Shortly after I arrived at Michigan (in the summer of 1990), in my first year or two as an assistant professor, Walter Clark and Allan Howes (the founders of the New England Literature Program [NELP]) started telling me that I should pay a visit to the program, and that I should also consider applying to teach in it some summer. So I’m a little more than thirty years late, having just returned from my first visit this May (on the 22nd to the 24th), 2023. But Walter and Allan were right to encourage me, even if I was too busy with my job and my family to try joining the NELP staff earlier in my life: my visit in May recalled for me so many aspects of my own foundational early education and first teaching experiences at the Carolina Friends School in North Carolina. 

NELP is a still-flourishing instance of a great educational experiment that transformed so many students and teachers of my own generation in the U.S. in the early-to-mid 1970s: an educational model that works against top-down education; that undoes, as much as possible, hierarchies inside and outside the classroom; that requires students to take an active part in shaping their own education (e.g. teaching classes, organizing events, maintaining the campus, cooking and cleaning—doing everything, in short, that keeps a school running); that considers “education” in the broadest possible terms. What takes place on canoe trips and hikes and road trips and in the organizing of those adventures is as important as and also integrally a part of what transpires in classrooms (those classrooms, too, spring up in surprising and unlikely places: on docks, in clearings in the woods, in cabins, on porches, in fields—wherever people gather to learn from one another). 

It’s important to emphasize that this program is distinguished by its unlikely survival, when so many similarly framed experiments languished and then failed after a decade or so, in the late 1980s and the 1990s. It’s also important to insist that the lessons it teaches are, if anything more counter-cultural and more essential now than they were in 1975, since the trends in U.S. education and U.S. culture more generally have run strongly against everything that a visitor to NELP discovers when arriving at the cabins on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. The absence of cell phones and computers is only a sign—though a significant one—of the differences marking this community of students and teachers. This is a place where, in my mere couple of days on the campus, I was immediately drawn into a series of surprising, genuine, searching, extensive conversations about literature and life with students and teachers, no matter where I went, whose group I joined, which table or porch or dock I stopped at. It’s a place, too, of a great deal of hilarity and an intense sense of developing community, and it’s marked by a deeply sustaining absence of cynicism and a profound and earnest commitment to making a place for everyone who’s part of that community. These are classes (I attended several and co-taught one) where the students are engaged and willing to take risks. Once you’ve been a student at NELP, ordinary college classrooms and ordinary levels of student participation are not likely to prove satisfactory. As I told the students and faculty assembled in the dining hall on the second night of my visit, I have been grateful and indebted to NELP throughout my decades of teaching in Ann Arbor, since most of my upper-level English classes have a few NELPers in them, and that core of students invariably transforms the class itself from a group of students into a learning community. They simply won’t settle for anything less.

It would be literally an error to call this program “utopian,” since it actually does exist in this particular place each summer (and since there is, of course, still friction in this as in any human community), but I did find myself thinking, as I spent time with the staff who are running NELP—James Pinto and his fellow-teachers—that the organizing and day-to-day running of a real utopia is an unbelievably demanding challenge. I shadowed James a good deal of the time I was there, and he also invited me to sit in on a staff meeting, and this brief letter cannot convey the level of planning and the daunting number of daily tasks each person teaching at NELP undertakes every day. Life at the lake, in those cabins, and in the common spaces like the library and the dining hall may sometimes look and feel like a cross between a book-themed summer camp and a vacation, but that benevolent, open-ended, community-focused vibe is sustained by more lists of things to do, and job charts, and task sheets, and volunteering, and urgent, consequential behind-the-scenes work than I can possibly describe. Teaching and preparation for teaching on Michigan’s central campus in Ann Arbor simply doesn’t begin to demand as much, in the moment, of its teachers. I spoke to a good many of this summer’s staff, and they all agreed that this was the most rewarding and also the most demanding teaching assignment of their lives in the classroom. Our students in our own classrooms in Ann Arbor offer similar testimony: every NELP student I have met and talked with—and I’ve had NELPers in classes every year of my teaching here—has said, without prompting, that their time at NELP, what they learned from their faculty and their fellow students in their six and a half weeks of the program, was the most significant, most life-shaping experience they had at the University of Michigan. We owe Walter Clark and Alan Howes our continuing gratitude for what they brought to all of us. And we are indebted to Dick Meisler, Jackie Livesay, and Aric Knuth, too—directors of NELP after Walter and Alan stepped down. We should be grateful to James Pinto and his current faculty for how admirably they are carrying on the founders’ vision.