Master of the Mythos

Michael Sexson. Photo by Nicole Smith.

“The instructor has taught us how to imagine,” wrote one student.

“His class…has taught me a new way of perceiving the world,” wrote another.

When asked to evaluate what the instructor has done well, students routinely respond, “Everything.”

There’s perhaps no better way to describe Michael Sexson, the MSU English Professor who has made opening students’ eyes his life’s work.

In November, Sexson was awarded the title of Regents Professor — the highest faculty honor in Montana’s university system — along with professor of biochemistry Trevor Douglas.

Only seven MSU professors, including Sexson and Douglas, have achieved this designation, which seeks to recognize exceptional scholars who have made unique and sustained contributions in teaching, research and public outreach.

A professor of literature at MSU for nearly half a century, Sexson has inspired thousands of students as an illustrious storyteller and scholar of myth. And anyone who has studied at MSU will recognize Sexson as the animator of MSU’s commencement, where he has been reading the names of graduates for decades.

With the Regents’ award, Sexson’s voice now joins the public conversation about the university system. Surrounded by books in his Wilson Hall office last week, Sexson said the honor comes with a responsibility to speak “fully and deliberately about the general needs of higher education.”

His distinction comes at a time when humanities fields are struggling more than ever to demonstrate their relevance to students and the public. In particular, educators in the humanities “need to better convince students that what we’re teaching them is practical,” Sexson said. He wants to reinvigorate notions of “practical” and “useful” by expanding their meaning to include imagination, creativity and invention. “Humanities is not a retreat from the world,” he said.

To explain what he meant, Sexson reached to his desk for a book, a collection of poetry by Wallace Stevens. Stevens is perhaps Sexson’s favorite poet and the subject of one of Sexson’s books. He began to recite a poem wryly titled “How To Live. What To Do:” “Last evening the moon rose above this rock / Impure upon a world unpurged. / The man and his companion stopped / To rest before the heroic height.”

Finishing the final stanza, Sexson threw up his hands and made a confounded expression. Education, he argued, has more to do with this sort of inventiveness and imagination than with career training.

Sexson then quoted Robert Pirsig, the author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and former MSU instructor, who described his intellectual journey as an ascent into “the high country of the mind.” Sexson said he sees echoes of Pirsig’s metaphorical relationship in MSU’s motto, “Mountains and Minds.”

His wife, Professor Emeritus of humanities Lynda Sexson, developed the motto in the 1980s from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins: “O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall / Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed.”

The air is thinner in the high country, Sexson explained, and its cliffs are sheer. Hopkins’ poem is one of anguish, just as Pirsig’s philosophical endeavor eventually drove him to madness. “The university does not lead us into greener pastures, but offers far greater exposure to what is real,” Sexson said.

In addition to his teaching and scholarship, Sexson has developed numerous projects and conferences over his four decades at MSU to bring the study of humanities into the public sphere. These efforts range from a 1979 conference celebrating a total solar eclipse, to his and Lynda’s interdisciplinary journal Corona Productions, to this week’s Chautauqua honoring Robert Pirsig.

Sexson has also worked with his students to create MSU’s list of 100 best books, whose top ten includes Don Quixote, Finnegans Wake, Alice in Wonderland, the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

In some ways Sexson — with his interest in Shakespeare, religion and mythology — seems like a traditionalist. He often has his students perform daunting feats of memorization and is himself a walking library.

Similarly, he describes his teaching philosophy in simple and elegant terms. “We read to remember how to live in other worlds,” he said, “and we write to discover.”

Yet Sexson’s classical inclinations have not stopped him from finding creative ways to enhance teaching using technology. For the past several years, Sexson worked with former student Rio Gonzalez to visually footnote his lectures. When Sexson or students would reference unfamiliar material during class, Gonzalez could search for information online and instantly display it for everyone. Sexson compares the internet to James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake — another of Sexson’s favorites — in that both constitute an enormous “memory palace.”

Likewise, Sexson’s students are also required to maintain and read each other’s online blogs throughout the semester. Blogging enables students to engage in a “constant act of discovery,” he said.

It is not surprising, then, that the scholar of myth is often cast in mythic terms himself. In her letter of nomination to the Board of Regents, President Cruzado called him “a master teacher” who has achieved legendary status within MSU’s community. Sexson’s students have compared him to the fictional wizards Dumbledore and Gandalf.

But if he is a wizard, Sexson maintains, he is more like the Wizard of Oz. As the man behind the curtain, he sees his role as not to espouse mystical knowledge, but to orchestrate an experience of learning. That method has enchanted three generations of MSU students, helping each to see the world, Sexson hopes, “as if for the first time.”