“When teaching, it’s tempting to make it seem as if one’s ideas came effortlessly, and to hide the truth, which is that coming up to a blind wall is a permanent feature of everyone’s intellectual life,” writes the English Department’s latest winner of the campus-wide Distinguished Teaching Award in his teaching philosophy. But,” as Mitch Breitwieser reflects, “such an apparent facility on the teacher’s part can reinforce a student’s feeling that, because he or she is struggling when those around seem not to be, there must be some intrinsic personal deficiency. And feeling that way greatly reduces the chance that the intellectual problem will be solved.” He therefore tells his students, both in class and in office hours, that “academic success depends upon properly understanding that encounter with difficulty”—because failure “most often comes not from a lack of intelligence or preparation, but from a wrong choice concerning how to respond to having come up against that wall.”
When it comes to ranging across subject matters, however, all walls come tumbling down. After thirty years on the English Department’s faculty, Breitwieser must surely hold the record for the greatest number of different areas represented by his teaching. His most frequently taught courses cover—at both the graduate and undergraduate levels—Early American Literature (i.e., of the 17th and 18th Centuries), 19th-Century American Literature, 20th-Century American Literature, 20th-Century British Literature, Critical Theory, Narrative and the Novel, and Literature and Religion. However, if you are thinking that four hundred years of American Literature and over a century of British Literature might suffice, think again. The list also includes Shakespeare, survey courses that cover 18th- and 19th –Century British Literature, plus some notably venturous seminar offerings entitled: “Contemporary Scottish Fiction,” “Detective Fiction,” “Film Noir,” “Science Fiction,” “British Suspense Fiction,” and “Hardboiled Fiction.” Even more remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that his scholarship mirrors that range. Breitwieser’s three published books illuminate all centuries of American Literature, and authors from the Puritan minister Cotton Mather to Graham Greene, the focus of his fourth book, to be finished this year. His recent volume on classic American Literature, entitled National Melancholy, has been hailed as one of the “small number of absolutely essential books on American literature written in the last decade.”
Yet, as the English Department Nominating Committee noted, his objective is not to “wow” students but to empower them. According to the Campus Committee on Teaching, which judges the award each year, this empowerment appears to be a longer-lasting “wow” after all. Student letters to the committee included the following comments, from recent or current undergraduates. One, who is a transfer/re-entry student, wrote that “the manner in which Professor Breitwieser conducted his seminar almost single-handedly convinced me that I had an individual place in the campus community.” Another transfer student, who arrived from the City College of San Francisco, reflected in these terms: “I am not only a better student because of him, I am a better thinker.” Moreover, his influence extends from incoming students in the Freshman Seminar Program (he takes on such seminars almost yearly in addition to his regular course load) and the Summer Research Opportunity Program, to graduate students at all levels, and, beyond that, to established scholars around the country. Former PhD students, now Professors at the University of Southern Carolina, the University of Washington, and Indiana University, sent the Committee long letters of support that remembered Breitwieser as a “legendary” mentor while they were here. One recalled with some envy his uncanny ability to speak “without notes for ninety minutes, in crystalline, perfectly composed paragraphs.” Another summarized very well Breitwieser’s characteristic form of sincere wowing: his lectures were “electrifying,” she wrote, but “the brilliance of Mitch’s persona is bound up in its seeming artlessness: there is no smoke and mirrors, not ‘star’ persona, just a remarkably gifted teacher who makes you listen and care when he talks.”
This department is very proud to hold the record, across the entire campus and its professional schools, for the greatest number of Distinguished Teaching Awards winners since the inception of the honor in 1959. Mitch Breitwieser now joins that group and will be honored, with this year’s other winners, at the Award Ceremony on April 22, 2009, at 5 p.m. at Zellerbach Playhouse. A reception will follow in the Zellerbach foyer. Please come, and join us in giving him your applause.