Professors are People Too: Michael Elam

What drives you to teach?

Oh, it’s too simple. I like what I teach, and I like the interaction with students and colleagues. I also love literature. Sometimes, I’ll sneak it in your academic writing and I’ll bring in something about literature because I like the topic. 

What other jobs besides teaching have you done?

For fifteen years I worked in retail. When I was in it, I didn’t love it that much and Christmas season was rough. It starts in August and it doesn’t end until February. I also worked at a restaurant for one day. Oh, it was terrible. It wasn’t intended to be one day, but I hated it so much I just never went back. I never said anything so they ended up mailing my $2 paycheck to me. I had a friend whose brother had a stroke. He needed somebody to drive him to different therapy sessions. So, I did that for a few months but the guy was kinda hard to work with and I couldn’t do it anymore. After that, I did some substitute teaching. I was actually a permanent substitute teacher for a Latin teacher. This was when I lived in New Jersey and the teacher left unexpectedly so I stepped in and completed the year.  

What is the challenging part of teaching?

Probably grading is the biggest challenge. If it’s a large class, I’ll just reduce the paper size down to like 1100 words. It’s easier for me to manage. It’s probably easier for the students too. 

I don’t think anybody says, “oh, I hate you. I’m just gonna turn in garbage.” I don’t think anybody does that. So, trying to give a fair shake to a variety of papers, that takes a lot of energy. 

What element would you bring to modern society?

It’s a complicated idea. The only word I can think of is relaxation. The tyranny of the urgent is something that really bothers me. I remember from my retail days, especially during the Christmas season, ‘you need to have a sense of urgency.’ I did have a sense of urgency. But the kind of sense they were talking about seemed almost like it was virtuous to have it. I don’t know if that’s really true. I think sometimes having a sense of relaxation and that ‘this is not urgent’ can be okay too. 

What is the underlining meaningful depth of studying poetic structure?

It just unlocks things. You can get meaning from a poem without having all that stuff, but you may not experience the richness of it to its fullest extent. I think the study of poetic structure unlocks depth. One of my advisors was Tom Shippey. He was a huge Anglo-Saxonist. His expertise was actually Anglo-Saxon dialects and he taught Middle English dialects and also on Tolkien. He actually wrote a book on why Tolkien needs to be taken seriously as an author and how we should study his works. During a debate with another Tolkien scholar, Shippey explained that, ‘I delight in that [deep analysis of literature]. I find great delight in that.’ 

It really stuck with me that the deep study of literature does not cause delight but opens up the expansion of delight. I find what’s revealed in the poetry by doing that delightful. Not everybody does, and I get it. There’s no moral requirement. It just makes it more available.

What is your one piece of advice to Regent students?

Cultivate your relationship with the Lord. It probably looks different from person to person, but we don’t do it because, ‘Aha! I’m gonna be happy now that I’ve cultivated my relationship with the Lord.’ We do it because it’s centering, grounding, and helpful. There are moments when it is like, “Aha! A delightful moment in the Lord!” That’s occasional. I know that sounds terribly trite but I really do believe it.