Making a Novel Come to Life with Prof. Debra Gettelman

Michael O’Brien ’23


Even as an English major, reading for classes can be difficult sometimes. Whether it be disengagement with the subject matter, the ever-present threat of distractions like wasting time on our phones, or several other factors, turning the page can be a daunting task every now and then. However, for each struggle that coincides with working through a novel, there are even more rewarding moments that come along with the simple pleasure of reading a great book. 

The only Charles Dickens novel I was familiar with before entering my senior year at Holy Cross was Great Expectations, which I read as a rising high school sophomore who still resented being told to read over the summer. I loosely remembered its sweeping themes, ranging from ambition to guilt, but probably didn’t give it the care that it deserved. So, after enrolling in Dickensian Fiction with Prof. Debra Gettelman, I told myself that I would immerse myself in Dickens’ world to the best of my ability.

After finishing Oliver Twist, our first novel of the semester, it was almost as if I had rediscovered a passion for reading. I had never stopped loving to read, but my experience with Dickens’ classic re-emphasized this love. The story of Oliver’s trials and tribulations, moral complexity in characters like Fagin, and the ever-present fact that young people in London at this time really were treated in a way similar to the events of the novel, truly captivated me. While Dickens may be who I owe for helping me to find the aforementioned “simple pleasure”of reading, Prof. Gettelman taught the novel in a way that made me curious to know more about how she makes each piece she teaches have a life of its own.

“Well, partly it’s the students,” Prof. Gettelman told me right off the bat, “because it wouldn’t come to life without you all visualizing it. It’s funny how you can be the same person and go to different classes and get the students engaged or not, so we definitely have a really engaged class. I also teach really differently based on what I’m teaching; for example, Dickens is really frenetic, and it makes me teach in a frenetic way, but I’m much calmer when I teach Jane Austen. I definitely take on the character of the writer, so just that sort of energy in Dickens’ writing makes me completely dive in and embrace it.”

“It’s also really important to me to make sure that I’m making these novels still feel relevant. I’m not looking for relatability even in the sense of whether or not students can relate to the direct experiences in them, but that the things going on in that time period are like things going on in our time period. I feel like I’ve been doubling down on trying to figure out what it is about these novels that make us care and want to read them.”

Between acknowledging the earnest effort that her students are putting into her classes, her style of personality switching based on the author she teaches, and searching for a way to give novels from the past modern meaning, it would have been easy for me to see why Prof. Gettelman is such a captivating educator without actually taking one of her classes. While she  may switch her dispositions based on the author she is teaching, I was interested to learn if she still had a general “mission statement” that she applies to all of her classes, no matter what the material is.

She told me, “There are lots of things; one thing I think a lot about in the classroom is pushing the level of thinking, inquiry, and discussion as far as we can. Not just staying on the surface while you’re talking about a novel is a hard thing to do; it’s easier when you’re alone with just you and the book, but it’s really magical when you’re in a classroom and someone makes a classmate see something that they hadn’t before, and that may have never happened if they had just been sitting in the library by themselves. Even for me, sometimes I’ll come out of class and when a student has pointed out something I’ve never thought about in a novel I’ve read so many times, is a great feeling.”

This was the second time where Prof. Gettelman had dished out credit to her students, rather than herself, for making a classroom feel like such a lively place, which I believe speaks to the selfless nature of so many professors at the College. Putting the focus back onto her, I asked if there were any particular goals that she had for the academic year ahead, whether it be in research or any other facets of academic life at Holy Cross.

She responded, “I finished the manuscript of my book while I was on sabbatical and now I’m revising it for the press, and they sent back some suggestions for revision, so after the semester that’ll kind of be done. I’ve also started to think about new things; I’m doing a little bit of work on Elizabeth Barret Browning, and even though I’ve never worked on a poet before, I’m writing a childrens’ book about her. 

“I think I’ve developed these new interests because I’ve finished this book, and they’re a little more creative. In addition to writing this children’s book, I may want to write some historical fiction, and so I’ve been reading a lot more contemporary writing than I’m used to. And this is the beauty of Holy Cross; they’re so supportive of faculty going in different directions, so I just feel very lucky.”

In speaking with Professor Gettelman, it was easy to see how much teaching here has meant to her, but I wanted to push her a little more to see what her relationship with the College at its essence is, so I asked her what she envisions it’s like when she’s no longer a professor at Holy Cross and what her time here has meant to her.

“Ooh, that’s a hard question,” Gettelman replied with a laugh. “I think it really will be the magic of discovering stuff that I wouldn’t have found on The Hill without students. So I think just letting go and losing myself in conversation with students is something that you can’t replicate. I also know how formative relationships I’ve had with high school teachers and professors were for me, so just getting to know students so well and getting to be with a grown-up that’s not their parents that they can talk to about what they want to do with their lives; I think it’s really the conversations and connections with students that I’ll miss.” 

Prof. Gettelman is just one of the several professors I’ve had at Holy Cross who have made my college experience a truly illuminating one. I’m looking forward to seeing where our course will go from here, and to those reading, if you’re curious in picking your professors’ brains to get to know them better, go ahead and do it.

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