English professor recognized for creative teaching style

Published: March 08, 2016
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Donald Wehrs fell in love with English and history after reading Leo Tolstoy's "War and Peace" when he was 10 years old. Now, he has a double major in both subjects.

"The way that Tolstoy was able to combine the Napoleonic wars with the study of people's search for the meaning in life and the search for love and identity blew me away and so I knew I wanted to study that and it involved both history and English," he explained. "I eventually gravitated more toward English."

Wehrs, a professor of English literature in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts, is a recipient of the 2015 Creative Research and Scholarship Award.

From his days of reading Tolstoy, Wehrs has had an interest in people's thinking, including the relationship between culture and individuality, and the relationship between large historical currents and personal lives and destinies.

"I was always interested in why people thought the things they thought, because that's why they did the things they did," he explained.

Now, Wehrs is teaching his students about the concept of thinking.

"I really want them to learn how to read and how to think," he said. "Not what to think, but how to think. Part of that is overcoming what the social scientists call confirmation bias. That's the idea that 'I believe something is the case so I'm going to find that or I'm going to attend only to those details of the work or the argument that fit into my pre-established world view.'"

As a professor, Wehrs teaches students to compare their interpretation of a work of literature to the passages within the work, and revise their argument if necessary. This tactic of revising a way of thinking is something Wehrs knows students will use long after they've left the classroom.

"Whether one's going to be reading a lot of literature in life or whether one's just going to have to talk to people, one needs to attend to what is being implied and what is being said and attend to the possibility that one might be wrong. In both professional life and personal life, that might be helpful," he said.

Wehrs understands that it can be challenging to keep students engaged, but he has found ways to connect with his undergraduates.

"One tries to bring out the living substance of the work. One tries to find analogies in contemporary experience to the situations being described. One dramatizes. You can't be a good undergraduate professor without being a ham actor and something of a preacher and something of a coach. I enjoy that sort of thing," he said.

He fondly remembers his own time as an undergraduate and strives to bring that same positivity to the students in his classroom now.

"Certainly my own pleasure as an undergraduate has fed into my desire to make being an undergraduate pleasant for my students," he said. "My notion of fun is working hard and reading a lot and I try to persuade others that is fun, too. All of my work builds upon scholars who devoted their lives to specific areas of study. There's some standing on the shoulder of others there. But I am also very lucky to have worked with just incredibly wonderful scholars not only from the States but from Europe and Africa, so that's been a big help."

Wehrs joined the faculty at Auburn University in 1988 and teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on 18th-century British literature, 19th- and 20th-century comparative and postcolonial/post-national literature, critical theory and world literature.