Faculty image John R. Knott Professor Emeritus of English English

John R. Knott, Jr., was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on July 9, 1937, the son of John R. Knott and Wilma Henshaw Knott. He graduated from Central High School in 1955 and did his undergraduate work at Yale University, graduating magna cum laude with high honors in English in 1959. In 1959-60 he held a Carnegie Fellowship at Yale, taking one graduate course and teaching undergraduate English. During that year he married Anne Percy Knott of Memphis. He went to Harvard University for his graduate work with a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (1960-61), earning a Ph.D. in English in 1965 after serving as a Teaching Fellow in General Education and in English. He remained at Harvard as an Instructor in English for two years before joining the Department of English of the University of Michigan as an Assistant Professor in 1967. By that time he and his wife Anne had four children: Catherine Henshaw Knott, Ellen Dent Knott, Walker Percy Knott, and Anne Minor Knott.

At Michigan John Knott was promoted to Associate Professor in 1971 and Professor in 1976. He specialized in English Renaissance literature for much of his career, teaching a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses, including Milton, Spenser, Shakespeare, and the Puritan imagination. He twice received recognition for his teaching in the form of LSA Excellence in Education awards. He published numerous articles and chapters and three scholarly books on Renaissance literature: Milton’s Pastoral Vision (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971); The Sword of the Spirit (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1980), with the help of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities; and Discourses of Martyrdom in English Literature: 1563-1694 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), with the help of a Michigan Humanities Award. In the 1990’s his teaching and research interests gradually shifted to literature and the environment. He published a critical book that grew out of a course he developed in the literature of the American wilderness, Imagining Wild America (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2001), and has another forthcoming from University of Michigan Press, Imagining the Forest: Michigan and the Upper Midwest, written with the support of a Mellon Emeritus Fellowship.  He has edited or co-edited several collections dealing with the environment, including The Huron River: Voices from the Watershed (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2000) and Michigan: Our Land, Our Water Our Heritage (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2008, in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy.

John Knott’s service at Michigan has included Assoc. Dean (1977-80) and Acting Dean (1980-81) of LSA; Chair of the Department of English (1982-87); Interim Director of the Humanities Institute (1987-88); and Interim Director of the Program in the Environment (2001-2). As chair of English he started the MFA program in creative writing. He served on the planning committee for the Institute for the Humanities and acted as interim director during its startup year. Several years before his retirement from the faculty in 2006 he chaired the planning and implementation committees that established the joint LSA/SNRE Program in the Environment, which replaced the SNRE undergraduate program, and directed the program for its first year and a half.     

Curriculum Vitae

In my career on the faculty of the University of Michigan (1967-2006) I played significant roles in the creation of three programs (four counting the LSA freshman seminar program, which Judy Bardwick and I started as associate deans): the MFA Program in creative writing of the English Department, the Institute for the Humanities (housed in LSA), and the joint LSA/SNRE Program in the Environment. The first two are well established and successful and have celebrated their twentieth anniversaries. The third, the Program in the Environment, has grown rapidly since its beginnings in 2000-01 and seems likely to continue to grow in size and importance.

When I took over as chairman of English in January of 1982, I told my colleagues that we should establish an MFA Program, building on our long tradition of supporting creative writing through the Hopwood awards. The idea had been promoted from time to time by departmental writers, most notably John Aldridge and Larry Goldstein, but it had never received a critical mass of support or been advocated by the departmental leadership. And there had been dissenters. When he was a member of the department, Donald Hall had vigorously opposed MFA programs generally, like some other writers of his generation who had succeeded without their help. But these programs had blossomed nationally since that time, producing most of the best young writers, and I became convinced that we had the potential to compete with the best of them. Before taking over as chairman I researched MFA programs and met with Leslie Epstein, a college friend who directed a comparable program at Boston University, who thought Michigan ought to be able to mount a strong program; he cautioned, however, that it would take resources, particularly for fellowships. I knew that we would have to patch these together, relying heavily on graderships, graduate assistantships (in our large undergraduate creative writing program), and the probability that MFA students would compete successfully for graduate Hopwood awards.

My colleagues agreed that the time was ripe to move forward, and a departmental committee designed the program, a central requirement of which was that MFA students take literature as well as writing courses. Poet Richard Tillinghast played an active part in developing the program and steering it through Rackham. We brought in George Garrett, a well-known fiction writer with experience in writing programs and extensive connections with writers, to get the MFA off the ground. He did this with considerable panache but left us after several years to accept the chair that his friend Peter Taylor was vacating at the University of Virginia, where George had taught earlier. George helped us recruit Nicholas Delbanco, then running the well-regarded writing program at Bennington College. Nick built the Michigan program and brought it to national prominence, continuing as director until it was securely established as one of the leading programs in the country. Subsequent faculty directors (including Charles Baxter, Linda Gregerson, Peter Ho Davies, and Eileen Pollack) have built on the strong foundation that Nick established. The program has benefited from fellowships provided by Rackham, the Mellon Foundation, and more recently a generous donor, Helen Zell, who has also funded a visiting professorship and a program of visiting writers. Provost Nancy Cantor and President Lee Bollinger funded distinguished visiting writers, including several Nobel Prize winners, helping to raise the program’s visibility. As graduates of the program have won increasing recognition as writers and, in many cases, gone on to teach in writing programs themselves we have attracted better and better applicants. The program is highly regarded in the Department, the College, and the University and currently claims two University Professors (Nick Delbanco and Linda Gregerson). Starting it has proved a gamble worth taking.

I was recruited as one of the planners of the Institute for the Humanities by Dean Peter Steiner of LSA and Provost Bill Frye, who appeared unannounced in my office one afternoon (I was still chairing the English Department) and said that they wanted me to help plan a new institute that would support work in the humanities in the University and be housed in LSA. They approached John D’Arms, then chair of Classics but about to become Dean of the Graduate School if I remember the timing correctly, in the same fashion. The immediate impetus came from a gift that President Harold Shapiro had secured from the Searle family. John and I had talked previously about the need for some kind of humanities institute, of the sort that had begun to be established at leading universities. We both agreed to be part of a small planning committee that also included Dean Paul Boylan of the School of Music, Domna Stanton of Romance Languages, and Peter Steiner himself, who took a strong interest in establishing the institute and insisted upon setting a very ambitious fundraising goal (an endowment of $20,000,000). The program statement that the committee produced included goals, a governance system (on the Michigan model of director and executive committee), and provisions for faculty and graduate student fellows, also visiting fellows and lecturers. What distinguished the program Michigan developed was an emphasis on involving humanists from across the University (in the Schools of Art, Music, and Architecture, for example) and on construing the humanities broadly, to include such fields as history and cultural anthropology as well as art and music. At the time critical theory was ascendant, and some other institutes (Cornell and Yale, to name two prominent ones) seemed preoccupied with this and dominated by members of literature departments. We were convinced that Michigan’s Institute should draw more broadly on the resources of the University and nurture scholarly and creative activity in a wide range of fields. And that it should engage members of the University community through its activities. The program statement also specified that the Institute organize each year’s activities around a particular topic, a practice that was followed for the first five years or so but was subsequently found too confining and abandoned.

I agreed to serve as Interim Director of the Institute for the first year to get it up and running while a search committee looked for a director who would serve for a five-year term (I was asked to be a candidate but declined to be considered, feeling that someone else would be better suited for the job). My task in that startup year, as I saw it, embraced everything from hiring a staff and furnishing an office to mounting programs that would get the attention of the University community and give the new Institute visibility. I worked with a faculty executive committee, including John D’Arms serving ex officio as Dean of the Graduate School, to create the procedures for choosing faculty and graduate student fellows and then oversaw the selection process that produced the first resident and visiting fellows. We established the principle that applications from Michigan faculty would be vetted by a small group of outside scholars who would meet with and advise the executive committee. We compensated for not having fellows in place the first year to some degree by having twice monthly seminars with a group of faculty associates of the Institute. A grant from the Mellon Foundation and a commitment of three years of support from the then Provost, Jim Duderstadt, were critical in the early years of the Institute. The assumption was that it would raise funds for a sufficient endowment over time. The first regular director, James Winn, proved a tenacious and successful fundraiser, setting the Institute on a course that would enable it to become the best endowed such institute in the country (aided by further efforts by his successors Tom Trautman and Daniel Herwitz and by University administrators and development staff).

The most interesting and satisfying aspect of my interim year was mounting a series of events organized around the theme we had chosen for the year, Theater and Society. By the end of the year I felt that my real job was producer, given the time I spent locating the talent and staging and publicizing the events. The compelling need that I saw was to introduce the Institute to the university community, and the broader community insofar as possible, as a way of beginning to give it an identity and a local presence. The events were a mix of academic lectures and conferences (mainly one organized by the Classics Department on theater and society in the classical world) and events that appealed to a broader audience, including a performance by a feminist theater troupe from New York and programs on Latin American dance and African American theater. The events that I enjoyed most and that had the greatest public impact were an inaugural one that featured Arthur Miller reading from his newly published autobiography Timebends and a Javanese wayang, or shadow play, with the University’s gamelan orchestra and an Indonesian puppeteer brought in for the occasion. Both were held in the Rackham auditorium. The Arthur Miller event overflowed into the space outside, where speakers were set up. I couldn’t offer Miller the kind of fee he ordinarily got, but he was willing to come out of loyalty to the University (he had also been willing to speak at an event for Hopwood winners that I had hosted in New York when I was chairing the English Department). Harold Shapiro, a great admirer of Miller’s plays, hosted a dinner at the President’s house beforehand and ceremonially launched the Institute before I introduced Miller, who gave a powerful reading and stayed around the next day for a couple of more informal events. One thing he enjoyed was a reunion with his playwriting teacher at Michigan, Kenneth Rowe, arranged by my wife Anne, then a major gifts officer for the University; Miller came back to see him again with his wife, Inge Morath, on the way to the airport the next day so that she could meet his old teacher. The shadow puppet play came close to filling Rackham auditorium and was a more casual event, with people coming and going as they do at such performances in Indonesia. Parents brought children and took them up to the front to see how the puppets worked. We sponsored related lectures and a panel the next day, but for me the greatest pleasure was seeing a diverse crowd enjoy an event that drew upon unique resources of the University, including the gamelan and faculty expertise (of Judith and Pete Becker in particular). These and other public events convinced me that one of the most important tasks in establishing a new program is to make it visible in ways that will arouse the interest of faculty and students and encourage the support of the University offices that will be important to its success. I felt well supported by the University through funding and publicity during the startup year. One of the real strengths of the University, I’ve come to feel, is its responsiveness to new initiatives and ambitious events.

My more recent involvement with the Program on the Environment owed something to the fact that I was serving as an elected faculty member of the LSA Executive Committee at a time when Provost Nancy Cantor decided to explore possibilities for reorganizing the undergraduate program of SNRE, then struggling financially and having difficulty maintaining enrollment, with the idea that it might become an LSA concentration. She enlisted Dean Shirley Neuman of LSA, who charged a committee made up of LSA and SNRE faculty, with representation from the College of Engineering, to plan a new program that would replace the SNRE one. I agreed to chair the planning committee. I had chaired the faculty committee that organized an LSA theme semester on the environment (held in the winter of 1998), and my own teaching and research interests were increasingly in literature and the environment. Given my interests and experience, I felt that this was an assignment that I should accept. I had believed for some time that the University needed a more robust program in environmental studies, involving LSA, as I saw such programs proliferating around the country.

Our committee came to the conclusion relatively early that the best way to involve SNRE faculty and draw upon the resources of the school was to make the program a joint one, reporting to both deans and granting a degree from both schools. We also agreed that the program should be physically based in the Dana Building if possible, given the environmental activity centered there and the fact that many of the classes taken by students in the program would be housed in the building. A joint program struck me as politically necessary as well as desirable for other reasons. We needed to get the SNRE faculty, as well as the LSA faculty, to agree to any plan we came up with, and it was apparent that current SNRE undergraduates were likely to resist whatever we proposed. Once we had designed a program and submitted a report, I had to sell it to the SNRE faculty (and to the LSA faculty, although this was not such a challenge). Interim Dean Barry Rabe’s strong support of the new program was critical to its acceptance (he had served on the planning committee before his appointment as Interim Dean). Barry and I worked well together and I believe made an effective team.

In designing a curriculum the planning committee considered the various programs offered at leading colleges and universities around the country and decided that Michigan’s should be a rigorous one, with prerequisites (including math and statistics, basic science, and an introduction to policy) that would give students tools that they would need to address environmental issues intelligently, whatever specialization they pursued. We specified that they were to put together a sequence of courses in a particular area (science, social science, or the humanities) in the upper class years, to be worked out with a faculty advisor. We also established a field study requirement that could be satisfied by coursework or an apprenticeship of an appropriate kind, believing that it was important for students to get out of the classroom. It was clear to us that an interdisciplinary program of this kind would not please everyone, and that it would take work to achieve some of its objectives (for example, more interdisciplinary, team-taught courses), but members of the committee were strongly supportive of the program that emerged. Some went on to become members of its executive committee or to play other important roles once the program was up and running.

An implementation committee was necessary to work out details, particularly those having to do with funding, and I chaired that one as well. Both deans’ offices were represented on this committee, a smaller one that dealt with the nuts and bolts of the transition. The most important decisions had to do with how to compensate SNRE faculty for teaching in the new program once students were enrolled in LSA and tuition revenues went to LSA rather than SNRE. Barry Rabe was invited to become the first regular director of the program and, happily, accepted. He was not able to start, however, until after a new dean of SNRE was in place. It became clear that an interim director would be needed, and I agreed to play that role.

My tenure as interim director stretched to a year and a half because of the time it took for incoming SNRE Dean Rosina Bierbaum to extricate herself from duties in Washington. The first year of my interim directorship was occupied with startup activities that included getting various approvals (from the Regents to curriculum committees), organizing an office and staff, working with an executive committee to fill out a curriculum and establish policies (including ones governing the sensitive business of appointing graduate student instructors, formerly in the purview of SNRE for many of the courses that would be offered), and mounting a series of events that would introduce the program to faculty, students, and the university community generally before the program actually began offering classes the following year. I was convinced, as before with the Humanities Institute, that one of the most important things to do in a startup year was to make the program visible. We held brown bag gatherings at which faculty from various disciplines made presentations, and we had sufficient funding to bring in a series of prominent lecturers. Thanks to Rosina Bierbaum’s Washington connections, we were able to get Carol Browner, head of the EPA throughout the Clinton administration and a dynamic speaker, for a very well attended kickoff event and a series of appearances before various groups (including students, faculty, and members of the local environmental community). I was pleased to be able to include writers as well as some distinguished scientists among the visitors, specifically poet Robert Hass, environmental writer Stephanie Mills, and science (and fiction) writer Robert Quammen. I was particularly pleased to see Quammen draw a large crowd of scientists and science students who were fans of his work.

It became clear relatively early that there would be tensions between the program and SNRE (the administration and some of the faculty, not to mention undergraduates in the program being phased out). These had to do partly with space, in a building without much to spare, but mainly with the assignment of SNRE faculty to courses in the program and the selection of graduate student assistants. Some tension was inevitable given the shifts of resources and control. SNRE faculty now had to offer courses that would meet the needs of the program (some did this quite willingly and welcomed possibilities for innovation); and faculty used to appointing their own graduate student assistants had to go through a different procedure that conformed to LSA standards. These tensions have persisted to some degree, although the space issues have been resolved by the move of the program to larger quarters in the Undergraduate Science Building. How much these have to do with structural issues (a director reporting to two deans) and how much with the particular circumstances (closing a program in one school and reconstituting it with the budget moved to another) or the individuals involved remains to be seen. What is clear is that the program has thrived under Barry Rabe and his successors as director, Bob Owen and Paul Webb, with numbers of concentrators and minors increasingly rapidly and an array of new courses now being offered. It still needs joint appointments of faculty in environmental areas, of the sort made in a number of LSA programs. No provision was made for this when the program was launched because of a worsening financial picture for the University; in fact, the program itself almost became a victim of the changing economic conditions.

I would draw several conclusions from my own experience in starting a program of this sort: that it takes more work than anyone could have envisioned, that the difficulties are compounded when two schools with different cultures and modes of operation are involved, and that the benefits of shaking up the status quo and drawing better students to innovative courses outweigh the costs.

Having played various administrative roles in the course of a faculty career at Michigan, including chairing a large department and serving as Associate Dean and Acting Dean of LSA, I have had a chance to influence the institution through hiring and promotion decisions and many kinds of choices about priorities. I look back with most pleasure, however, on my role in starting new programs that have become a part of the landscape of LSA and the University.   

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