Jeff Peterson: English Teacher
Education: UCLA, BA; UC Berkeley, MA, PhD
What drew you to College Prep when you applied 13
I taught English at Piedmont High before I joined the faculty at College Prep and was an admirer from afar. I knew Richard Cushman, former College Prep English teacher, from graduate school and I appreciated the reputation of the school. I thought it would be a great place to land as a former college professor. Now I teach lovely small classes where the focus is on depth over breadth. It’s a “pinch me” kind of job.
How would you describe your method of teaching? What aspect of teaching English brings you the most joy?
My approach is discussion-driven and enthusiasm-fueled, accessing where the energies are in the group and then channeling my own excitement about language. I’m fascinated by verbal intricacy and social complexity, and what I’m trying to cultivate is rigorous and generous attention. We don’t get meaning right off the page; it’s all based on context and the experiences we bring to what we’re reading. My classes aspire to be a live investigation of those complexities, and the unpredictability, hilarity, and frequent brilliance that College Prep students contribute to discussions bring me great joy.
What inspired you to lead several Intraterms to Monterey Bay?
Having loved the ocean all my life, it felt like this was an opportune way to channel that passion. The Intraterm I taught for seven years was called Fish and Ships, which came out of my interest in fishing. I was avid about getting out my kayak and catching rockfish. The focus of that Interterm was sustainable fishing, an ethical concern with the environment, and getting students to reflect on their lives as consumers of seafood.
What literature was most transformative for you as a high school student?
I was a late bloomer as a reader of literature. As a kid, my most prized books were field guides to insects, butterflies, and seashells. Biology excited me. What really engaged me in high school was music. I considered going into music education and didn’t get excited about literary study until late in college. The class that grabbed me was a course on English Romantics. I had to write about the way Keats revised his ode, “To Autumn,” and I got into analyzing his choices. That was a transformative experience.
What are your top five novels?
I love lyrical novels and novels by poets. Right there at the top is Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. A book that is hugely important to me is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. That book was also my point of entry to Melville because Ellison was steeped in Melville. I have to close the list of five with Moby-Dick—this crazy wonderful book that’s encyclopedically rich. I find it endlessly interesting to teach because of how multifaceted it is. I think its complexity is inexhaustible.
Is your fascination with Moby-Dick tied more to the novel or to Melville as an author?
I’m more fascinated with the book. Reading Moby-Dick by yourself is work. It requires a crew and that’s one of the reasons I find it so fulfilling. I’m interested in Melville as a stylist and I’m obsessed with the way he puts sentences together—they require scrupulous close attention. Our students write amazing meditations in the style of Ishmael.
How did you come to present with Jos Sances and his Moby-Dick-inspired mural, or The Whale, at the 13th International Melville Society Conference?
I had the opportunity to do a project in July of 2021 for a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Institute on “Teaching Melville,” and I had seen Sances’s mural at the Richmond Art Center in 2019. It’s an amazing piece. I listened to an interview that Sances gave with an important Melville scholar, and fell in love with the guy and his work. I emailed Sances and we hit it off. I wrote a proposal for the two of us to present at the conference in Paris, and was subsequently invited to submit a version of the talk to Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies. I recently learned that work has been accepted for publication next fall.
Last summer you were on the faculty of a National Endowment for the Humanities workshop called Sailing to Freedom: New Bedford and the Underground Railroad. Can you tell us more about that?
I’ve taught Douglass’s first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for many years. Sailing to Freedom was an occasion to deepen my command of that text and to learn more about the milieu. What is so interesting about New Bedford is its connection to Quaker life and because it was the global hub of the whaling industry. Thanks to Quaker abolitionists, it was also a point of tremendous convergence for people who escaped slavery. Going to New Bedford enabled me to deepen my understanding of the sea routes to freedom. You typically think of the Underground Railroad as a terrestrial thing, fleeing on foot. But successful escapes from the deeper South were accomplished by water, a fact that’s been exciting to share with students who are reading Moby-Dick.