Ivy Leaf - Spring 2006
Living a Passionate Life
With the scheduled publication of four books this year alone, Todd Davis clearly is a driven man. Add to that his 'day job' as assistant professor of English at Penn State Altoona, and it's clear that Davis is also a busy man. But spend an afternoon talking with Davis and one walks away with one very clear impression … Davis is first and foremost a passionate man.
Davis arrived at Penn State Altoona in the fall of 2003 already quite familiar with the college. Ken Womack, associate professor of English at Penn State Altoona, had been a good friend in graduate school and the two remained in touch. When Quentin Tarantino's film Pulp Fiction hit the screen in 1995, Davis and Womack were intrigued by the movie and spent four days together composing an essay about it. The essay was published in Literature/Film Quarterly, and the two continued to write together, Davis spending a week each summer in Altoona.
An avid hiker and outdoorsman, Davis fell in love with the atmosphere of the region. When the job at Penn State Altoona became available, Davis didn't hesitate in applying. One of Davis's joys as a professor at the college is teaching a rhetoric and composition seminar, wherein he is able to share with his students his expertise and his passion for the works of Kurt Vonnegut.
A Passion for Vonnegut
A Vonnegut scholar, Davis' latest book, Kurt Vonnegut's Crusade, or How a Postmodern Harlequin Preached a New Kind of Humanism, explores the moral and philosophical underpinnings of Vonnegut's work and the author's insistence that writing is an "act of good citizenship or an attempt, at any rate, to be a good citizen."
" ... Vonnegut admonishes us that who we pretend to be is who we actually are. That what we do on the job is as much a part of who we are as what we do away from our jobs."
— Todd Davis
The seminar Davis teaches at Penn State Altoona, "Reading and Writing Kurt Vonnegut," requires students to study six of the author's novels. The first time he taught this seminar in the fall of 2004, Vonnegut was celebrating his eighty-second birthday. The students in the class sent birthday greetings to Vonnegut, and the author sent back a card inscribed to each student. Notes Davis, "That really helped translate Vonnegut's passion for his work into the classroom for these first-year students. There aren't too many writers of Vonnegut's stature who would take the time to respond in such a personal way, and after that I think his writing meant more to the class."
But from where does Davis's passion for Vonnegut derive? After speaking with Davis, it is clear that his interest in Vonnegut springs from their shared morals and ideals of how one should live his or her life.
Studying Vonnegut's Mother Night in his seminar, Davis has the students contend with Vonnegut's own proclamation about the novel's moral: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be." Davis tries to get his students to think about this moral and how it will apply to their life.
"Our own culture tries to convince us that what we do at our job isn't really us. If you're in marketing and advertising and Phillip Morris hires you to convince people to consume or even start an addiction to a substance we know is harmful, our world tries to convince us that's not really who we are; that creating seductive advertising is just our job," states Davis. "Yet Vonnegut admonishes us that who we pretend to be is who we actually are. That what we do on the job is as much a part of who we are as what we do away from our jobs."
A Passion for His Work
Davis implores his students to figure out where their passion in life lies and then determine if there is any possible way to bridge that passion with making a living. Notes Davis, "I'm lucky. My love of writing and my love of working with people come together and I get to have both at once. So I'm spoiled rotten." But he is dismayed with the attitudes he has encountered from many students over the past ten years.
"They're making decisions based on crass materialism. They're saying 'This job is where I can make the most money.' So I say to them, you'll be working from age 22 to maybe 72 and that's a long time to work at something you're not in love with," stresses Davis.
Davis also questions the fulfillment of the material things so often pursued. "We're seeing an entire generation reach its culmination, a generation in which materialism is the pinnacle of why they do what they do; clearly it doesn't satisfy them. They always need a little more, a bigger house, a better boat, a faster car."
Drawing from his Mennonite background, Davis references a passage from the Bible, wherein Christ states that "it's harder for a rich man to get into heaven than a camel to pass through the eye of a needle." Davis posits, "I think that was Christ's way of highlighting the fact that materialism draws you away from what actually is fulfilling. It's similar to the philosophical disposition I find in Emerson and Thoreau, two other major influences on my way of seeing the world."
States Davis, "As a teacher, I can't make decisions for students; I would never assume to say you have to take on my morals or my values or my ethical stance against materialism. I'm not here to proselytize. I want the student to at least consider, look, and critically think about these issues; that's part of being in school after all. Look at what you see out there. What seems to be driving people to do what they do? What seems to matter most and to offer fulfillment, a way to make the world a better place? Do the folks that pursue the dollar at all costs seem any more fulfilled? How about people who are doing work that is closer to their passions? Look at people doing volunteer work—they come away literally glowing."
Glowing, perhaps, like Todd Davis.