The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News September 23, 2005

Off the Cuff: Grover Zinn

After nearly 40 years at Oberlin, Grover Zinn, a William H. Danforth professor of religion and former associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, has decided to retire.

What time period of Oberlin do you look back on most fondly?
I’ve liked my whole career. Every time has its good part and bad part; each decade has its characteristics. One of the notable things during the time I’ve been here has been the increasing diversity within the faculty and students.

Any favorite Oberlin memories?
[Myself as] the young radical, standing at noon with a line of people hand in hand — circling Tappan Square completely — in protest of the Vietnam War. Teaching in the London program in the fall of 2000 with Professor Longsworth in the English department; we had taught courses together before, but the experience was probably one of the highlights of my teaching career. Mentoring students in honors projects, because it gives you a chance to work closely with outstanding students who do very creative work; having the opportunity to come to Oberlin and teach in the first undergraduate department to teach religion as a humanistic discipline rather than as a theological undertaking — that changed my whole approach not only to teaching but to my research. Walking across campus with my dog during fall leaf colors — so beautiful; Oberlin, in terms of the village, has been a great place to live and raise a family. And I’ve always enjoyed the give and take in the Oberlin classroom and in Oberlin seminars because students are always not just curious but well-informed — they pursue issues in an interesting way.

How would you compare the experiences of being a dean versus being a professor?
They’re both extremely interesting, but very different. As a professor, you’re in constant contact with students in and out of the classroom. You’re concerned with teaching in your area, with nurturing students, with seeing them go on through their careers and graduate school. You also have the time to pursue research in a serious way. You’re engaged with committees that are concerned with College governance and College issues. When you move into the dean’s office, you know two things: you really don’t have, at least in your first years, time to teach, and you’re not going to have a lot of time for research. You’re immediately put in a situation where you have to grasp the work of the College as a whole and the relationship of the College with the Conservatory. I think one of the most exciting parts of working in the dean’s office is having the opportunity to participate in building programs in the College and to participate as a dean in the hiring of the next generation of Oberlin faculty.

What direction do you see Oberlin moving toward in the future?
What I hope Oberlin will do is build on its strengths, but have the vision to move into the changing future of higher education. I think what this means is to keep the traditions, but be open to the opportunities and needs that arise in the future as technology continues to expand. The subjects we study continue to multiply and the approaches we use continue to change because these approaches are not static.

What’s next for you?
My wife and I intend to travel until our knees give out. I’m in the process of editing a book entitled The Abbey of Saint-Denis, Near Paris, France. I’ll be the editor of a series of translations of writings of 12th century Christian mystics into English and some colleagues and I are starting a new series of publications dedicated to the medieval interpretation of sacred texts. I’m working on a long-term book project on 12th century mystics, I have some other writing projects and I plan to spend time with my children, one of whom is in Germany, another one is in L.A. [My wife and I] plan to stay here in Oberlin.


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