Dr. Stephen Burn Interviewed by Lydia Sherwood Department of English Date: September 29 th 2012 Dr. Stephen Burn is an associate professor in the Department of English at Northern Michigan University, where he has been teaching for eight years. In addition to his current post at Northern, Burn has also held teaching positions at three British universities: the University of Durham, the University of Sundland, and the University of Northumbria. At Northern, Burn teaches a wide variety of courses in the areas of British and American literature. He also occasionally teaches Good Books and composition. Burn gives writing assignments to students in all of his courses, though he adds that in Good Books, writing is less emphasized. “It’s hard to do critical analysis without writing,” he explains. He says that the quality of student writing at Northern varies considerably. “At NMU, there are some of the best students I’ve ever come across. There are also some towards the bottom end of the scale. Any given class will contain the entire spectrum of writing ability. That’s the particular challenge of working here.” He mentions that over the years, the nature of the assignments that he gives to students has changed somewhat. “I try to control the space I give students. I used to give very long papers. NMU students tended to react badly to a large amount of space and better to tighter parameters, where there isn’t a lot of space to go awry.” In student work, Burn looks above all for clarity and concision, “the ability to get the point across.” He explains, “I dread and fear and lie awake at night worrying about students writing three page introductions and then a conclusion,” He also thinks that it is very important that students end their paragraphs carefully: “I look at the ends of paragraphs in particular because this seems to be one of the places in critical analysis where an argument will stand or fall.”
Burn is the author or editor of three books, including
Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide
. He also writes for various academic journals and contributes book reviews to the
New York Times
. “I write very broadly,” he says. “I think because I get restless and feel confined.” He mentions that he generally feels much better about a piece of writing when he is beginning it than he does upon completion. “When I am starting to write something, I feel great. I feel like a well-made paragraph is a great refuge from the world. I can feel profoundly happy in that paragraph, in the movement between words and sentences. Then when I finish, I feel crushing despair, like I never want to see the thing, and can’t bear to look at it for a year or so.” Burn is aware of the Writing Center and thinks he has “a pretty good idea of what goes on.” He mentions that many of his former students have been tutors or graduate assistants in the Writing Center. He adds that while he no longer asks the graduate assistant to give a presentation to his composition classes, he frequently directs individual students to the Writing Center.