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Brian Solomon’s Guide To The Stars: English Professor Tom Luxon

Dartmouth has a wealth of experienced professors who lead their respective research fields, while also working closely with students — inspiring them in the classroom and leading them in laboratory environments. And while at Dartblog we talk frequently about problems that need to be fixed at the College, there are still many bright spots. Our professors deserve more recognition for their achievements. As such, this is one of a series of posts that shines a spotlight on the best professors in Hanover:

Tom Luxon.jpgTom Luxon is a Professor of English at the College and a scholar of 17th-century English writers like John Milton, John Bunyan, and John Dryden. He is also an innovative teacher who has pioneered all-new ways of learning at Dartmouth and beyond.

Luxon became interested in the 16th and 17th-century religious upheavals in Europe while an undergraduate at Brown, where he would graduate magna cum laude with a focus on English and American Literature. Tying together the various strands of religion, politics, and historical theory into the literature of the time fascinated him, as did the ability to go home and tell his “very right wing, born-again Christian” parents where their views originated.

His main subject since college has been Milton, about whom Luxon wrote his thesis: “Milton’s Epic Wonder: Revaluation of the Marvelous in Paradise Lost.” Yet for his Ph.D. at the Unversity of Chicago, Luxon started exploring Bunyan, another Puritan author of the time. Afterwards Luxon taught at a series of schools, including Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania and the University of Glasgow in Scotland. He arrived at Dartmouth in 1988 and hasn’t left.

For most of his time at the College, Luxon has been the only professor teaching Milton’s classic works, but he enjoys working with all levels of students. Last year, in addition to leading a Writing 5 class and the honors group of English major thesis writers, he taught an advanced seminar specifically on the English poet and a broader survey course on all English literature from 1660-1714. This fall Luxon will direct the department’s London foreign study program, and next spring he’ll teach a Milton-specific, mid-level course and a first-year seminar on Shakespeare’s non-dramatic literature, focusing on the Bard’s poems and sonnets.

Yet Luxon’s most significant contribution to the Dartmouth community extends beyond the classroom. He has long taught Milton’s Paradise Lost, but the book has always been difficult for undergraduates to digest. Luxon became frustrated with editions of Paradise Lost that attempted to explain complex passages and allusions through footnotes — only to find that the footnotes referenced bible passages and other historical works without actually displaying the original source. As Luxon says, that only made students feel “even stupider.”

Luxon believed that a website version of Paradise Lost, with hyperlinks instead of surface-level footnotes, would be a breakthrough teaching tool. Having already experimented with building basic websites for his courses, Luxon enlisted the help of two people in computer services to help him launch The John Milton Reading Room in 1997. Since then, the site has been redesigned twice, but it has only grown in scope and use.

The Milton Reading Room now receives as many as 10,000 page requests every day from users around the globe. With support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and other organizations, Luxon has managed to expand its offerings over time. The site includes not just Paradise Lost, but dozens of other works by Milton, all annotated in-line and many accompanied by deeply sourced introductions and analysis. He still calls the Milton Reading Room a work in progress, hoping the site will some day include fully annotated and hyperlinked versions of all of Milton’s English works — but it is already a tremendous accomplishment that has exceeded his expectations. Take a look around yourself.

Luxon’s innovative methods with the Milton Reading Room made him the perfect candidate to serve as the founding director of the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) in 2004. The center is all about marrying technology with teaching and exploring new principles of learning design. It serves faculty in the arts & sciences, medical school, and engineering school. Luxon made sure that it was designed to support faculty rather than graduate students, contrary to the focus at other top schools. Since DCAL’s launch, other Ivies like Harvard and Yale have changed their respective learning centers to follow the same model.

While Luxon no longer runs DCAL, he still has an abiding interest in teaching methods. In addition to scholarship of his own on English writers, including a forthcoming book, “Heroic Restoration: Dryden, Milton and Shakespeare,” Luxon recently wrote an article on how he revised his Milton and Shakespeare courses around student interaction. The reading material in Luxon’s classes may be quite old, but his pedagogy is cutting edge. Hopefully other professors will follow his lead.

Addendum: Tom and three other faculty members talk in this 2011 video about working with librarians in designing courses:

Addendum: A Dartmouth dad writes in:

I saw your post on Tom Luxon today. It reminded me that my son had him for Writing 5 several years ago.

My son’s final assignment was to write a critical assessment of a very short (five paragraph) Hemingway vignette. Prof. Luxon’s comment at the end of the essay is below:

Tom Luxon: “Comment: I think this may be the best essay on this story I have yet seen. Please remember that writing about literature is only one kind of writing; you will meet new challenges writing in other disciplines, especially science and social science, but many of your improved skills will be transferable. Good luck.”

I mention this because my son was an extremely strong math and science student in high school. He took multi-variable calculus and linear algebra at a university near our home when he was still in high school, so when he arrived at Dartmouth he had already placed out of all of the math requirements for an engineering student. When I asked him why he was applying to a liberal arts school early decision rather than MIT or Caltech, he replied, “Dad, I know I’m good at math and science, but I think I can be good at other things too. Besides, undergrad is where you learn how to think, grad school is for vocational training.”

He graduated summa cum laude/Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth, is an associate consultant at a large consulting firm on the east coast, and he is applying to go to business school in the coming weeks. A professor like Tom Luxon is exactly why he chose Dartmouth.


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