Literature Profile: David Thorburn

David Thorburn: A Lifetime of Words

By Emily LaVerrierre, ‘15

Professor David Thorburn

Professor David Thorburn

When asked what his favorite book is, David Thorburn, longtime Literature professor at MIT, first cautions that “love/hate relationship” is a better descriptor than “favorite” for James Joyce’s massive Ulysses. With his characteristic intensity, Thorburn immediately starts to outline a passionate defense of his hatred: you can’t just read the book, it’s a lifetime’s project to work through, and its demands on readers are simply too much.

Most people who look at Ulysses would agree with Thorburn about its unreadability, but most people lack his impressive credentials: he’s a leading modernist scholar, one of the founders of Comparative Media Studies, MIT’s first graduate program in the humanities, and a former Professor of English at Yale.

Despite his initial argument against sitting down to read Ulysses, another few seconds into his answer makes Thorburn’s love of Joyce’s work clear. As he launches into a discussion of the paradox of accepting the book’s inaccessibility and its existence as one of the greatest examples of English prose, it seems for a moment as if he’s going to undertake a close textual analysis on the spot. But his train of thought leads back to teaching, as it does with most topics he begins to talk about. One of Thorburn’s major preoccupations with Ulysses is how he can accurately teach and discuss it with his students.

Thorburn’s complicated relationship with Ulysses goes back quite a way. Wyn Kelley, a senior lecturer in the MIT Literature Department and a former student of Thorburn’s at Yale, first encountered Thorburn’s complicated relationship to the text in 1970, when she was a freshman at Yale and Thorburn was her professor. At this time, classes at Yale were made optional so that students could protest what was seen as police brutality related to the Black Panther Party trials in New Haven—a time of political unrest. Boldly, Thorburn chose not to cancel classes. “He decided that he couldn’t let us down in terms of Ulysses; we had to finish Ulysses,” says Kelley. But Thorburn wanted his students to remain politically aware, so he joined them in their college’s living area in the evenings to watch Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News and discuss the politics of the strike.

“I felt that I received a kind of model of how to behave politically and also honor your education and your professors and the things they had to teach you. That’s a picture I’ve carried in my head ever since,” says Kelley.

In Defense of Television

If there’s some kind of award for being affiliated with prestigious universities, Thorburn would definitely be in the running. He went to Princeton as an undergrad, received his MA and PhD from Stanford, and spent a decade at Yale before arriving at MIT.

It was in 1975, near the end of his time at Yale, that Thorburn began incorporating television and media studies into his teaching and scholarship, a decision that would alter the course of his academic career. At the time, Thorburn was one of the only scholars in the country who considered television a narrative form worth studying, and not merely lowbrow entertainment for the masses. The move did not go unnoticed: His class on television was covered by national news outlets, including the Associated Press (“English Professor at Yale Supports TV as Art Form”) and the Chicago Tribune (“The boob tube finds a champion at Yale”). At the time, Thorburn described his colleagues’ reactions to his move as ranging from “indifference to amused contempt“; today, he says his interest in television was seen as “morally questionable.” Most of the article consists of quotes from Thorburn, portraying him as both passionate and a little out there. In the Chicago Tribune, Thorburn pleaded with the readers: “Please understand that I am a serious literary scholar and critic, not just some crazy grad student trying to be cute.”

Thorburn’s sincerity paid off; he accepted a tenured position at MIT the next year and continued teaching about television. Clearly, he was on to something, besides being a well-respected scholar of modernist literature.

“When he started out, it was very innovative,” says Kelley. “It’s very appropriate for MIT.”

They teach that at MIT?

After a decade at Yale, Thorburn came to MIT excited about the opportunity to work somewhere with a broader conception of what qualified as legitimate topics of inquiry. “I was one of several appointments that aimed to enhance the scholarly profile of the humanities at MIT,” he said. And he certainly was worthy; by the time he joined MIT’s Literature Section, Thorburn had already published three books, a handful of papers, and half a dozen essays, mostly relating to modernist fiction—several of which have been cited 60-120 times. (Worth noting: he began to publish essays relating to television only in 1976, the same year that he started at MIT.)

A year after arriving, he became the chair of the Literature Curriculum Committee – a position he held for 11 of the next 13 years, in which time he led the department through a complete renovation of its curriculum. It was a fortuitous time to think about what students should be learning: Thorburn’s joining the curriculum committee coincided with a move to give freshmen and sophomores more freedom in selecting their courses in the humanities. He considers himself part of the “old guard”; he guesses that few other current faculty remember or know the details of the transition MIT made in the humanities when he first arrived. “In that period, MIT became a true university,” Thorburn says. Thorburn aimed to focus on both high culture and popular culture, merging his two main interests: modernist fiction and television.

“His vision of the Literature faculty, which he helped to create, was one that didn’t owe its allegiance only to print texts or to British traditions,” says Kelley.

When he speaks, Thorburn leaps from one topic to the next, barely leaving time for a response. As he gets excited about a new discussion, he tends to make broad, sweeping statements; then, as if catching his breath, he steps back and tempers his initial proclamations. Thorburn’s passion is clear; he is proud of the changes the Literature Department has made over his time there.

Then, in 1983, only seven years after arriving to MIT, he launched and became the director of the MIT Film and Media Studies Program, an interdisciplinary program which later became Comparative Media Studies, MIT’s first graduate program in the humanities.   Thorburn considers its founding to be one of his proudest moments at MIT.

In 1995, Thorburn took over direction of MIT’s Communications Forum. He successfully shifted the focus of the forum to broader questions of how media were changing in modern culture and edited the related and highly-regarded Media in Transition book series.

Despite these accomplishments, Thorburn’s role at MIT surprises many people. He mentions how often people ask what he teaches at MIT, expecting to hear “physics” or “computer science.” “When I respond with ‘Literature,’ 80% of people respond, ‘They teach that at MIT?’ ”

A Little Prickly

One thing you need to know about Thorburn is that he can talk – a lot. One of his former students described his lectures as being full of stutters, pauses, and wild tangents. But, the student says, all of those are merely examples of Thorburn’s passion for the subject matter.

And indeed, all of these tics are visible in a series of Teaching Company DVDs, “Masterworks of Early 20th-Century Fiction,” that Thorburn produced in 2007.

Kelley has always admired Thorburn’s lecturing, describing it as, “seemingly unscripted but completely polished, with beautiful rhetorical style.” She laughs; apparently, Thorburn is like this at faculty meetings, too. “He’s passionate and knows how to frame an argument.”

In his class “The Film Experience,” which I took my sophomore year, Thorburn began each lecture by writing or handing out an outline. The outline would have several topics written, a few words each; that’s all. Thorburn needed nothing else to guide the class through a series of seemingly tangential stories and to somehow end up getting through all the topics he set out to cover by the end of the hour.

In his smaller “Modern Fiction” class, which I sat in on, Thorburn aims to have the class lead the discussion. The session of this class that I attended didn’t exactly follow this format; instead, it consisted of Thorburn lecturing to the students for 45 minutes, and then an extended discussion with the single student who had read a particular short story in depth.

But Thorburn’s teaching prowess isn’t just based on his particular way of speaking. (And yes, prowess is the correct word here; he’s won numerous awards for his teaching, including the MacVicar Faculty Fellowship, MIT’s highest teaching award.) His teaching is also distinctive due to his particular focus on improving his students’ writing skills, even in classes that aren’t focused on writing.

Thorburn is very aware of the differences between teaching literature to MIT undergrads and teaching it to Yale grad students. “It was a lot easier to teach the students at Yale who came there to study literature. I have a sense of serving the students I have here,” he says. MIT’s literature curriculum, which Thorburn had a hand in designing, is distinctly not for students following in the faculty’s footsteps. Many of his students may never take a literature class again.

Yet Thorburn is proudest of how he has helped his students with their writing. He grades harshly, and most of his classes require a lot of writing. He even holds workshops with his TAs to try to make them grade papers as severely as he does. (He admits that he thinks they still grade too nicely.) He points out that many MIT students have never been told that they need to write better. He likes to hold them to higher standards, which he loves to see them reach.

Thorburn tells a story about one of his favorite students dedicating a book to him, but it was no scholarly piece. This former MIT undergrad went on to work in software, as many do, and then got a job with O’Reilly Media, where he wrote part of a software manual aimed at ordinary users. It quickly became a best-seller. The student dedicated the book to Thorburn for teaching “the most useful class I took at MIT.”

Thorburn had given him a B-. As with many other MIT students, Thorburn was the first to get on the student’s case about his writing. Clearly, it paid off; Thorburn fully approves of the student’s writing chops now.

Two of Thorburn’s other former students went on to join the Literature faculty at MIT themselves (Kelley, as well as Howard Eiland, a modernist scholar), and Thorburn is proud of them, too— immensely proud of their teaching and scholarly work. But the way that he speaks about them, while exceedingly positive, is more matter-of-fact. When he talks about the MIT student who dedicated the software manual to him, Thorburn seems almost incredulous. The work Thorburn has put in, all of the writing wisdom he is trying to pass on— it’s working.

Thorburn’s deep care for his students— the reason he pushes them with their writing—is obvious. Kelley is quick to point out his great kindness—he went out of his way to mentor her when she first joined the MIT Literature Department. Besides his kindness, she highlights his mischievousness in the classroom. “He’s subversive and independent and a little prickly,” she says, “I think that’s a great quality in a professor.”


About the author: Emily LaVerrierre, ‘15


Emily LaVerriere is a member of MIT’s Class of 2015. She is majoring in Biology and Brain and Cognitive Sciences with a minor in Literature. She has a wide range of interests, from neurobiology to microbial ecology to scientific communication. She grew up in Biddeford, ME, surrounded by trees and lobsters. In her small amounts of free time, she enjoys knitting, weightlifting, and trying not to set off fire alarms in the East Campus kitchens.