Strandberg: A Teacher and Legend at Duke University

Wednesday, December 21, 2016
Charlie Sutherland, Digital Media Intern, English Department

Victor Strandberg, beloved English professor with 52 years at Duke under his belt, has earned a singularly positive reputation among students and faculty. One of the first things a prospective English student is sure to hear is, "You've got to take a Strandberg class; he has the voice of God." What they say is true—his speaking voice, which must carry throughout a lecture hall full of hundreds of students, does possess a certain deep, divine quality. But Professor Strandberg also has a voice of reason, creative brilliance, and infectious curiosity.

The first thing you'll notice when you walk into Professor Strandberg’s office is its atmosphere. The walls and furniture are saturated in half a decade's worth of material: countless books, the bust of Robert Penn Warren, bulletin boards full of pictures of loved ones, and portraits of Victor and Penny (his wife of 55 years) and their various exotic animals from all stages of life.

Every seven years he takes a sabbatical. "I started in Sweden, land of my ancestors." There, Strandberg taught at Upsalla University in Sweden; then Monheim, Germany; University of Leuven in Belgium; Marrakech, Morocco; Japan; and Czechoslovakia.

Having dedicated his life to literature, he has many favorite books. "You know I could list about ten of them. The one I most admire is [Faulkner's] Absalom, Absalom! I think that’s the greatest achievement in American fiction."

Another dark-horse choice, Strandberg says, is Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. He recalls the time he met Didion: "She came here to give some talks at Duke and the students put on a dinner for her at one of the other professors' houses. I was very happy to meet with her. I tried to convince her that A Book of Common Prayer is a masterpiece." He laughed and said, “I think I did convince her eventually. She was surprised at how enthused I was, but I think she was very pleased. An author has a difficult time judging his own work. They never know how good it is. They put it out there, but it’s too close to them, really. So they’re eager to get intelligent responses."

Strandberg speaks often about the evolution of the Duke English department. "The curriculum was much more regimented. We had freshman English then, only freshman students. Everyone would read the same classics. Conrad, Eliot, Hopkins, Joyce, Hemingway. There might be 20 or 25 teachers. The whole freshman class would read the same texts. In the 1970s, there was a revolution against all that. The regimented syllabus disintegrated, and it became every teacher doing what he or she is interested in.”

Another key difference between today’s English courses and those of yesteryear can be found the grading scale. The word “cutthroat” comes to mind: “Back when I started,” Strandberg says, “and for years after that, I might have a class of thirty students—maybe one student would get an A or A-, and the others would scale down from there. Maybe no one would get an A or A- out of 30 students. So the grades were strictly evaluated. Now, as I understand it, the average grade is A-. That’s quite a difference.”

On top of the four courses he taught every semester, he also taught night school and summer school courses. "When I first came here, the standard of teaching was 3 courses a week. Supposedly the faculty does research; one of the other differences, it used to be much easier to get your work published—and when you published, you might get sales of 2000 copies, almost guaranteed. All of the libraries in the country, particularly university libraries, would buy a copy. Now, a similar book might only sell 200 copies. We’ve lost 90 percent of the market, and it’s much harder to get your book published under any circumstance. If you are a young scholar, not very well known, good luck to you—trying to somehow wedge your work among the well known established scholars. It’s Darwinian competition."

He also describes a “tidal wave” of applications to college. “Jobs were going begging,” he says. “The people who were supposed to teach them were my generation—people born in the middle 1930s, during the Great Depression, when you had small families. We had a shortage of teachers and a surplus of students—and since then, it’s reversed. Now we have a surplus of PhDs and a relatively smaller population of students, especially at elite universities.”

Strandberg’s large lecture style (his lectures have in the past enrolled over 200 students) is rare not only for English classes but for all humanities classes. “I like an intermediate stage. I think professors have to be given leeway to teach what they are interested in—but that’s not all they should do. They should teach some things, whether they are interested or not, which are for the benefit of the curriculum and the students and the department as a whole. And that would include lecture courses, I would say, in the more organized sense that used to apply.” It is this stage that has afforded Strandberg such a large audience, and therefore so much popularity. He has the rare ability to engage with hundreds of English students at once without sacrificing the personal, small-scale, liberal arts feel.