Profile: David Hoddeson

Associate Professor

Faculty
Department of English, Graduate Program in American Studies

Professor Hoddeson began college teaching in 1971 at The City University of NY (CUNY) as a Director of Writing programs.   Amidst the egalitarianism of the civil-rights1960s, CUNY had adopted a policy of “Open Admissions.”  CUNY had always been free--without tuition--to those NY City residents CUNY agreed to admit.  With “Open Admissions” all colleges in CUNY’s system would automatically admit any student who had graduated from any NYC high school.

CUNY’colleges were excellent, but New York’s high schools were often inadequate, and many students needed courses that would ‘remediate’ their skill gaps, especially in writing. On his side, before he enrolled for his PhD in Literature Hoddeson had been for 12 years a professional staff writer and editor of two Wall Street periodicals, Forbes and Barron’s.  In the newborn era of Open Admissions he was appointed to lead a program that would teach writing to post-high school students who had—as became glaringly apparent--gone through grade school and High School with very little writing instruction of any kind.    

As CUNY’s remedial programs and writing workshops opened they were soon amplified by courses in mathematics and other basic undergrad skills.  Meanwhile new Open Admissions students doubled the size of CUNY’s student body.   

The future seemed bright, but it was then that the notoriously fragile finances of the entire city of New York, for reasons all its own, utterly collapsed.   In that debacle Open Admissions lost much of its funding.  Professor Hoddeson, invited to do at Rutgers University-Newark what he had done at CUNY, soon found himself at the most diverse campus in America.  He spent the next seven years establishing and directing his writing program here before returning to his interests in literature.

Along the way he also enrolled in a psychoanalytic institute.  He had noticed that psychoanalysis on the one hand, and on the other hand his literary focus, modernism, had originated together at the outset of the 20th Century, and that the two fields had remained closely-related. 

But it was not until the financial crash of 2008-2009--which many traumatized financiers described as a near-death experience as they attempted to escape the crash’s ruinous effects--that Hoddeson’s three professions (Wall Street Finance, literary modernism, and psychoanalysis) coalesced for him into a perspective that together illuminated previously opaque events.  Before his eyes was the madness of crowds-- financiers trapped in a cycle of boom and bust, which they had themselves created, blaming everyone else, and especially the government that saved them, for the disaster.  And there was the media --the writers and filmmakers who, in a deluge of narratives and analyses, managed to bring more transparency to the financiers’ previously mysterious and opaque culture.  And moving beneath it all, the painfully resistant powers of the unconscious, leading both economic theoreticians and psychologist-psychoanalysts to agree on the over-riding force of group behaviors in their endless repetitions, decade on decade.        

At least so it seemed at the time.  It still does.   

  ON TEACHING METHODS

What did Professor Hoddeson learn about teaching from all this?    To be collaborative, communitarian, and participatory.  In his classes everyone gets a chance to speak ˗ often.  He walks up and down the aisles in his classes to ask students, one by one, about the day’s reading assignment.   If a student doesn’t want to speak, they can say, “Pass” without penalty.  If they do speak, and say something pertinent, they will be rewarded with 1-7 points, depending on the quality of the response.  All their good responses count in final grades.

Other benefits: Students know how well they’re doing with the readings, reading by reading.  They are encouraged to keep up with the class—there’s an immediate reward.  And they learn how to present and support their own views more often and, presumably with this practice, to support their own positions better—a foundational set of skills in anyone’s education. 

For the class as a whole: The participatory comments of my students everybody makes also create a composite response that benefits everyone.  This collectivity makes up a “mosaic” of interpretations and comments.  This mosaic is always fuller and richer than any single response—including the professor’s-- could be.   And the diversity so characteristic of Rutgers University-Newark classes is exploited to good ends.