A Conversation with Dr. John Greenfield


By Greg Kassen, Contributing Writer

When I first entered Dr. John Greenfield’s home just a few blocks away from the university to interview him for this article, I was welcomed by a set of cats named Darcy and Janey. As most of his students know, Dr. Greenfield is a big fan of the European rugby leagues and named his pets after the players Darcy Lussick and Cory Jane respectively. Not really. What his students will actually attest to is his love for Jane Austen and how he shows that love by naming one cat after the author herself, and the other one after the Pride and Prejudice character Mr. Darcy. “They’re usually not so friendly to strangers,” he told me as they approached. I spent the rest of the interview concerned that I may have smelled like food.

For those who may not know him, Dr. Greenfield is a retired English professor from McKendree who, upon his exit in 2017, got awarded Professor Emeritus status at the university. According to an article written that year for the McKendree Magazine, “[Dr. Greenfield] has written or edited more than 25 articles, literary biographies or reviews, and given more than 50 presentations to professional audiences. He continues to produce scholarly papers, earning second place recently in the prestigious Keatsshelly Memorial Association Essay Contest.” If anyone is still unsure who he is and can recall his final semester teaching full time, he was the professor who was giving away an entire library’s worth of books in Carnegie. I admit to having taken around twenty books during that time and, after our interview was done at his house, Dr. Greenfield gave me more literature that he saved in his storage room. I still do not know if this was intended as a bribe.

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Dr. John Greenfield posing with one of his cats in his home

Dr. Greenfield and I sat in his living room for the duration of the interview, traveling no farther than his home office down the hall (which he keeps as clean as his McKendree office was). I opened the conversation asking him what he had been up to lately, and we ended spending half an hour discussing literature. The interview only lasted about 50 minutes. I was able to learn his favorite novel, though, and to my surprise it was not by Jane Austen. Dr. Greenfield credits Бра́тья Карама́зовы by Russian author Фёдор Достое́вский as his favorite book and explained to me that he read it in college (as a student, not as a professor) and would love to visit it again. At this point, I remembered when he suggested the novel as a possible choice for the Literary Interest Society’s book club. I would have loved to read it myself (and I would have loved even more to discuss it with Dr. Greenfield), but asking busy college students to read and ponder a dense, nearly-1000-page novel in a single semester in addition to their course work would be a little too overwhelming. Instead, the LIS settled on a shorter novel we never ended up reading. This discussion of Russian literature led us to discuss another Dostoevsky work I have been wanting to read, Crime and Punishment, and Dr. Greenfield recommended to me the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. We then proceeded to discuss translations in literature for a good 15 minutes.

I have a feeling, though, that Dr. Greenfield may have chosen The Brothers Karamazov as his favorite over other Romantic/Victorian English novels because he is perhaps always in contact with the latter genre. He is obviously quite fond of these works considering that they are his area of expertise, but when Dr. Greenfield approaches Austen’s work, it is as a scholar and professor. Dostoevsky’s novel, though, Dr. Greenfield has only ever read as a student and perhaps remembers it with the excitement of a first-time reading. I know that Dr. Greenfield rereads Victorian literature a lot. During our discussion, he told me that he rereads each book as he teaches it and that, since he most likely taught Jane Austen every year in his 33-year career at McKendree, that means that he has read Pride and Prejudice (his favorite Austen novel to teach) at least 33 times in the last 33 years. This is my math, not his. Dr. Greenfield makes it clear that this is not a chore, though, and that, because he loves the literature, he does it happily. “With good writing you will always see something new, that is one of the best parts about teaching,” he says. His least favorite part of teaching, then? It is grading papers, something he has had to deal with since his work as a graduate student.

Back to the conversation about translations, though, Dr. Greenfield made a lot of good points about why translations are important: using examples such as Homer’s Odyssey being written in prose and verse by translators such as Fagles and Pope, and the French novel Madame Bovary and the tricky task of translating indirect discourse into English. My favorite example Dr. Greenfield gave, however, about why translations are important is when he discussed teaching The Sorrows of Young Werther in one of his classes. A German novel by Goethe, some translations of the work apparently make the highly German names (such as Fräulein von B.) sound more English. When Dr. Greenfield assigned the book, he had a certain translation on the syllabus. Those students who did not realize this and read other translations, though, apparently had a hard time on the test answering questions about characters they never heard of.

This example is apparently not the only time a student has been confused in his class, though. When I asked him what the biggest change he saw in education was, Dr. Greenfield effortlessly responded with “cellphone use.” A useful tool for some, Dr. Greenfield argues that they can be distracting for certain students and even recalls an anonymous student in his grammar class that got so out of control with her phone that all she would come to class for was to text. He eventually wrote a note on one of her failed papers asking what the point of coming to class was if all she was going to do was play on her phone. There were other students who had similar issues in his class, and Dr. Greenfield recalled a pair who had their phones open during a test. Needless to say, he made them put their phones away. “Were they just texting,” I asked him, “or were they trying to cheat?” He responded with, “If they were cheating, it did not help their grade.”

He went on to say that another change he noticed throughout his teaching career was the development of home computers and Blackboard, as well as the inclusion of rubrics. Dr. Greenfield is very much a pro-rubric type of guy who says that the inclusion helps the grader be more objective and allows the student to clearly know what is being asked of him or her. Less interpretation on the student’s behalf is involved. And, again, Dr. Greenfield has been grading papers since his time in graduate school (so he would know) and says that having a rubric helps ease this part of a professor’s job.

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One of many bookshelves in his home, this collection in Dr. Greenfield’s office contains his books on Victorian and Romantic English Literature

Although retired now, Dr. Greenfield assures me that he has been keeping busy with various projects. First and foremost, in the fall since his retirement, Dr. Greenfield has been playing a lot of golf. Even during the winter months, he finds a way to sneak a round in, heading down to Florida this past February to visit a former professor who he described as a “snow bird.” Along with the sport, however, Dr. Greenfield has also continued with his academic practices of reading and writing. Since his retirement, he has joined a book club associated with the Lebanon Library where he reads contemporary books and tries not to show off to his peers. He has also presented a few papers since retiring: among these being one about Victoria presented at a nationwide pop culture conference and a forthcoming presentation about two film versions of Persuasion to the Metropolitan St. Louis Region members of the Jane Austen Society of North America.