Knowing and Believing in John Steinbeck

Written by Madeline Hall (A13), who co-taught the fall 2012 Explorations seminar “Steinbeck’s Humanity.”

Teaching my Explorations seminar was perhaps the single most beneficial academic choice I made at Tufts; the curiosity and depth of the student’s inquiries shed greater light on the worth of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden than I could have ever guessed. Further, they held a mirror to my own experience at Tufts, launching my mind perpetually to the past of my own freshman year. Be it a trope or not, their genuine and committed involvement in the class taught me more about myself than any class in which I had ever been enrolled.

East of Eden served as my spiritual text from the day I finished it. Completely taken by the story of family strife, Biblical mystique, and the rage between good and evil, East of Eden quickly became the text by which I lived my life. The depth of its contents and every thematic helix that spiraled from its plot made the book an ideal candidate for intensive study. This logic made the absence of East of Eden from virtually every syllabus on Tufts’ campus that much more puzzling; how could it not be taught, with its rich understanding of the intricacy of human conflict and confusion?

My conviction in the book’s offer of salvation was shared by my Explorations seminar co-teacher, the friend who initially encouraged reading the book in the first place. Bolstered by our mutual love of the literature, we crafted a syllabus in the comfort of our own confidence – this book was the best, and surely others would feel the same, right?

Cue the crippling doubt that consumed me on the first day of class. Standing in front of the students called to mind what standing in front of a firing squad must feel like; the intimidating circle of first-years, armed with skepticism and adolescent insolence, were perfect soldiers suited to destroy my flimsy defenses. My understanding of body language became so acutely attuned to each student’s minor movement that a crossed pair of arms suggested utter disinterest and a yawn condemned my every effort to teach.  I was certain of their suspicion as a result of my own disbelief: how did someone decide I was qualified to teach?!

As the semester passed and the students consumed the book, though, my own incredulity abated. I understood that they were as new to college as I was to instruction, and that our respective efforts had brought us together in this class. I knew the book, knew my own passions and abilities, knew the worth of the course; all it took was the introduction of the students, eager and incredibly bright, to turn this knowledge into true belief in myself.

Even now, I cannot fully grasp my good fortune. Perhaps, as I have done so often, Steinbeck can speak more clearly to my greatest marvel in regards to this experience: “It is one of the triumphs of the human that he can know a thing and still not believe it.” I know the class has changed me; I simply still cannot believe it.

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