Renee Weissenburger has always considered herself to be very lucky when it comes to education.
In college, her thesis committee was extremely gracious in allowing her creative license in the execution of her project concerning literature and art. Today, she is fortunate to be teaching those subjects for various institutions, including the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at SDSU.
Her thesis explored the relationship between the Victorian madwoman in literature and art – including the advent of photography – and the influence these archetypes and characters had on real-life asylum inmates and doctors. In addition to the text portion, the committee allowed her to create and submit 30 mixed media pieces depicting her and other models as characters and inmates.
“The blurry line between literature, art and social constructs is one which continues to fascinate me,” she said. “I am also a fan of exploring the repeated intersections between literature and art. Occasionally, I get to explore such cross-over subjects in the classroom; for example, Ibsen and Munch, Visual Poetry, and Women and Madness.”
Here is more on her background:
You serve as an artist for the non-profit CoTA (Collaboration of Teachers and Artists). Tell us a little about that and what sparked your interest.
I’ve been an artist with CoTA for 14 years. I worked with one of the directors on the inSITE exhibitions and was excited to be invited on this endeavor. I’ve always been interested in the interconnection between art, literature and critical thinking. In CoTA, our aim is to train teachers to use art as a vehicle to investigate other areas of the curriculum. We are process-oriented and, while much of the work produced is extraordinarily lovely, independent and creative thinking is always the goal. I am a big believer in relevance. I want to know how to apply the knowledge I gained, not simply be able to regurgitate it. And I most certainly want the same for my students. Art and literature can, and should, be so much more than mere beauty or entertainment. They can serve as a map to experiencing or understanding the world, a key to the musing and thoughts of other people, or a way to process events which we may never get to experience personally.
How did you first learn about the Osher Institute and how did you become involved?
Last year, I received an invitation from Emily Moore, director at Osher. Emily had been a student in a number of my literature classes at National University and had made quite an impression on me. I was delighted to learn that I had made an impression on her as well.
You taught a course on J.D. Salinger this past semester. What sparked your interest in Salinger?
My love affair with Salinger began, as with so many others, at 15. After Catcher in the Rye, I quickly moved through Nine Stories and, eventually graduated to the Glass children. By age 20, the deal was done. I was madly in love with Seymour Glass.
J.D. Salinger is most famous for The Catcher in the Rye which led to much public attention and scrutiny. After that writing, he appeared to become a recluse. Do you have any thoughts on that/items you have shared in class?
I can’t say that I blame him for his withdrawal from the public eye. If his characters served in any capacity as a respite from the horrors of war (and it is certainly likely that they did), it makes sense that he should love and want to protect them. After “Hapworth 16, 1924,” quite a number of writers and critics (some of whom had taken much from him) declared his bond too strong. If you anticipate an attack, why bother offering up your beloved characters for dissection?
Some favorite Osher Institute moments in general? How has teaching Osher Institute students inspired you personally?
In my first class at Osher, I was delighted to see the curiosity and openness towards different methods of thinking. In general, I am a big fan of discussion classes because I think that rarely is one person’s vantage point going to cover all possibilities. The students in the Salinger class were great in the way they negotiated their understanding of the stories. They asked questions, politely challenged, offered evidence and, most importantly, listened to each other.
What words of encouragement would you give to those who have yet to pursue their creative dreams or even just take a class at the Osher Institute?
Learning never ends. Cliché, perhaps, but oh-so-true. And knowledge is everywhere! Lurking inside people we misgauge as boring. Laced throughout streets we’ve never wandered. And lying flat, but never static, beneath pigment and print.