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October 23, 2000

Common Ground

By Eric Rangus

For 15 years, Lucas Carpenter was a professor of English at Oxford College. However, at graduation this past May, that status changed.

At the ceremony, Carpenter was named Charles Howard Candler Professor of English, the first Oxford faculty member ever to earn a prestigious Candler professorship.

“That was totally out of the blue; I had no idea that was going to happen,” Carpenter said, humbly. “I’m very pleased, though. Very honored.”

Oxford Dean Dana Greene, however, was a bit more emotive. “For 15 years Lucas Carpenter has enriched the lives of Oxford College students,” she said. “It is a real honor for Oxford to have his talent recognized through the Candler professorship. He is a creative teacher, poet and critic.”
“I think [the Candler professorship] is an example of Oxford receiving recognition within the University,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter is a groundbreaker at Oxford in another way. He was the first Oxford professor to earn a Fulbright scholarship. He used the grant to travel to the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Leuven, Belgium, where he taught two courses: an undergraduate class in modern American literature and a seminar in American literature of the Vietnam War.

Carpenter said he wanted to experience European higher education and compare it to that of the United States. He was also interested in comparing European students to their American counterparts.

He spent five months in Belgium (September 1999 –January 2000), and not only did he teach several hundred students through his two courses, but he learned a great deal himself.

“It was an incredibly rich experience for me, especially as a classroom teacher,” Carpenter said. “It gave me an entirely different perspective on how things are done.”

The university, which is near Brussels, was established in the 15th century and is generally seen as Belgium’s flagship institution. More than 40,000 students are enrolled there—primarily from Belgium, but many countries throughout Europe and the world are represented. Several American graduate students also take classes there, and Carpenter met with them semi-regularly to “speak American,” he said.

While in Belgium, Carpenter lived in the Beginhjof, which is where an order of nuns known as the Beguines lived in the 13th century. The Beguines were women whose husbands had died or had been killed in the Crusades or some other conflict. They took some of the vows of nuns such as celibacy, chastity and obedience—but not poverty, since many were wealthy.

The Beginhjof now serves not as a convent, but as apartments for visiting faculty. “The building I was in was 16th century but a fully outfitted apartment with everything I needed,” Carpenter said. “It was very comfortable housing, just extraordinarily interesting and beautiful.”

Carpenter’s classroom experience was quite a bit different than his classes at intimate Oxford. His modern American literature class numbered 167 students—a whopping amount by American standards for a literature class.

“That made it tough because there wasn’t a good way to handle a discussion with that many people,” Carpenter said. “It meant that I was lecturing the entire time, the classes met once a week for two hours a clip, so it’s sometimes tough to have enough material.”
Even the graduate seminar on Vietnam-era literature had 25 students, perhaps 50 percent larger than a comparable seminar at a U.S. university. The class covered an era with which Carpenter is intimately familiar.

In 1968, the then-21-year-old Carpenter graduated from the College of Charleston with a double major in English and mathematics. He then entered graduate school at Vanderbilt. He never finished.

The fall of 1968 was the first semester that deferments for graduate students had been removed.

Thousands of graduate students were swept into the armed forces that autumn, and Carpenter was one of them. “Most of my basic training company were graduate students from various disciplines,” Carpenter said. “Our platoon leader was a recent philosophy Ph.D. That made for an interesting basic training, because you had all these very well-educated young men who weren’t inclined to be indoctrinated in quite the way the Army intended.”

Like many young Americans of his generation, Carpenter faced a life-defining choice concerning service in Vietnam.

“We were all fundamentally opposed to military service—especially to the war in Vietnam and the reasons we were there,” Carpenter said. “I had a route to Canada, with a plane ticket I had worked out with the peace folks at Vander-bilt. But when push came to shove, it was either go to Canada or go to jail. When it came right down to it, most of us decided that we would go ahead and take our chances.

“At least military service was a break from graduate school,” he laughed.

Carpenter served three years in the Army, including a tour of duty in Vietnam from 1969–70. He rose to the rank of sergeant and earned the Bronze Star. He then returned to grad school and earned his master’s in English at North Carolina in 1973

That same year, Carpenter’s first book of poetry, A Year for the Spider, was published. The poems were based on his experiences in Vietnam, and the book’s tone was quite a bit different than his early work in Charleston.

“I became a far less romantic poet than I was as an undergraduate,” Carpenter said. “My poetry took on some very hard edges.”

For instance, a passage in the book’s preface reads: “[The poems] are radically subjective responses to the kinds of experiences which have come to characterize this particularly tragic and absurd war.”

While the Belgian students didn’t have firsthand knowledge of the Vietnam War, the violence that accompanied war protests in this country also affected Western Europe. “They had very strong feelings, because 1968 was a watershed year for them, too,” Carpenter said. “There were widespread student demonstrations throughout Europe.”

At Leuven, for instance, students blockaded the streets and burnt cars. The governments of both France and Belgium almost fell that year.

“They were very interested in Vietnam as an inciting event for their 1968 rebellion,” Carpenter said.

Literature of the Vietnam era is not Carpenter’s sole area of interest or expertise. He has written several essays on William Faulkner and has produced an extensive catalog of work on the Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet John Gould Fletcher. Introducing the literature of the American South to his Belgian students proved to be a daunting task, but one they eventually picked up.

“I had to fill in a great deal of background concerning the nature of the American South, its history and peculiar customs,” Carpenter said. “I came up with some ways of getting a lot of information into a limited number of examples. I streamlined my teaching.”

Carpenter said while he enjoyed his time in Europe, his desire to teach abroad has been quenched.

Any other trip overseas will be as a researcher. Or a tourist.


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