Book Worm: Temple prof tests the waters

Award-winning author Joseph McElroy teaches an English capstone course about H2O.

It ripples the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and Monet, carries Ahab and the Ancient Mariner and supports not only our agriculture but life itself. From Coleridge and Melville to Hemingway and J.G. Ballard, water has animated the minds and works of many gifted writers from the English language. Add to their ranks Joseph McElroy, an award-winning author of such postmodern classics as Women and Men and a visiting professor at Temple.

McElroy’s water project began in late 2003, when a 10-page article assignment turned into 120 pages on the “curious qualities of water.” The pages that turned into the book continue to occupy McElroy’s mind and invigorate his teaching at Temple.

These days, as scientists, economists, politicians and everyday people begin to face the realities of a world that has strained its water resources, McElroy’s work offers a fresh and unique outlook on what seems to be an unsolvable problem.

“Our ethical programs very often assume that the pleasures of poetry, philosophy and fiction won’t have much to do with working out resolutions in science, environmental studies or legislative work,” McElroy said, “that such pleasures belong off to the side somewhere.”

McElroy, however, begs to differ.

“The experience of understanding a work of art may entail contemplation that can connect us not only with the Earth, but with other people in a way that may lead to insights not otherwise attainable,” he said.

Like Melville on the whale in Moby Dick, McElroy’s approach to the subject of water defies the limitations most intrageneric studies of the topic face, opening up new vistas from which our experience of water may be understood.

The author is not alone in executing this task – he has the help of a select number of Temple English majors.

This semester, McElroy is teaching an English capstone course on the meaning of water. He has made his students into co-investigators of the subject.

“I’ve asked too much of my students,” he said, “but I’ve also given them a great deal of freedom, and they have fed my mind and helped me to grow.”

The course was not always a part of McElroy’s plan for his water project.

In fact, he ran into some trouble completing his book when the idea came to him.

“With e-mails coming in from all of my friends and literary acquaintances, with my publisher and agent asking, ‘When is the water book going to be finished?’ I thought, ‘I’ll start talking to people about water,’” he said.

It was a short time later when the university called with an offer McElroy described as “too good to refuse” – the opportunity to teach just one course per semester on a subject of his choosing. In explaining why he opted to pursue water, the author added, almost apologetically, “I tend to overreach.”

Indeed, tackling the subject that makes life on Earth at all possible is certainly no mean task, and tackling it from an altogether new viewpoint is all the more challenging.

However, with each day bringing us more news of environmental calamities and more evidence of the many yet to come, the topic of water has never been more important, whatever angle it is approached from.

“I’ve been involved in this for a long, long time,” McElroy said. “Looking at water as an aesthetic experience may shed some light on a global ethic of water at this time of crisis.”
For all of our sakes, let’s hope he’s right.

Peter Chomko can be reached at

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