storytelling skills, and we go over the Lemburg, the childcare center, like the Brandeis-affiliated center, and we perform stories as a class. I have two kids. When they were really young, doing stories, like improvising stories, because the most effective way of engaging them if they’re angry or sad or manipulating them into behaving well or just having fun with them, so I had to develop at least some rudimentary skills as a storyteller. And there’s a special kind of accomplishment in improvising a story that entertains a three- or four-year-old because they don’t lie. If it’s good or bad, they’re just gonna be honest. And I once in a while am in a situation, like with a friend’s little kid or something, and I get a chance to play and tell a story, so that’s something I kind of like doing a lot.
[Peter] What are some of your favorite spots in the Boston area, some places that matter to you?

[David Sherman] I like the graffiti alleyway in Central Square in Cambridge, sort of near where I live. It’s just this alleyway that’s sort of a freespace for people to do murals or to tag. And I don’t really have any skills in that way, but I track what people put up because there’s some really good artists. Central Square has become an area for murals. It’s actually been organized recently by the city to get a bunch of walls and to commission all sorts of street art or sort of murals on the walls there. And I think Central Square is one of my favorite places because of the public art that’s both sort of organized and then just guerrilla, like people can go and take a space on that wall. They have to cover up the person that was there before, but I think that’s the etiquette, and you can do it after a day or two, you can go, and sort of in this palimpsest, share your creativity with paint and the world. So, I think that’s one of the places I like a lot, just walking around.
[Peter] We’ve asked some questions about your past and present, so the last few questions I want to ask are thinking a little bit about the future, or outside of that time. First, what are some hopes that you have for Brandeis, or some things that you would love to see happen either with your work here or with the department or even beyond that?

[David Sherman] Well, one big hope I have, both for the department and for the humanities at Brandeis more generally, is that we find ways to be more public in our work, that we figure out ways to engage communities outside of our classes and our scholarly communities. The humanities really matter, or the history of literature and art and philosophy really matters, like for people to use. People can use this stuff for figuring out anything that’s going on in their lives. And I think it would be great for us to be a part of more conversations with more people about our work or about the way they deal with this history we really care about. So, the public humanities is what I’d like to see happen at Brandeis.
[Peter] My next question actually was about that more broadly. We talk a lot about the fate of the humanities, and it’s often talked about in a sort of extreme way, and sometimes in a kind of tragic way. How do you talk about it, or how do you think about, and what kind of advice do you give to students who really care about the humanities but are anxious about it?

[David Sherman] Well, the humanities are alive and well in the world. The academic humanities are sort of insular and cut off. People are reading and writing and making music and performing theatre and creating amazing things all around us all the time, and they don’t need academics to do it, but we need to find ways to participate in that beautiful work. That’s the basic idea of making academic humanities sort of relevant, is finding ways to participate in civic creative life. I would tell students who want to do this sort of academic or research work, who want to keep studying: Like, do it. Like, do it, because there’s so much to learn, and the ideas are so exciting. But, have your gaze in two directions: one is towards the library, towards the seminar room. One’s really esoteric. But at the same time, think about how what you’re thinking about or talking about matters to people who are in other spaces, and that’s a skill that I wasn’t required to develop, just because when I trained as a humanist, there was no talk about the public humanities where I was. I just had to be a kind of scholar. But I don’t think there’s any way to maintain the humanities in universities as just this scholarly enterprise for the long term. So, we’re relying on younger people to invent that connection. Really, these things have to be invented now.
[Peter] And even outside of thinking about the humanities, my last question to you is, just looking back to either your time in college, or the college students that you’re teaching now: What is a piece of advice generally that you wish you could just instill in all of us?

[David Sherman] Just, any piece of advice?

[Peter] Any piece of advice.

[David Sherman] I guess my piece of advice is to always find ways to create communities of readers for things that you value. My more specific version of that picture is, my more specific piece of advice, is read poetry. Read contemporary poetry. There’s so much great contemporary poetry, and read it with friends, and get together and have dinner and have a few drinks and share the language with each other and make these books come alive. The poets amongst us are the activists of the imagination. There are so many poets who are putting our best ideas in the best language, the ideas that will help us resist the worst that’s around us, and reading poetry and reading it with others… that’s the advice I guess I’d give.

[Peter] Thank you so much. I think that’s a very beautiful note to end on, and I really appreciate your time today and this conversation.

[David Sherman] Well, thank you.

[Peter] Thank you. Have a great day.

[David Sherman] You too.

OUTRO: Thelonious Monk’s “Straight No Chaser”