A talk about text with literature faculty Steve Blakeslee

August 16, 2018
Steve Blakeslee

Steve Blakeslee ‘86 doesn’t get out much. He says he prefers to stay home and read, which he can do as he prepares for his autumn courses titled On Reading Well, and Writing and Speaking in the Workplace and Beyond. Blakeslee’s mindful leadership benefits many, from an immeasurable number of students to peer faculty.

After graduating, Blakeslee taught at Evergreen for five years. Of this experience, he said, “I didn’t feel confident yet as a teacher. I felt like I had to put on an air of authority.” He then moved to Atlanta to join an educational nonprofit called The National Faculty of Humanities, Arts, and Sciences, and eventually became the organization’s Director of Development and Communications. At the end of his nine years working for the nonprofit, he said, “I had a lot more ideas about what I was trying to help students do.”

Blakeslee now guides students toward realizing their own capabilities by creating intense and engaging curricula, and by cultivating a sense of collaboration in seminars and workshops. “It’s what a lot of people need in order to break through their preconceptions about what they can and can’t do.”

Blakeslee summarized a quote from William Stafford, saying that literature is “a way to experience things that can’t be experienced in any other way.” A text can challenge readers and give them growth as they think about difficult ideas and emotions. That kind of investigation often comes up in Blakeslee’s courses.

“Feel first, analyze later,” one of Blakeslee’s mantras, reminds students that the authors of these texts weren’t looking primarily for their work to be analyzed; they wanted to connect with readers.

Michael Mahoney ’19 said about Blakeslee, “Rarely has a faculty challenged personal biases and misconceptions in this productive and satisfying of a way. Steve is a catalyst for self-reflection and open-mindedness.”

Revealing the Messages

“When I’m writing, I love the feeling of something coming out of nowhere,” Blakeslee said. What comes out of his head onto the page occasionally surprises him. Blakeslee fondly recalls the pleasure of getting into what many refer to as “flow.” He believes it’s this flow that can sometimes take a piece to quality. “Other times,” he said, “it’s just a dogged pursuit.”

Steve Blakeslee overseeing two students

The most substantial messages Blakeslee hopes to pass on, however, consist of five words: “Think for yourselves,” and “Wake up.” Blakeslee values that his teachers helped him along his journey, but never told him what ultimately to do. Referring to Henry David Thoreau, he said, “a lot of us go through our lives half asleep. There are so many things happening around us, so many things to notice, so many things that you don’t even know you can do until you try them.”

Out in the World

This past year, Blakeslee was elected chair of the Evergreen faculty, a position that calls for facilitation skills such as keeping discussions civil and productive. “When people get to a good faculty meeting, it’s like good writing. The more self-evident and easy and natural it looks, the more work went into making it that way.”

Blakeslee finds taking on the role of student in his own class just as fun as teaching. He never walks into class thinking he knows everything about a topic. “To do my stuff is to wonder what I’m missing. What points of view am I missing? What assumptions am I making? Everybody has blind spots.”

He hopes these lessons spread into his student’s lives outside of the classroom as well. Inquiry into what is important to oneself is vital for moving through the world, and Blakeslee wants to cultivate a space that allows that inquiry to flourish.

One space that fosters this growth is the last meeting of many of his programs, where students read selections from their own work. “The biggest thing for me in teaching writing is helping people to tell their own stories. I just walk away from those sessions an inch off the ground.”