Living the Life of the Mind

Those of us who teach literature are sometimes surprised by the ways in which characters we love rub off on us. They affect, and even seem to become, parts of our living selves. Such may be the case with the indwelling impact of James Joyce’s Leopold Bloom upon President Karen Lawrence. The unselfishly empathetic, insatiably curious, and indefatigably resilient hero of Ulysses, Bloom is an inveterate social visionary.

Even before she officially assumed her role as president, Karen Lawrence began teaching at Sarah Lawrence. When her appointment was announced in the spring of 2007, I invited her to visit my lecture class on “Epic Vision and Tradition” when we would be discussing James Joyce’s Ulysses. In the blur of her transcontinental commuting between California and New York, and the boot camp drill of meetings and briefings to familiarize herself with the complicated institution she would be leading, Karen found time to visit my class—with her beloved dog-eared copy of Ulysses. She provided the students a big map of the “Dear Dirty Dublin” of June 16, 1904, and an introduction to the rumblings and ramblings of its primary characters. You could see and feel the sparks flying in Karen’s exchanges with that class, which conveyed more about Ulysses, more clearly and essentially, in its 45 minutes than I felt I had done in three weeks of 90-minute lectures.

That session provided Karen her first close-up interaction with our students at their most vital, curious, and original. She has continued to visit my lectures, as well as Persis Charles’ “1919” lecture in history and Bella Brodzki’s seminars in comparative literature, where she discussed the fiction of experimental novelist Christine Brooke-Rose, another writer on Karen’s A-list. Karen has twice made time to offer a single-semester course, “Who’s Afraid of James Joyce?” She has also taken her teaching and scholarly expertise into the world in various College programs, including the long-established and deeply popular Faculty on the Road program. And in the summer of 2012 she orchestrated and led a Joyce-focused tour of Ireland for alumni, family, and friends.

It’s hard to think of any aspect of Karen Lawrence’s presidency that doesn’t engage her scholarly curiosity and rigor—and her teaching instincts. She treats every duty required of her, even committee and faculty and trustee meetings, as potential teaching and learning moments. As our advocate, Karen can speak from her experience of what it’s like to converse with students in conference, helping each of them give shape to an idea, and affirming to each that working out this idea has its own unique value and potential. This is why Karen speaks so authentically of our artisanal mode of knowledge engagement and generation that “discourages passive consumption and invites the testing of theory in practice.” Of Karen’s public outreach, literature and history faculty member Fredric Smoler ’75 observes: “Her Joyce-tuned ear caught the song in our speech about this place, and after she could whistle the tune. … She wanted to be able to tell donors that the conference/seminar system is very special, the heart of what we do, that she had done it, and could talk about it knowledgeably and feelingly.”

Karen has written and spoken eloquently about the ways in which reading fiction and poetry develops one’s capacity for empathy and about the ways in which a literary text can serve as a mediating device for honest disagreement, creating a safe conversational space to access, understand, and respect another person’s experience and point of view. From classrooms where she has taught and learned, Karen brings the exercise of pragmatic empathy to all kinds of other meeting spaces, including those where the present situations and the future directions of the College are debated.

Karen’s empathy reveals itself too in the annual series of dinners she hosts for first-year students at the President’s House. Karen began this practice in 2007, because she was also a first-year student learning the ropes. Her solidarity with incoming students renews itself annually in this rite. “It’s a quintessentially Sarah Lawrence thing to do,” she says, yet this hospitable gesture certainly went beyond her job description.

Karen gets to celebrate the closing of that circle and the opening out into a wider one whenever she presides at commencement. She gets to congratulate so many of the people whom she’d reassured of their place in the College and in the larger civil society.

In these intimate dinners, Karen is sharing and exercising the great bonding ritual of hospitality, founded in the great epics and novels she has studied and taught, by which strangers are made friends and differences can merge into concord. They welcome students into our deep culture and our way of “doing” the liberal arts, a way of being deeply thoughtful in and committed to the world, on one’s own and yet in partnership with others: the empathetic life of the mind that Karen Lawrence has learned and exemplified tirelessly throughout her scholarly and administrative career.