Remembering Professor Charlie Sugnet

The dynamic professor's curiosity and commitment to students made him a beloved teacher, inventive administrator, and unconventional scholar
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Professor Charlie Sugnet

Professor Emeritus Charles “Charlie” Sugnet died May 3 at age 77 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. A favorite with undergraduate and graduate students for over 45 years in the Department of English, Sugnet was the recipient of the Horace T. Morse-University Alumni Association Award for Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education (1995) and the Arthur "Red" Motley Exemplary Teaching Award (1998). He also was a gifted administrator who dared to dream big—resulting in significant innovations (especially in creative writing, feminist, and postcolonial studies) within the department and beyond.

“Charlie’s commitment to students, especially those from racialized and marginalized communities, served as an ethical example we’d all do well to follow,” says Rachel L. Mordecai (PhD 2007), now Associate Professor of English at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “He nudged me with clarity and compassion toward finding my place in this profession. I was lucky to have him as my advisor, and grateful to call him my friend.”

“Charlie Sugnet's classes challenged me in the best way,” says former student Amanda Haugen (BA 2008), “exposing me to literature and schools of thought I was not likely to discover on my own. I ended up taking four courses with him because of the fascinating subject matter and his collaborative and patient teaching style.”

“This guy was not your father’s professor,” says Paula Rabinowitz, Professor Emerita and former chair of the English department. “Charlie inline skated to school, where he’d invariably find a swarm of students crowding outside his notoriously messy office full of music and paper and books and posters. He’d deftly pull just the right item for each of their interests. He was way cool.”

Born in Michigan and raised in Buffalo, NY, Sugnet received his PhD from the University of Virginia. He was hired by the University of Minnesota English department in 1970 as a Victorian scholar. The 1980s would transform his work, his scholarship, his teaching, and his life.

Feminist Studies and Creative Writing innovations

When feminism emerged in the 1970s, Sugnet was a strong supporter of Professors Shirley Garner, Toni McNaron, and Madelon Sprengnether in their explorations of literature from a feminist perspective. When the three women met in 1980 to establish a subfield in Feminist Studies in Literature (one of the first in the country), Sugnet was more than eager to join them. He taught at least one course per year as a part of this curriculum. As an early advocate for lesbian and gay rights, he also supported Professor McNaron when she proposed and taught the department's first course in lesbian literature. "Charlie's involvement with feminist studies was enthusiastic, heartfelt, and sustained," says Regents Professor Emerita Sprengnether.

In 1986, Sugnet was named director of the Creative Writing Program, a year after the Department of English received the David E. Edelstein-Thomas A. Keller, Jr. endowment, an unexpected gift that changed forever how it taught creative writing. At the time “creative writing” offered a MA degree with no financial support and only three dedicated faculty. “I intend to build a nationally visible writing program,” Sugnet told Thomas Keller III, the lawyer who helped craft the endowment. Over the next three years, Sugnet, in consultation with Keller, developed many of the salient features of what eventually became a highly ranked MFA program: residencies with acclaimed writers such as Carolyn Forché and Grace Paley; separate Creative Writing course numbers, offices, and accounting from English’s in order to operate with autonomy; signature graduate courses such as “Reading as Writers” and undergraduate classes such as “Intro to Creative Writing” and “Intro to Fiction Writing.” He also taught Creative Writing courses, mentoring such writers as bestselling novelist Lauren Fox.

African connections and postcolonialism

As a graduate student at UVA, Sugnet began reading African literature to better advise African American students interested in African culture. Years later, one of the writers Sugnet invited to visit and teach in the Creative Writing program was celebrated Somali novelist Nuruddin Farah, who he’d met in London at the suggestion of the writer Angela Carter. Farah welcomed Sugnet's interest in Africa, and the two grew close. Farah became a regular visitor to the department, most recently as Winton Chair (2010-2012). “Charlie was a wonderful host, an intelligent conversationalist, and a generous friend,” says Farah. “Our friendship brought him to Africa many times, and he visited me in nearly every African country I lived in, including The Gambia, Senegal, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa. I will miss him greatly.”

Sugnet became more fluent than Farah in Wolof, the main language in Senegal, “even though I was the one who first took him there!” Farah says. “I loved him for it.” In Dakar, Sugnet met Joëlle Vitiello, who became his partner for the past 22 years (and who is now Professor and Chair of French and Francophone Studies at Macalester College). Sugnet taught in Senegal, as well as in South Africa and The Gambia, making friends among colleagues, writers, and students. (He also collected music, which he shared for more than a decade as co-host on the KFAI radio show "African Rhythms.” On May 8, co-host Salif Keïta dedicated the show to Sugnet and highlighted his favorite songs.)

“Charlie educated himself on the subject of African film and literature long before the department hired an ‘official’ postcolonialist,” says Professor Emerita Maria Damon. His articles were published widely, and he established generative connections with writers such as Frank B. Wilderson III, American author of the influential books Afropessimism and Incognegro, and Boubacar Boris Diop from Senegal, the 2022 winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature.

"Our indestructible friendship was born in the 'francophone African literature' outfield," says Diop (comments translated from the French by Vitiello). "We met for the first time in his Fulbright house in Dakar, when Charlie was teaching at the Cheikh Anta Diop University. Wolof is my native tongue; Charlie used with ease its most vernacular turns. He knew all the secret places of the city. I often heard him mention the names of his friend 'Chave' and other street musicians and eccentric night poets. It was not enough for this rigorous academic to read novels or watch films, he needed to be in direct touch with creators." Again, Sugnet made it possible for this well-known writer to visit the US and his English classes.

Inspired by his research, Sugnet fashioned new courses for the department—among them “Introduction to ‘Third World’ Literature in English” (still popular 35 years later as “World Literatures in English”)—and advised numerous students doing postcolonial work. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt (PhD 2002), now Professor of English at Linfield University, served as Sugnet’s graduate teaching assistant. “Charlie always wore these colorful African shirts,” she says, “and his office was as busy as the patterns on his shirt. The remarkable thing was that he could locate exactly a paper or a book. Once Charlie told me, ‘My office mimics the postcolonial conditions for all those from the outside who don’t quite understand it.’ For all of us who were from the postcolonial world, Charlie was a friend, teacher, confidant, and mentor.”

Teaching beyond the TC campus

Sugnet’s interest in exposing people to international contemporary literatures and cultures did not stop at the campus’ borders, nor with University students. He regularly collaborated with the Walker Art Center and the MSP Film Society to bring African films and filmmakers to Minneapolis. He organized a film festival for the African Literature Association from 1999 to 2005. And perhaps most importantly to him, he started a program that, in his words, “transformed the stagnant curricula of about 40 Minnesota high schools and demonstrated that, if we set the right example, high school students could discuss adult subjects without embarrassment.”

College in the Schools (CiS) is a program in which more than 30 disciplines at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities offer college level, credit-bearing courses to area high school students—in their own schools, taught by their own teachers via special training from the U. Sugnet invented it.

As Professor Emerita Toni McNaron relates, Sugnet taught a summer course in the 1990s that included three high school English teachers. The teachers all felt their students would be engaged by the African writers included in the course readings—and they asked Charlie to introduce them to more, via an independent study. “The rest is history, as they say,” McNaron notes. “Charlie had them read about 20 more books, and they began teaching them in their high schools. Charlie then talked to folks in Continuing Education about how the U could do the inverse of letting bright high schoolers take an introductory English course on campus. It was figured out, and Charlie began working with more high school English teachers in a course called ‘College in the Schools Literature.’”

The U then scaled up the program across disciplines, each of which brings the students to campus once a semester to hear a speaker or work with professors. Sugnet eventually handed the literature course over to McNaron, who this year retires from CiS after 26 years teaching teachers. The CiS course in literature now registers about 1,000 high school seniors annually. Says McNaron, “More than 50 wonderful teachers introduce their seniors to novels, plays, and poetry written by writers of color as well as white writers.” The literature course is still the largest CiS cohort.

As Sugnet said upon his own retirement from the U in 2015, “Starting and running the CiS program may well be the best and most important work of my career. By having visitors like Chinua Achebe, Sandra Cisneros, and Nuruddin Farah [for the students’ campus visits], we gave students struggling with English as a second or third language a living example of what they themselves could achieve. It still happens to me constantly that, say, I’m at a conference in Madison, and the Wisconsin student slinging pizza says: ‘Is that you, Profesor Sugnet? You won’t remember me, but I was in College in the Schools, and it changed my life.’”

Impact on students and colleagues

The list of those whose life he changed is long.

There are the students who, 15 years on, still remember Sugnet explaining that he handed out papers to his left because "I am a leftist." There are the students in his "American Nature Writing" class who got to canoe, hike, and write at the Gunflint Lake cabin he'd built himself. (Sugnet also shared his love for the Northwoods with Farah and other colleagues.)

There is Serina Jamison (BA 2010), graduate student in English at Marquette University, for whom Sugnet served as honors thesis advisor. “Empathetic and brilliant, he introduced me to the work of Frank B. Wilderson III, J.M. Coetzee, and many others,” Jamison says. “His mentorship helped me refine my academic interests, and I am forever grateful.”

There is memoirist Patricia Hampl, Regents Professor Emerita: “I would never have joined the English faculty if Charlie had not urged—insisted really—that I apply for an assistant professor position,” she recalls. “I couldn’t imagine being a professor. But it was hard to turn down Charlie, who was an ardent supporter of young writers.”

“Charlie radiated warmth and dynamism,” says Professor Damon. “His energy was prodigious. He had so many interests and talents that he was a joy to talk to. He made a point of making contact with me when I was first hired and throughout my 25 years at the U became a trustworthy and stalwart friend.”

“Despite these past two years of unremitting deaths,” Professor Rabinowitz says, “it is inconceivable that Charlie is among those lost to us. What a loss for us and for the world.”

Professor Sugnet is survived by his long-time companion Joëlle Vitiello, his three sons Chuck, Josh, and Marcus and their spouses, his four grandchildren, his siblings, nieces and nephews, and other relatives. The Department of English offers deepest condolences to his family, friends, and colleagues the world over.

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