Leonard Podis has been a faculty member at Oberlin College for over 30
years. He is currently the head of the newly created rhetoric and composition
department, which previously was a program supervised by the English
Why did it take so long to come into department-hood?
The history of it
is that it actually split off from the English department. It was spun off when
the writing requirement was created in Oberlin in 1984, and it also had some
connections to the student support services (LAS). Writing requirements were
being filled both in English and LAS, and then a separate writing department was
launched. That was roughly 20 years ago and the way it was set up with its own
mission, it was made a program. It took many years to get a stable staff —
initially it only had one faculty member that was permanent — and we kept
trying to build the program and do our job well and apply for more permanent
staffing. We reached a certain longevity and stability and size and we decided
that we were mature enough to govern ourselves. (A program has an advisory
oversight committee, and a department is self-governing; so that’s a big
advantage.) We came of age, so to speak.
We still don’t have a major, which is unusual [for a] department, but
we feel that our resources are best used helping students at the introductory
level to prepare for their writing careers at Oberlin.
You are supervising/coordinating the Writing Center this semester. Are we
going to be seeing any changes?
Well, we’re trying to buy a fan this
year — just kidding. We held a meeting at the library and we’re
hoping for closer collaboration between reference librarians and the writing
tutors. We are persuing this because the writing center has always been in Mudd
but in a way it’s only used that space; it hasn’t been connected
much to library resources. So we are talking to Cynthia Comer about trying to
establish stronger ties so that tutors could refer students regularly to
reference resources, and so that the Library would also promote and refer
students to the center.
Tell me about your book Neither a Dark Night of Savagery nor a
Technicolor Idyll: Ongoing Dialogues in Modern African Literature
I’m working on that with Yakubu Saaka. We’ve succeeded in
completing the first chapter, which sets out a general vision of the way that
dialogues unfold in African Literature. We figured as long as we had a chapter
finished we could send it out as an article, and it’s actually been
accepted by a scholarly journal, the name of the journal is The Litarary
Griot, which is a refereed publication. We’re still working on the
other chapters; it will probably be a while before it’s finished.
You’re also teaching a FYSP on Coming of Age in African Literature.
How did you get interested in African Literature?
I got into African
Literature through my friendship with Mr. Saaka. We decided it would be good to
do an interdisciplinary course for the Oberlin-in-London Program, which has
since been suspended. Mr. Saaka’s specialty is African politics and
cosmology and I had a lot of training in literature, so we decided to explore
African Lit. I was instantly fascinated by the way in which the literature was
concerned with issues crucially involved with societies involved and their
political fortunes struck a cord with me. As a reader of a lot of Western
literature it appealed to me as something quite different. The intensity of its
focus on issues of immediate concern for the well being of cultures for which
the literature was being written had a vitality, an urgency of purpose that went
beyond more typical concerns for aesthetics and philosophy. No one should take
this to mean that I am in any way denigrating aesthetics, philosophy or
contemporary Western literature, which I think are wonderful.
Have you committed any acts of heroism lately?
Last summer my wife and
I were walking our poodle, Trixie, and a Rottweiler with murderous intent
loosely tied to a nearby tree spotted our dog. It grabbed her and threw her on
the ground, she couldn’t get away because of her leash and Mrs. Podis was
screaming in the middle of the street. The dog had [Trixie] by the throat and I
took a deep breath and threw myself on the dog’s back; it was, like I
said, a large dog but I managed to wrestle it off of Trixie. It wasn’t
something I thought I’d have to do in placid suburbia, get in a wrestling
match with a dog, but I managed to pacify the animal until the owner came out.
We took [Trixie] to the emergency clinic and she’s OK now.