by Erika Solberg
On June 30, Dr. Tracy Inman will retire from The Center for Gifted Studies. Her invaluable relationship with us began in 1990 when she first taught at VAMPY and continued when she served as communications coordinator from 1998-2000 and then as associate director starting in 2001. Tracy has contributed to The Center in countless ways, but those of us who work with her know that if you ask what her favorite part of her work has been, the answer will be teaching the VAMPY Humanities class, a course which became an essential component of the curriculum almost as soon as she began offering it. This summer is the first time in decades that Tracy is not in a VAMPY classroom guiding students through a study of the afterlife through the ages using classic literature and art. We spoke to her recently about what it has been like to lead the class that she calls “the best teaching experience you can ever have.”
Why do you love teaching about the afterlife, and why do students love studying it?
So many young people do not get the opportunity to talk about abstract concepts when they’re in traditional school, and VAMPY students are at an age when they are starting to question some existential things such as “Why am I here?” and “Why is there evil?” I also love the idea that there are no answers to the questions we ask, like, “What happens after you die?” That whole open-endedness is very uncomfortable for the students, but it’s also good for them. In addition, the literature that explores the afterlife is fascinating, and they’re classics as well.
The other part that appeals to me is that we live in a world that is heavily divided based on religion, belief systems, and doctrines, but as you study comparative religions, there are so many more similarities than there are differences — we’re just one people, and tolerance is so incredibly important. For many students, this class is the first time they’ve been able to look in depth at another religion. The field trips that we take are extremely important — to synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, and St. Meinrad’s monastery in Southern Indiana. Those experiences help them understand the concept that all the things humans produce stem from the culture where they are, whether it’s literature, philosophy, art, government, or religion.
How has the course evolved over the years? What has changed and what has stayed the same?
In my first year at VAMPY, I taught Humanities, but it was more of an eclectic view across lots of topics. We did art throughout, we read Julius Caesar and put Brutus on trial — I could pick and choose all the things I loved.
In my second year I taught world mythology, and I saw how much the students enjoyed the comparative approach of the course — seeing similarities in the Japanese creation myth, the Sioux creation myth — it was fascinating to me as well.
Then I took a break, got my Master’s, and had my second child. When I picked up Humanities again, I taught it in the same eclectic way, but I realized I needed to tighten it up. I’d also been a part of a National Endowment for the Humanities Dante Institute and had incorporated literary interpretations of Dante into the Advanced Placement classes that I was teaching, so I expanded on that. I started researching and tying in all these different ideas, and it was a whole lot of fun. One of the beauties of teaching VAMPY is that you can choose a passion area, and your passion becomes infectious to the students. The course grew and evolved as I added different lessons and took others out.
The constants would be the field trip to St. Meinrad’s monastery, a mosque, and a synagogue and the main pieces of literature that we’ve studied. For the classical age we have done Virgil’s Aeneid; for the medieval period Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso; and for the 17th century we have done John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell.
Do you have favorite lessons or texts to teach?
Teaching Dante is my favorite thing because students have never read anything like it, and you can read it on several different levels. One level is as a cool story that’s extremely graphic. You can also look at it on a figurative level as well — we look at what’s going on in the culture Dante is writing in — the corruption of the church and the birth of purgatory, and an Italy that has city states warring against each other and two main families switching power. There’s a moral level as well.
I also love the debate we have after reading Milton’s Paradise Lost where we argue who’s most to blame for the fall of man: Adam, Eve, God, Satan, or a combination? That typically becomes a two-hour debate with no right answer, and it is joyful for me to watch them hone their arguing skills.
Another thing I’ve really enjoyed is our last project, which we do on the last day. Throughout the course, we’ve looked at how the works of the humanities reflect the culture in which they’re created, so I take one of our four main writers and one of the four main time periods and cultures we’ve looked at and ask them to mesh those together. For example, they might have to create an afterlife story that takes the style of Virgil with the culture of Sartre’s 20th century. And then they create an art piece to go along with it that cannot be from the era or Virgil or Sartre. When I first give the assignment, they look at me with wide eyes, but once they start working on it, it’s amazing what they come up with.
Why is incorporating art an important part of the course?
As far as historical resources on the afterlife go, art is absolutely abundant, including architecture and sculpture, and there’s much more art than there is literature. Art is also what makes us human, it’s incredibly expressive, and it reflects not just the time period but also the person creating it. I’ve also found that few students study art appreciation in school. The analysis we do is super high. They a select a piece of art and I ask, why could this piece not have been created in any other time period? How do we know it was created by this particular artist and no one else? What innovations do we have in this artwork and in this artist? And how does it reflect the afterlife? It’s a lot of fun.
How have VAMPY students stayed the same and changed over the last thirty years?
The similarities over the years are a wide range of personalities and a hunger for learning. They’re incredible young people. I’ve always said teaching at VAMPY is a joy.
In terms of differences, one of the first things we do on the first day of the class is talk about our personal interpretations of the afterlife, and with that, there’s typically a discussion of religion, and students talk about the impact it has had or not had on their lives. For the most part, in the beginning I had students who were traditional Protestants and occasionally a Catholic. Then, about ten years in, I had students from other religions —Muslims, Jews, Hindus — and a wide range of atheists and agnostics. In the last years, typically I had mostly agnostics, and most of the agnostics had been raised in religious homes.
VAMPY students are at an age when they’re starting to question life. One of the beauties of a class like Humanities is that it’s an academic experience, so they’re given the freedom to think and to ask questions without being penalized. Because we’re looking at ideas through what philosophers say and what literature says, the students have a freedom to explore that they might not have had before. I remember so many of them saying how they had never even understood what other religions believed. It’s important to have those conversations.
How have you evolved as a teacher of gifted students?
I’ve evolved a lot, and one of the greatest reasons for that is being a mom to two gifted students, so I began to look at my students as sons and daughters. Another way that I’ve changed is that I’ve learned to figure out what students know already — I pre-assess. I have also become much more open-ended and have allowed students to have more independence, just facilitating as much as I can. A few years ago, the students wanted to read all of the Inferno, so that’s what we did.
You’ve kept in touch with many students over the years. What do those relationships mean you?|
They are what it’s all about. I can’t tell you how many letters of recommendation I’ve written! Many of my students have come back to be my TAs, and that’s very special. I love it when my students come back as counselors and I’m able to catch up with them. I have one former student who is an adult now, and we get together for game nights every few months. There are so many I keep in touch with — I’ve been to weddings, graduations, many events like that.
Is there anything else you want to say?
Teaching Humanities has been by far the best part of my job. It’s made me a better person and a better parent of gifted children. I like to explain this by using Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses,” which is about an older Ulysses as he is passing over the kingdom to Telemachus and gathering together the old guys to set sail again. One of the lines is, “I’m a part of all that I have met.” One way to interpret it is as, “I leave bits of myself everywhere I go.” But the way that I like to interpret it is that every VAMPY student I’ve had, I’m different because of that student. Every class that I’ve taught, I’m different because of that class. So when I say I’m a different person, I am.