The Pillsbury Dream Realized
In the spring of 2009, I stood in a small Lind Hall classroom crowded with undergraduates enrolled in the Department of English’s literary magazine production course. If you could dream of the perfect home for English, I asked my students, what would it look like? What would it feature?
“Air conditioning!” one student quipped, to laughter. “A space dedicated to The Tower,” said another (to cheers), of the publication created by this two-semester experiential learning course. “A computer lab.” “Places to sit in the hallway.” “More English classes in the building, not all across campus.” Students later offered more pensive written comments. “English is about more than just reading books,” noted one, “it’s about experiencing literature.” “We need spaces where English majors can hang out and feel more like a community.”
At the time, I had recently begun working as an English department staff person as well as teaching. (I am an MFA graduate of the Creative Writing Program.) The department’s tenure in Lind, home of the College of Science & Engineering, had hit its 40th year and our campaign to renovate Pillsbury Hall as a permanent home for English its 13th year. The dreaming in that classroom felt like just that: wistful clouds.
But without dreams, without visions of a better future, how does positive change occur? John S. Pillsbury (Minnesota governor 1875 to 1881) envisioned a state university “broad in its scope, powerful in its influence” and paid for the construction of a “hall of science” as part of a Minnesota legislative agreement to ensure the fledgling University’s survival.
This September, that 1889 building reopened as a home for the Department of English and the Liberal Arts Engagement Hub, showing the University’s deepening investment in the humanities after a year which, to be frank, proved the critical importance of such skills as the ability to evaluate competing discourses in terms of historical context, ideology, and public impact and to communicate clearly and effectively.
I am excited to welcome students back to campus and into Pillsbury Hall, where, yes, there is a media lab and a room just for our The Tower and Great River Review student staff. Where there are event spaces to “experience literature” and social/study spaces to build community. Where poet, McKnight Presidential Fellow, and Associate Professor Douglas Kearney will help students explore the intersection of entertainment and violence (especially regarding Black Americans) and “what it means to reckon with instability and discomfort” in a text. Where Associate Professor Elaine Auyoung will challenge students to think about the psychological intimacy generated in reading and the relationship of aesthetic experience to moral action. And where Professor John Watkins will teach how cultures reveal their fears and resentments in the literatures of apocalypse.
Those stories aren’t limited to a single building, no matter how beautifully envisioned. But they can take flight there. One of the students in that 2009 Lind classroom was Jamie Millard, winner of the 2017 College of Liberal Arts Emerging Alumni Award as executive director of the media arts organization Pollen. Pollen uses storytelling to “pave new paths and new opportunities for communities to connect across lines of difference” and “to change our collective story for the better.”
And I think, as I walk these days through gleaming Pillsbury, with its iconic tower staircase: What is a dream but a story? A stairway into the future built word by word.