Dean's Update - March 18, 2024

March 18, 2024

Dear Colleagues:

Last year, Barbara Kingsolver won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her novel, Demon Copperhead. Inspired by Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, Kingsolver lays bare the woeful lives of orphans in drug-addicted America. Her setting isn’t London, but southwest Virginia; her critical target isn’t first wave industrialism, but big pharma. Narrated by the grownup title character, nicknamed Demon Copperhead, Kingsolver’s novel is brutal and beautiful.

I’ve thought hard about the realities to which Kingsolver’s story points.

Broadly following the lineaments of Dickens’ story, Kingsolver’s protagonist is fatherless before he’s born, caring for his addict mother by grade school, abused by his stepdad, and motherless by eleven. Assigned one social worker after another, and mistreated by cruel foster families, resilience and a few good souls help Demon survive. But unthinkable misfortune always awaits. About one calamity, he says “At the time, I thought my life couldn’t get any worse. Here’s some advice: Don’t ever think that.”

Yet we know the story goes somewhere because Demon survives to tell it with honesty and perspective. Late on, he says, “I’ve tried . . . to pinpoint . . . where everything starts to fall apart. . . . But there’s also the opposite, where some little nut cracks open inside you and a tree starts to grow.” That tree’s beauty—the miracle of Demon Copperhead—is very much worth beholding. 

Kingsolver tells us for whom her heart-wrenching novel is written. It’s for “the kids who wake up hungry in those dark places every day, who’ve lost their families to poverty and pain pills, whose caseworkers keep losing their files, who feel invisible, or wish they were.”

It’s also a book for us. Ivory tower perspective can soften jarring lines of deprivation and darkness. The groves of academe can put us too comfortably distant from desperation, from the heartbreaking suffering of others near and far. Yet views from towers can also sharpen awareness of what’s really going on. Garden walks can help us wrestle with what we’ve seen.

Demon Copperhead calls us to look unflinchingly at realities that call for understanding and moral reckoning. I admire Kingsolver’s insight, conviction, sorrow, and hope that we might do better by our neighbors. I also admire the artistry to fashion characters who are deeply textured and multidimensional, and to write skillfully not only of Appalachian wildflowers, sunsets, and mountain vistas, but tragically debauched lives. The novel isn’t perfect. I regret, for instance, its caricatures of Christians and missed opportunities to portray work such as this and this. But it pays fitting homage to David Copperfield and is most deserving of its Pulitzer.

Horace says to seek truth in the groves of academe. May we do so with diligence and sensitivity, and with openness to all who, like Kingsolver, show us the world as it is and might be. 

Speaking of things that are, may be, and deserve note in the life of the Honors College:

  • I look forward to seeing many tonight for the installation dinner for Alan Jacobs, distinguished professor of the humanities in the Honors Program, as the Jim and Sharon Harrod Chair of Christian Thought. The Harrods’ vision and generosity came together to establish this endowed chair two years ago, and Alan’s appointment was announced last spring. This evening’s event gives us an opportunity to celebrate. In addition to feasting, we’ll enjoy a brief program that acknowledges Jim and Sharon and that honors Alan. Please reach out to Autumn Henneke with questions.
  • One year ago, we applied for a $1.5 million grant from the Mabee Foundation toward fund-raised costs for a new home for the Honors College on Founders Mall. We received it; the grant terms then required completion of all project fundraising within 12 months. I’m happy to say that we crossed the finish line several weeks early, with support from many generous alumni and friends helping us to reach our goal of $7.25 million. This fall, we’ll recognize donors at a dedication ceremony. Stay tuned for date and time.
  • Sarah-Jane Murray, professor of great texts and creative writing, has launched a promising new multimedia initiative: The Greats Story Lab. Its purpose is simple: “to break down barriers of access to engaging with the Great Texts while inspiring awe, wonder, and critical thinking.” Beginning with short videos designed for her course on the medieval French Ovide Moralisé, Sarah-Jane’s efforts have grown to include sight-and-sound-rich videos on Plato, Boethius, and Shakespeare. Wide audiences are intended, including at-needs school districts with at-risk students. She welcomes ideas and collaboration, so take a look and let her know what you think. Very exciting, Sarah-Jane!
  • Congratulations to Michael Whitenton, lecturer in the Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, on competitive selection for a summer seminar jointly sponsored by the Council of Independent Colleges and Interfaith America. Entitled Teaching Interfaith Understanding, the seminar includes 25 faculty members from around the country who will convene at DePaul University in June. Well done, Mike!
  • Congratulations to David Corey, professor of political science in the Honors Program, who is Baylor’s nominee for the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program. In its current cycle, fellowships of $200,000 will be awarded to 30 exceptional scholars pursuing projects to “help Americans understand why our society has become so polarized and what we can do to strengthen the forces of cohesion in American society.” Decisions will be announced next month. Good luck, David!
  • The COACHE Survey of faculty satisfaction and success concludes on Friday, March 22. If you are a full-time faculty member and have not yet completed the survey, please do so before the deadline. The more comprehensive our participation is, the more informative the results will be. At last tally, the Honors College participation rate was fifth among Baylor’s academic units; 4-5 additional respondents would push us into the top three. Contact co-chairs Forest Kim or Gaynor Yancey with questions.

All the best,

Douglas V. Henry, Ph.D. | Dean
Honors College | Baylor University | 254.710.7689