For the University of Montana bookstore in Missoula, and for university bookstores throughout the nation, there is no busier time during the semester than the first week of class.
Woe to the young freshman, slow and naïve, who is trampled beneath the heels of the upperclassman during the great stampede toward anthologies, pens, erasers, notebooks, all the shiny jewels of academia that lie on shelves like gemstones at a jeweler’s. But the most sought-after gem of all is the textbook.
The textbooks will go on to a variety of uses. Students use them for doorstops, propping up various pieces of furniture and technology, fending off attacks from their roommate, initiating attacks on their roommates…almost anything goes.
The one thing that it is very rare to see a textbook being used for is reading. That is why Jocelyn Siler, professor of English at UM, is not writing a textbook, but an historical novel. “I’ve written three textbooks, but I’m never going to write another.”
Siler started working on her novel a little less than two years ago and hopes to have it finished by the end of the academic year. In her research for her book, Siler taught in Scotland last year, at the University of Dundee. There she would write in a kitchen next to a large stove that was used both to warm the house and cook food.
Siler’s novel is about Mary, Queen of Scots. Siler’s love for her subject matter comes through as she talks about her writing. She leans forward in her chair, her eyes sparkling. In a tone that is almost gossipy, Siler explains that her fascination with Mary stems from the Queen’s weakness, rather than her strength.
Unlike her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, Mary wed several times, and, according to Siler, had dreadful taste in husbands. And unlike Elizabeth’s, Mary’s reign was fraught with tragedy. “She’s interesting for me because she’s a tragic character,” says Siler, “She’s fatally flawed.”
Mary had lost everyone close to her when she ascended to the throne. “She must have been incredibly lonely,” Siler notes. Mary had grown up in France, an immensely civilized place, and then gone to Scotland, which was not so civilized in those times. “I think she believed that a man would be an aid to her.”
Mary wed her first husband, Francis II, at the age of fifteen, but he died two years later. Shortly after his death Mary returned to Scotland, where her second marriage took place in 1565, to Lord Darnley. However, Darnley was not happy with his limited power, and plotted to overthrow Mary.
When Darnley became ill with syphilis, Mary moved him to a house away from herself and their son, claiming that she feared he would contaminate the baby. Mary’s supporters packed the walls of Darnley’s house with dynamite, but he managed to escape by jumping out of a window. Unfortunately for him, he was unable to escape completely and was smothered with a pillow in the garden by Mary’s subordinates.
Mary’s third and final marriage was to Bothwell, a Protestant lord who abducted her and allegedly raped her, forcing her into marriage. Mary, who was a Catholic ruling a Protestant country, found herself facing a rebellion. The people were easily swayed against her. Mary formed an army to fight for her, but lost and fled to England. In England she was imprisoned by Elizabeth for 18 years before she was finally executed for plotting to overthrow the Queen.
Another reason that Siler is writing a novel instead of a new textbook is that textbooks are rewritten so often. “I think textbooks have become a very strange industry,” says Siler. “Because there’s so much money to be made there, I think there’s a push to make them disposable. I wanted to write something lasting.” This is also a reason that Siler teaches.
“For students, it’s like they’re shopping for what they want to do with their lives,” she says. But there comes a time when a purchase must be made, and once that has happened it is important to the shopper that it be meaningful. Teaching is a way that Siler can make all the work she has done educating herself last forever. Through her students, the students of her students, the children of her students, Siler’s words will live on.
Jocelyn Siler began her teaching career in Alabama. In the late 1960s federal marshals were sent down to force desegregation in the schools. Many incensed teachers were walking out. Siler had a degree in philosophy from Wagner College. “When I got out of school I intended to go to law school. I mean, what do you do with a philosophy degree?” She had never expected to become a teacher.
The school principle was in the classroom her first day, and Siler describes the situation as exciting and scary. “I picked up the chalk and just began to teach.” And since then she has never stopped teaching.
“I’ve literally never done anything else. In college I was a waitress, but since I was 22, it’s really the only job I’ve ever had.”
After teaching in Alabama Siler moved to New Jersey, where she taught at a Catholic school for a couple of years until she decided to go back to school herself.
When Siler graduated from UM with a master’s degree in creative writing, she was immediately offered a job. “It was seamless,” she says. One semester she was taking classes, the next she was teaching.
“I really, really loved it here,” Siler says, “I spent seven years out of school. I was basically supporting my husband, who was in grad school. I was ready to live my own life. This place itself became important to me. You tend to like the places where you’ve been happy. I was happy here because I was creating myself.”
Henry Worobec, a sophomore at UM who is majoring in creative writing, has taken two classes from Siler. “I think she’s great,” he says. “I’ve never had another professor like her. She brings her love and enthusiasm to class. I’ve never had teacher who understood poetry as well as her.”
Part of what makes Siler’s teaching so accessible is her laid-back approach to leading the class. “In some ways I’m an extremist. I want to live life as authentically as I can,” Siler says. Perhaps that is why she regularly allows the discussion to go where it will, creating an atmosphere that is cozy and friendly. Frequently she remarks how much fun she has with her class, the honors section of Introduction to Poetry.
Siler is too excited by poetry to just sit still while she is teaching. She stands up and grins around at the room, then begins to pace back and forth between the whiteboard and her seat; every once in awhile she’ll pause at the whiteboard long enough to quickly scrawl something in messy but semi-legible handwriting.
Soon the entire class forgets about watching the time, and when 3 p.m. rolls around it often goes unnoticed until 3:05. “I wish we could keep talking!” Siler exclaims, but she has another section to teach right afterward.
“Her enthusiasm is what’s gotten me interested in this class,” says Carly Fetzer, a junior in Siler’s Intro to Poetry class who is majoring in creative writing. “When she explains [poetry] I get more excited about it myself. She’s really good at sharing her enthusiasm on the subject. That’s what I look for in a professor.”
“She’s eccentric,” says Worobec, “And she’s definitely not afraid to tell anybody about it, which makes students more comfortable with sharing themselves.”
Siler’s enthusiasm for literature affects not only her students, but her family as well. Her daughter, Jenny Siler, has her sixth book coming out in January. Siler’s son, Ben Hausmann, writes poetry. “Both of them have been writing since they were tiny little kids,” says Siler.
Siler’s advice to young writers is simple: “Read, read, read like a maniac.” Siler used to be the Director of Composition for UM, but says that the does not find administration as rewarding as teaching. “I felt like my life was cut up into little pieces.” Reading helps put these pieces back together.
“Reading for me is a way of working out particular ideas of the present.” Siler admits that she tends to become obsessed with certain writers for spurts of time. Right now one of her obsessions is Wallace Stevens. “His poems are like trials. They are ways of exploring different aspects of reality.” Siler has a similar view on writing. “Different things that you write about are different aspects of your world view.”
When Siler writes, she does so in her study. She likes to be alone when she writes. Her study is cozy, with a couch pushed up against big windows, and a red oriental rug. All that can be heard is the quiet tap-tap-tapping of her fingers against the keyboard of her computer. The scene is very different from that in the bookstore in the first week of the semester, and that’s the way she likes it; complete silence. As she writes Siler no longer has to worry about the wild stampede at the bookstore, or whether what she writes will be read or used to prop up furniture. She knows that she is creating something lasting.
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