Costello 2005 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year
By Tim Stoddard
Bonnie Costello’s literature courses consistently attract an unlikely mix of BU students, who come to her class with a wide range of experiences and expectations. “It’s challenging,” she says, “because you have many different needs represented in the classroom. You’ve got your English majors, you’ve got students who are just curious about literature or who are fulfilling a requirement, and then you’ve got graduate students who are approaching the material from a more professional angle. Addressing all these audiences at once is difficult.”
It’s also stimulating, she says, as soon as a heterogeneous group is united in a common cause. To help her students find that dynamic, Costello echoes a phrase her colleague Robert Pinsky, a CAS professor of English and former U.S. poet laureate, often tells his students: “You’re not the most important person in the classroom.” The point, she says, is that “the writer is the most important person, and that his or her text is something that we are all paying homage to, that we are perpetuating through our discussion. If we keep our mind on that, then we all have a collective enterprise.”
Costello’s goal is to help her students appreciate the distinctiveness of each writer’s voice. “That’s always my priority,” she says. “I try to help students see writing as an expression of the individual, rather than some Zeitgeist, or simply a preoccupation of the times.”
For her literary shepherding in the classroom as well as her research in modern poetry, Costello has received the 2005 University Scholar/Teacher of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the United Methodist Church. BU Provost ad interim David Campbell presented the award, which carries a $2,000 prize, at the New Faculty Orientation on September 8.
The award recognizes outstanding faculty members for their dedication and contributions to the learning arts and to their institution and is conferred at colleges and universities that are historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church. Although BU is nonsectarian, its origins trace back to the Newbury Biblical Institute, the first Methodist seminary in the United States, which was founded in Newbury, Vt., in 1839. The institute moved to Boston in 1867, where it became the Boston Theological Seminary. In 1869, when BU was founded, it became the University’s School of Theology. Recipients have included professors in disciplines as diverse as social work, physics, music, math, and political science.
“I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of this award than Professor Costello,” says Dean of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Henderson. “She is both an internationally recognized authority on modern American poetry and one of the best teachers in the college.”
Seeing and being seen
As a graduate student at Cornell, Costello was initially drawn to 18th-century British literature, but soon gravitated to modern American poetry. She wrote her thesis on the work of Marianne Moore. “I discovered that there was very little written about Moore, and that it was rather slight. Somehow her writing generated good writing from me. I can’t explain why — something clicked. It’s terrific, because she’s now centrally in the modernist canon in a way that in the mid 1970s, when I was writing my thesis, she was not.”
Costello is probably best known in academia for her scholarship on Moore and on Elizabeth Bishop. Many of her colleagues around the country use Costello’s books, such as Marianne Moore: Imaginary Possessions and Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery, to teach their own poetry courses. “That’s very gratifying,” she says, “because I don’t want to write simply for a narrow, arcane audience.”
Costello has always been interested in the way poets incorporate visual elements in their verse. She’s taught a graduate course called Lyrical Sight, about representations of the visual in modern poetry, and one of her courses this fall, Ways of Seeing, explores how active modes of seeing are represented in literary texts, and how visual perception is used as a theme and a strategy in literature. In many of her courses, Costello has blurred the lines between literature and visual arts in other ways, sometimes showing slides depicting visual arts movements that coincide with movements in poetry.
Costello has explored visual elements in her scholarship as well. Her 2003 book Shifting Ground: Reinventing Landscape in Modern American Poetry addresses the perennial subject of landscape in American poetry. She’s currently working on a book exploring how writers and poets between 1930 and 1950 turned away from modernism to produce works that are the literary equivalent of still-life paintings. “Starting with the Depression through to World War II,” she says, “writers were looking for ways of creating orders on a small scale that wouldn’t have that sort of fascist hold on the imagination, but that would satisfy the need for intimate orders. There was a sense that modernism had vacated the personal, and there was a need to reclaim that intimate, shallow, personal space without cutting it off from the outside world.”
For the past two years, Costello has directed the College of Arts and Sciences Honors Program. Now in its 11th year, the program continues to attract academically elite students to Boston University. Every spring, the top 10 percent of students admitted to CAS are invited into the program, which is designed to give them an enriched curriculum during their first two years of study. Through its extracurricular offerings, the Honors Program also helps to build a sense of community among high-achieving BU students.
“The program has been a wonderful presence on campus,” Costello says. “It’s a way for talented students across disciplines to meet each other, and for them to have opportunities to work with professors very early on in their time at BU.”
For Costello, directing the Honors Program is one part of a larger effort to nurture the scholarship and literature emerging today and in the future. In addition to her teaching and mentoring at BU, she continues to review contemporary poetry for a number of journals. “I think it’s important not only to be a custodian of the literature of the past,” she says, “but to be someone who helps to advance and discriminate among the work of the present.”