Thoughts on 'Spirit Matters' and student success

Franklin champions additional faculty-student interaction, richer educational experiences

April 11, 2018

Jeff Franklin plays a lot of roles: associate vice chancellor for undergraduate experiences, professor of English and cultural historian. Fittingly, Franklin has also lived several lives, first as a science policy advisor for the government, then as a poet and then as a Victorianist. Franklin is a lifelong learner, which might explain why he discusses his career less as a series of fits and starts and more as a compelling hodgepodge of disparate skills, fields and ideas that are more illuminating than the sum of their parts.

Jeff Franklin of CU Denver
Jeff Franklin, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate experiences

In his new book, “Spirit Matters,” Franklin’s knack for synthesis is both method and topic. Bringing together a wide assortment of novels, travel writing and religious treatises, Franklin tracks the emerging conflict between science and religion in 19th-century England. As part of that journey, he describes a wide array of “alternative religions” – such as spiritualism, theosophy and mesmerism – that took shape as the Victorians sought to reconcile what they came to know about the natural and divine worlds.

Franklin joined CU Denver Today, not for a séance, but to discuss “Spirit Mattersand student success.

In “Spirit Matters,” you explore the conflict between religion and science in the 19th century. What Victorian novel typifies that conflict?

Science fiction, in general, really arose in the 19th century around questions about the spiritual versus the material. That’s what we see in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The striking thing about Dracula is that he’s really the embodiment of spirituality. And then you have all these scientists using technologies to fight him; they’re trying to come up with a material solution to what is ultimately a spiritual problem, and they’re hoping the telegraph and the railway and their modern weapons will help them defeat this ancient, spiritual being.

Of course, there are ways to maintain faith, and belief in God – or the spiritual in general – without denying science or other realities. What my book tries to demonstrate is that there were a lot of deeply concerned and interested people in the 19th century who were looking for a way not to over-simplify, not to deny, but instead to work on resolving the apparent contradictions between the material world and science, on the one hand, and the spiritual world and organized religion, on the other hand. There were a lot of fascinating alternatives.

Where does your passion for your work come from? Why did you enter the field of Victorian studies?

It was the big novels. It was reading George Eliot and thinking, “This book is as big as the world it represents!” In the 19th century I also saw all the ingredients for the 20th and 21st centuries. All of those questions and concerns and doubts about religion that are still very much present in America took shape in 19th-century England. All the ingredients for the Naropa Institute in Boulder, the American fascination with the Dalai Lama, and L. Ron Hubbard – they originated in the British exploration of the world and, therefore, world religions.

As an English professor you’ve mentored a number of student researchers. What advice do you offer to undergraduate advisees, particularly as they consider graduate study?

Jeff Franklin with Judy
Jeff Franklin and his wife, Judy Lucas.

You know, it’s a hard question because, just in the last 30 years, the humanities have declined in the U.S. The prospects for people with PhDs in literature are daunting; there might be 400 people applying to one tenure-track position. That creates a real challenge; you don’t want to give people false hopes.

At the same time, the more I’ve taught in English, the more I’ve come to believe that what I deliver to people is a set of skills: professional-level textual analysis, professional-level reading, professional-level writing. And I view those as infinitely valuable skills regardless of what one goes into.

As associate vice chancellor for undergraduate experiences, you’ve championed high-impact practices (HIPs) in the classroom. Can you tell us about HIPs, and explain what CU Denver hopes to accomplish with them?

High-impact practices are a nationally-recognized set of engaged teaching and learning strategies –such as writing-intensive courses, undergraduate research, study abroad, service learning or internships – where the student is doing what they’re learning. Frequently, HIPs involve additional faculty-student interaction, as well as application to real-world challenges and problems. They create a richer educational experience for students.

We’re working on ways to incentivize HIPs. We got a generous grant from the Provost’s office two years ago and gave stipends to 70 faculty and staff to work on integrating HIPs into their teaching and curricula. This year, our Center for Faculty Development is running faculty communities of learning around three faculty fellows, each one of whom is focusing on a different HIP.

I continue to work to make HIPs more available to our students and to have more of our students participate in them. We’re working to create a culture where engaged teaching and learning is part of CU Denver’s identity. That would be my ultimate goal.