Dean Bakopoulos

Dean Bakopoulos on Novels, Teachers, and Teaching

January 6, 2014 | by Ellen Baker

It’s 1982, St. Edith School, Livonia, Michigan. A second grader squirms in his seat because his teacher, Mrs. Dixon, is in front of the class about to read aloud a story he’s written. He’s too shy to read it himself. He lives in fear of getting beat up, getting in trouble.  

Then, to his astonishment, in his teacher’s voice, his story comes to life. His classmates laugh at the jokes, gasp at the surprises. He’s hooked at having an audience for his imagination.

Maybe it’s no surprise that this boy—who found stories and books “a superior, safer alternative to the actual world”—would grow up to become a novelist and a teacher.  

How to Change the World

Before he was the author of Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (Harcourt, 2005) and My American Unhappiness (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), Dean Bakopoulos (’97) was a student at Detroit Catholic Central. Listening to his teacher Jeff Bean’s lecture on The Great Gatsby solidified his desire at the age of 14 to be a writer.

“He read that beautiful closing paragraph aloud,” Bakopoulos says, “and convinced me that language and literature could change hearts and minds and thus could change the world.”

When he came to the University of Michigan, Bakopoulos wrote his own stories to try to make sense of the world. Bakopoulos remembers his years at U-M as “a remarkable time. It’s only now beginning to sink in as to how powerful an experience it was.”

He recalls “an amazing set of graduate student instructors from the MFA program in fiction,” especially Elwood Reid, an imposing former Wolverine offensive lineman turned MFA student who once brought a stack of novels to Bakopoulos’ off-campus apartment on a Friday night and said, “Read these by Monday.” (He did.)

He also worked with three “life-changing” professors, Charles Baxter, Nicholas Delbanco, and Eileen Pollack whom he credits with shaping his teaching philosophy—and his life today.

“They taught me so much and spent so much extra time with me.”

Now, Bakopoulos teaches fiction writing in the prestigious MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College each January, and is a writer-in-residence at Grinnell College. The latter provides the setting for Bakopoulos’s third novel, Summerlong, scheduled for release in January 2015 by Ecco/HarperCollins. As a teacher so moved by his own teachers, Bakopoulos is acutely aware of how powerful the legacy of a good teacher is.

“As a writer, teacher, mentor, and even as a parent, I probably think about [my instructors at Michigan] at least once every day. I hear their voices all the time. I sometimes have dreams about them. It helps me remember that it’s now my turn to be generous with the young writers I teach.”

In addition to passing on the generosity of his own professors to a new generation of writers, Bakopoulos also sees English writing courses as a core part of cultivating our culture.

“We will need people who can think deeply, analyze critically, and communicate intelligently if we are to survive. We must get over the idea that we have any sense of what will be a ‘marketable skill’ ten years down the road.”

Bakopoulos believes that with the right training in how to think—and communicate—today’s students, too, can accomplish great things.

“Most students, and their parents, understandably, are so worried about that first job. But these days, the first job is a minor blip in the life that one leads. A liberal arts degree helps you find a way to pursue the kind of life you want, even though it offers no easy roadmap to the first job. Land any job you can, and then you have to work almost unbelievably hard to show the world what a liberal arts major is capable of achieving.”

 

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