Books, Film, Music

What the Sentence Can Do

With razor wit and trademark brio, Prof. Jan Mieszkowski takes on literature, philosophy, and the twitterverse.

By Romel Hernandez | December 4, 2019

Ontology. Epistemology. Nietzsche. These are, let’s agree, some of the weightier topics in the field of philosophy. So how is it possible that Prof. Jan Mieszkowski [German and comp lit 1997–] has earned almost 16,000 followers on Twitter by ruminating on them in 280 characters or less? By turns wry, oracular, and ironic, Mieszkowski has become Reed’s most prolific social media influencer—without ever using a hashtag.

The answer may come down to his remarkable ability to make intellectual discovery fun.

Prof. Mieszkowski doesn’t take himself too seriously, yet he has serious intellectual credentials. He holds degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, has lectured around the globe on a wide range of topics, and has written numerous articles and three books, including his latest, Crises of the Sentence, published this year. He has taught literature and philosophy at Reed since 1997, during which time he has helped launch a new comparative literature program; mentored dozens of senior thesis students, many of whom have gone on to careers in academia; and dazzled an entire generation of first-year students with his eclectic, entertaining Hum 110 lectures.

“I make lots of jokes,” he says of his playful approach to both teaching and scholarship. “But my students never doubt for a moment what we’re studying is serious and important.”

Mieszkowski crackles with ideas. In Crises of the Sentence, he draws from a vertiginous array of sources—Derrida to Dickens, Hegel to Hemingway—to explore what a sentence is, and how it has been used, both as a powerful tool and as a force that is ultimately beyond our control.

Unlike many scholarly works of literary criticism, his book is both erudite and engaging: “Even the inexperienced wordsmith occasionally has the sense, if only briefly, of having gotten a sentence just right,” he writes. “For the most part, however, writing is a mixture of anticipation and disappointment. . .”

Mieszkowski might never have written Crises of the Sentence or his previous book, Watching War, an acclaimed study of how battlefield spectatorship has shaped modern perceptions of war since the Napoleonic era, had he not been a professor at Reed—or more specifically, a professor teaching Hum 110.

“I never would have been able to write with the same breadth if I hadn’t been working closely with colleagues from other disciplines and getting the chance to learn how they think,” he says. “Being at Reed is what made it possible.”

In the lecture hall, he is energetic and engaging, zooming through his notes as he makes points and connects concepts while suggesting questions for students to ponder. He wrapped up a recent Hum 110 lecture on the book of Genesis by drawing a relatable parallel between the Tower of Babel and being a Reed freshman: “Try to learn to speak an academic language that is actually open to difference, a language that doesn’t have to be the only tower to the sky,” he told the students, urging them to maintain open minds. “This would be a language in which every sentence and every word would always be open to other possibilities, to other ways of speaking. In short, this other alternative would be to embrace another language that is not afraid of ‘babble.’”

In the classroom he takes a different tack, rarely going on at length, speaking up mainly to pose questions that refine or gently redirect the conversation or to make wry asides. During a Hum conference about sacred spaces in ancient Egypt, he directed the students to rise from their chairs and join him in a reverent procession through the thesis tower room in the Hauser Library. “Analysis?” he asked simply when they returned to class.

“He always asks the right questions,” says Daniel Carranza ’12. “I remember a class about Emily Dickinson when he asked us to consider her poetry by taking out the dashes or rearranging the lines. He just has this amazing, genuine curiosity about so many things. You can tell he’s having fun, and that makes learning fun for his students, too.”

Carranza found Mieszkowski so inspiring, in fact, he switched majors to German literature and asked Mieszkowski to be his senior thesis advisor; today he is a grad student at the University of Chicago.

Mieszkowski himself seemed destined to be an intellectual from a young age. He grew up the son of professors—his father, a Polish refugee who escaped the Nazis, taught economics, and his mother, a New England Yankee, taught literature. He majored in literature at Yale, where he socialized with an artsy, intellectual crowd that included Prof. Peter Rock [creative writing 2001–] and former President John Kroger, who remain close friends.

After earning his doctorate at Johns Hopkins, he joined the faculty at Reed, drawn by the college’s reputation as an intellectual powerhouse. He has flourished as both a popular teacher and a prolific scholar.

A passing conversation with Prof. Libby Drumm [Spanish 1995–] led them to spearhead a move to create a comparative literature major in 2015. Both believed students would be interested in a major with an interdisciplinary and international approach to literary studies, an alternative to more traditional majors that stressed a single national canon such as English, Spanish, or German.

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“Within 24 hours of that first conversation I had an email in my inbox from Jan with an outline of what a program might look like,” Drumm recalls. “He’s no-nonsense and easy to work with because he always stays focused on the ideas.”

The comp lit program was up and running within a year and has proven to be a big success, with 13 seniors expected to graduate in 2020.

“I feel lucky to be at Reed, which has given me so much freedom and so many engaged and excited students,” Mieszkowski says. “Every day I go to class and  think to myself, ‘If this is the new generation, maybe the future is going to be OK.’”

Tags: Academics, Books, Film, Music, Professors