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Rex A Owens

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Living the Wisconsin Idea - Dr. Emily Auerbach
by Rex A Owens   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Monday, May 02, 2011
Posted: Monday, May 02, 2011

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Profile of Dr. Emily Auerbach, Professor of English at UW-Madison, author, Jane Austin authority, founder of the Odyssey Project

 University of Wisconsin President Charles Van Hise is credited with popularizing the “Wisconsin Idea” in 1904 in a speech in which he said: “I shall never be content until the beneficent influence of the University reaches every home in the state.” He implemented his vision by creating the university’s extension division. Today, Dr. Emily Auerbach devotes herself both to her own academic specialty and making sure that people of all ages, incomes and backgrounds have access to university programs in literature.

From her own family’s experience she learned how education transforms a person’s life. “Since both of my parents came out of poverty through a free college education at Berea College in Kentucky, I know that the one true ticket out of poverty is access to higher education.”

Emily Auerbach has been the Director of the Odyssey Project since inception in 2003. “I launched UW Odyssey Project in the Fall of 2003 and have always been its’ Director. We are now in our eighth year of providing adults facing economic barriers to higher education a free humanities course and support as they continue on toward college degrees and better lives.”   An introductory humanities course is offered which provides students the opportunity to find their own voices, become empowered and participate in very lively discussions of art, history, literature philosophy and writing. The purpose of the class which meets Wednesdays from September to May is to improve writing and critical thinking skills. In addition to Emily Auerbach the regular faculty include: Marhsall Cook-Writing & Critical Thinking; Jean Feraca-Philosophy & Civic Engagement; Gene Phillips-Art History and Craig Werner-American History. Based on the topic of the class there are sixteen other faculty that contribute.    “The goal of the program is to help adults break the cycle of poverty through free access to empowering works of literature, philosophy, and history and a jumpstart at higher education.” Emily explains.

Emily Auerbach attended college herself on scholarship. “I attended the UW Madison free on a music scholarship, earning my bachelor’s degree in both Music and English. I received my PhD in English Literature from the University of Washington” Her doctoral thesis: “Maestros, Dilettantes, and Philistines: The Musician in the Victorian Novel,” was later published as a book.   She now holds to appointments in the Department of English and the Dept. of Liberal Studies and the Arts.

Her teaching duties are varied as she explains: “Because the Odyssey Project students are earning credits in English 167 and English 168, that counts as my undergraduate teaching for the English Department. In the Department of Liberal Studies and the Arts, I teach courses via Independent Learning(such as the Courage to Write course taught online or through the mail), Tuesday Morning Booktalks, and occasional other literature classes, and I coordinate the award-winning “Eloquence and Eminence: Emeritus Faculty Lectures,” a series of free talks by UW faculty not in its 17th year.”

These responsibilities would keep any three people busy full time. However, Emily is known as a scholar on Jane Austen and has recently published: Searching for Jane Austen. Emily is interested in Austen because she wrote at a time when women were typically denied education and writing was not an acceptable profession. “I admire the wit and wisdom of her novels and the courage of her life. She wrote six quietly subversive masterpieces at a time when women were denied college educations and told ‘Literature is not the business of a woman’s life’(Robert Southeyu). Emily researched the book for years and the portrait of Austen she paints is much different from previous writers. Auerbach explains her process: “I compared Austen’s original letters to the censored versions that appeared in early biographies. Relatives and early editors tried to soften the bite and dilute the message. For example, Austen’s comment about some neighbors, ‘I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow’ became ’I was as civil to them as circumstances would allow.’ Relatives removed references to policitcs and money and then claimed Austen had no interest in such things.” As a result of Emily’s book Jane Austen can now been seen without rose glasses as a vibrant, intelligent, witty person who commented on her time through her novels.

In addition to Jane Austen, Emily Auerbach has both a scholarly and teaching interest in women writers. Emily is the Director of the Courage to Write program. Her goal for the program is clear: “My goal in Courage to Write series is to develop a series of radio documentaries and written guides to increase awareness of early women who overcame barriers in order to write books that changed the world.” The program has won four national awards for excellence. Not satisfied with her accomplishments with this program Emily envisions expanding the program: “I would like to develop more programs. I envision having 52 programs that could be broadcast once a week for a year, combating the notion that women’s history is something you can ‘take care of’ in March.”

Speaking of radio – another job Emily has is as the co-host (along with Norman Gilliland) of the radio program University of the Air on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio on Sundays fromn 4:00-5:00 pm. She and Norman have co-hosted the program since 1995. The program format is conversational interviews with different guests each week. Auerbach explains the program as: “Our topics range from the Harlem Renaissance to schizophrenia, from James Baldwin to Lawrence of Arabia. I see the program as a perfect example of the Wisconsin Idea as it makes the knowledge of UW faculty available to people all over the state and beyond.”

Another program that extends the Wisconsin Idea is the Eloquence & Eminence Lecture Series that
Emily coordinates. The lectures are given by retired University of Wisconsin faculty known for the teaching excellence and scholarship.   The lectures are held on Sunday afternoons from 2:00-3:00 pm in the Pyle Center at 702 Langdon St, Madison, WI. All lectures are free and open to the public and do not require advance registration.

Emily has received several teaching awards including:  the Bartell Arts Award and the Robert Gard Wisconsin Idea Award. She also received the Governor’s Award in the Humanities and national broadcasting awards for the “Courage to Write” program. She is the UW Alumni Foundation Cabinet 99 Award recipient,  and has received the Van Hise Outreach Teaching Award and the Underkofler Distinguished Teaching Award.

It is clear that Emily is very busy. What is her secret? When asked how she manages her time, she quipped: “I don’t.”

While feeling that she doesn’t manage her time she has a solid belief and life experience on the power of education and literature: “Literature changes lives. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”

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