Interviewed by Anna C and Phoebe C
Anna: Did you always know that you wanted to teach/what made you want to become an English teacher?
Let me think. So I wasn’t a big reader as a child, I didn’t read fiction really, not seriously, until college, and what I read, in grade school, were field guides. I was an avid butterfly and shell collector, so that’s what I read; I was really into that kind of reading, and I was a band geek in high school. I was really into the music program; I was Drum Major for three years in high school, so when I started college, I thought very seriously about majoring in music and becoming a band director. I was in the UCLA marching band, and it was a big part of my life. So I came to literary study quite late, and part of the reason for that is that I read slowly. I was afraid of English classes because there were all these novels, and how could I possibly read them in a 10-week quarter? I was intimidated, so I took those first couple of Intro English classes really late, like as a Junior, and then I just got really excited about literature in my last year of college. The English teaching part came along with being interested in being an academic. So, by the time I had finished at UCLA, I had moved from being a Bio major to a Psychology major, and I finally did get a degree in Psychology. I was thinking very seriously about staying a fifth year at UCLA and double majoring in Philosophy because I was very interested in theories of language and the history of ideas. It all kind of gelled in that last year or so, when I started studying poetry. Poetry was the thing that really got me excited, so I took an extension course and an intro series to English Lit right at the end of college. I think part of that had to with it just being developmentally the right time. So then what do you do? You’re at the end of college and you realize “I could have been an English major!” The English program at U.C. Berkeley had a masters program, so I got what is called a “terminal” masters (an end in itself, not part of the doctoral program), and from there applied to the Ph.D. program a year later. And getting accepted to that was super exciting and really confirming. I remember, over a two year period, writing those first essays of mine, just getting hammered, and then figuring out how to write a literary essay and getting real affirmation from my grad school professors. As a senior in college, I was starting to think of myself as an intellectual in a culture that was pretty anti-intellectual. I mean, maybe I was running with the wrong crowd–I don’t know. But grad school kind of locked in becoming an academic.
Phoebe: Where did you grow up? Do you have a favorite place in your hometown, or maybe a favorite place in general?
I grew up in southern California, and I went to high school in Irvine (when Irvine was a very new thing). Orange County was middle school and highschool and I don’t have any connection to that area anymore. However, I have a very strong connection to the Newport Back Bay, which is the estuary that I played in. That’s where I was doing all of this crazy collecting and scaling and sailing and tromping around in the mud; it’s a very kind of Huck Finn experience that I don’t think many kids are lucky enough to have now because access is so limited. That’s one of the reasons I’m so committed to this Point Molate work: That kind of funky space is exactly the kind of uncivilized “backyard” that I learned a ton about nature in. You don’t have those memories unless you have the access, and so I’ve sort of transposed the favorite places in SoCal up here. They’re places like that or like Monterey, or places along the Sonoma Coast, and places that you can watch the seasons through and feel connected to the natural rhythms of and fish. It’s not as simple as getting away from all your problems, it’s also about being a good steward, and it’s amazing. I learn all this new stuff every time, and I love having memories of those places, as opposed to it being all mediated and abstract… For me, there’s something really durable about lived contact with nature. I return to Southern California from time to time and feel like a real Californian. From 1993-2000, I was teaching in central Ohio and I was miserable there, just because it was the wrong place for me. And I should also say that I learned a ton about teaching there, but I kept missing the California coast. I remember telling a group of students back when I was teaching at Piedmont high that this was the landscape that I wanted to fill my eyes.
Anna: How does your love of the natural world intertwine with your love of English, and vice versa?
Well, I’ll tell you where my mind is going right now. There’s a whole aesthetic movement devoted to this called Romanticism, the idea that there are these correspondences between the soul and the natural world. So this is super complicated. Simply, what I think of is a phrase of mine from a prose piece that I wrote in grad school about mud flats, and the worms and the tracks and all that sort of figurative “writing.” The line goes something like “Vermiculated by beaks and worms, the tablet for hundreds of tracks.” So for me, the answer to your question is that image, which is a kind of inscription, because every one of those little marks on that mud tablet was made by a critter. It’s their life story! So it’s a story, it’s nature, and I’m addicted to both things; it’s all about story, the way things are interrelated. What happened here? What’s that a sign of? What’s that thing? Some creature left these things having done another thing, and it’s a record of cause and effect. That interest of mine is really old. It’s from way before I got interested in literature and teaching. A very early memory of mine comes from standing near the water at Redondo Beach, feeling this thing under my heel as the water pulled out, and it feels like this rock or whatever, and then what’s revealed is a Pismo Clam, and it’s like “How did that get there; what is this thing?” And it was alive! and I’m sure that’s when I learned the word “bivalve.” And then there are all these questions that spin out from there. So that’s my answer to the world’s largest question.
Correction: A previous version of this article included an editor’s note that stated, incorrectly, that Dr. Peterson’s interview is Humans of CPS’ final faculty interview. The series will continue for at least another two weeks. We apologize for any confusion.