Meet a Teacher: Tom Doelger
“It’s the most difficult, most challenging, and, in some respects, the most chilling novel they’ve ever read,” says Tom Doelger about Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.”
Looking around the table at his American Cultural Studies class, he pauses for effect before posing the question: Does the main character of “Beloved” feel guilt for her actions? Then he sits back and lets the students’ conversation flow: about guilt and forgiveness; how impulsive actions are judged differently than deliberate actions; and what right we have to judge at all.
As the students struggle with how to categorize the guilt of a woman who has murdered her child, Doelger breaks in: “Morrison wants you to listen.” He says in mock sternness, “You need to know what happened!” Then he continues quietly: “When you read a work of literature in this class, it’s not meant to be an intellectual exercise exclusively. This is what human experience is like and you can’t judge it until you feel it.”
Doelger uses stories from his own life in his teaching, detailing his personal struggles to understand the world.
In every class, with every group of students, Doelger challenges himself to find ways to make students feel and to draw them toward a greater understanding of both the text and their own world. He challenges students to go beyond easy answers to address the power of the past on the present. Morrison “looks at what is horrible and stares at it, straight on,” he says. He tries to do the same, using stories from his own life that illuminate his struggles to understand racism, discrimination, privilege, and his own responsibility for action.
Now in his 29th year at Lakeside, Doelger is one of students’ most beloved teachers because he continues to think deeply, to connect, and to evolve as a teacher and as an individual.