Kurt Caswell discusses the Honors College, his nomadic early life, Soviet space dogs and the art of writing.
Kurt Caswell, professor of creative writing and literature and director of the Honors Sciences and the Humanities (HSH) bachelor's program at Texas Tech University's Honors College, spent the last leg of his summer vacation in a pop-up camper in Oregon's McKenzie River Valley, writing and reconnecting with what remains of the landscape in which he spent his most formative years.
From grades four through nine, Caswell lived in the 800-person village of Blue River, Oregon – the longest he's ever lived anywhere, other than Lubbock.
“I wanted to be on the McKenzie, the river of my boyhood where I used to fly fish, where I learned to row drift boats and rafts on rivers and later to paddle rivers in a canoe,” Caswell said.
Ravaged by last year's Holiday Farm Fire, which ignited on September 7, engulfed more than 173,000 acres in flame and burned for over a month, the Blue River community has been all but reduced to ash.
“The little town was completely lost in that fire,” Caswell said, “including the library I frequented as a boy, where I learned to love books.”
Caswell was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, but lived there only briefly before his family relocated to Oregon. His father's career in the U.S. Forest Service necessitated frequent changes of residence.
“After high school, I went to Boise State University and finished an English degree because I wanted to write and I thought, ‘I want to read books so I can learn how to write.' And then I went to Japan because I wanted to get out of the country – that was really my introduction to teaching.”
No stranger to drastic lifestyle changes, Caswell uprooted from Idaho in his early 20s and moved to Hokkaido, Japan, where he spent two-and-a-half years teaching conversational English to private school students.
“As long as you're a native English speaker, you can find work in Japan teaching English as a second language,” Caswell said. “Basically, you're teaching conversational English. You step into it and you may not have any teaching experience, but you quickly figure out how to engage a small group of people in the classroom.”
Though he began his teaching career as an expat, Caswell has taught across much of the U.S., including Arizona, California, Vermont, Wyoming, a Navajo reservation in New Mexico and, of course, Texas. He devoted many of his summer breaks to continuing his own education, obtaining his master's degree from the Middlebury Bread Loaf School of English, an immersive summer program in the mountains of Vermont.
“I was on this big, beautiful mountain in this old New England setting with 200 people who loved books and literature,” Caswell said. “It was absolutely idyllic, the kind of schooling I wanted all along. When I got there, I thought, ‘Okay, this is my real education.'”
Caswell credits acclaimed environmental writer Barry Lopez for inspiring his writing career, in more ways than one.
“I discovered Barry's writing when I was in the seventh grade,” Caswell said. “I lived here on the McKenzie River where Barry lived, but I didn't know him. After I was introduced to one of his books, I began reading and I was an instant disciple of Barry's work and life.”
Lopez, who passed away in December, left an indelible mark on Texas Tech as the university's first distinguished scholar. In 2001, one year after the inception of the Honors College, Lopez helped develop the Natural History and the Humanities degree program, which has been preserved as a track within the HSH major.
He donated his considerable collection of manuscripts, notebooks and field journals to the Southwest Collection/Special Collection Library, and in 2007 helped facilitate a reconciliation between Texas Tech and the Comanche Nation, upon whose grounds the school was built.
“When I met him, I told him he had really fathered my work as a writer – my life as a writer – from very early on,” Caswell said.
Shortly after obtaining his Master of Fine Arts in literature and creative writing from Bennington College, Caswell visited Texas Tech for the first time at Lopez's invitation.
“I was in Wyoming when I happened to meet Barry, who was associated with this university in Texas,” Caswell said. “He invited me to join a gathering of writers he organized in Junction.”
At the Texas Tech Center at Junction, Caswell met Susan Tomlinson, professor of interdisciplinary studies in nature and the arts, who encouraged him to apply for an open position in the Honors College. He agreed, and the rest is history.
A humanistic approach
Caswell directs the Honors College Thesis Program, in which students who wish to graduate with Highest Honors complete a major research paper or creative work under the guidance of a faculty mentor, or thesis director. This fall, in addition to instructing one-on-one courses for honors thesis students, Caswell will teach English 2391, or Introduction to Literary Studies, for incoming freshmen.
“I can teach a course I've taught before and it's really fresh because I have this new group of people who want to learn,” Caswell said. “What I'm teaching in the Honors College is not really a creative writing program, although I do teach creative writing; really, I'm teaching future engineers, doctors and lawyers how to write well. I feel like it's an invaluable skill.”
HSH, formerly known as Honors Arts and Letters (HAL), is a major and minor degree program offered by the Honors College. As the name would suggest, HSH integrates the seemingly disparate sciences and humanities, instilling critical thinking skills and communication literacy through reading and writing-intensive courses while simultaneously preparing students for STEM-based careers and rigorous post-graduate programs like law and medical school.
Within the HSH major, students may choose to pursue degree concentrations in Medicine, Global Health & the Humanities; Humanities Driven STEM; Environmental Science & the Humanities, or Politics, Philosophy, Economics & Law.
“An engineering major who took several of my classes wrote me a few years ago,” Caswell recalled. “She told me, ‘Hey, thanks so much for teaching me how to write because now I work at NASA, in the Houston area at Johnson Space Center, and even though I was hired as an engineer, the main thing I do each day is write.'”
While study abroad and study away courses were suspended after the onset of COVID-19, the Honors College is expected to resume its study abroad program in Spring 2022. In the past, honors students have studied European history under Aliza Wong in Italy; joined Joe Hodes and Allie Smith at the Texas Tech Center in Sevilla; studied away with Caswell during a two-week canoeing adventure on Utah's Green River, and walked the Camino de Santiago with him in Spain.
“We take 10 or 12 students to Spain and walk 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago, which is a fantastic experience,” Caswell said. “There's a reading and writing component, but what we're really teaching is personal growth, because you can't help but grow in some way when you're undergoing this physical, emotional and spiritual test. If you're walking 20 miles a day, you figure out what kind of person you are.”
Caswell's most recent book is a distinct departure from the nature-focused, meditative personal essays that comprise his larger body of work. Released in 2018, “Laika's Window: The Legacy of a Soviet Space Dog” chronicles the true story of Laika, the two-year-old, 13-pound mutt who became the first living being to orbit the earth.
“I'd always been interested in physics and space and black holes on some level, but I didn't know a lot about the Space Race and how that worked with the Cold War,” Caswell said. “I didn't know that much about what led up to the first human beings in space, and then the moon landing. Really, all of that started with animal trials. The U.S. was mostly launching monkeys at the beginning, and then two chimpanzees. And in the Soviet Union, they were launching dogs. It just seemed like a story I could get into because I'm a dog lover.”
The lone passenger of Sputnik II, Laika was launched into space by the Soviet Union in 1957 and paved the way toward space travel as we know it. Despite the government-endorsed success story in which Laika completed her weeklong mission before painlessly succumbing to oxygen deprivation, she lived only a few hours aboard Sputnik II and died of heat exhaustion, her heart rate acutely elevated, as the satellite made its third orbit around the earth.
“Laika was one dog among many,” Caswell explained. “There were lots of dogs that were launched into space – I'd say the return rate was probably over half. All of those launches had a return plan, except Laika's, because she went into orbit. And when that happened, nobody knew how to deorbit a satellite safely and bring it back down, so it was impossible to return her to earth.
“People get really angry about the story and have this attitude about the people who sent Laika to her death,” Caswell continued. “But actually, they loved her. They took care of these dogs, which were strays they picked up off the streets in Moscow. These were dogs that probably were going to have very short, violent lives, and instead they lived these comparably cushy lives. They were put through training, of course, but they weren't just haphazardly launched into space.”
Caswell hopes Laika's story not only educates and informs, debunking popular misconceptions and recontextualizing 20th century space exploration, but also instills greater empathy within readers – empathy for our fellow beings, empathy for the unsung heroes of the Space Race, and perhaps empathy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, whose relationship is no less fraught today than it was 64 years ago, when Laika's satellite took flight.
Writing as a way of life
The secret behind Caswell's mastery of the written word is decidedly unsexy: discipline.
“I have a work habit, and the writing gets done because I keep the habit together, not because I'm inspired,” Caswell said. “The feeling of inspiration, or being driven by the muse or whatever that is, comes at a time when you are writing, not when you think you want to. This doesn't discount, say, some kind of opium reverie by Coleridge or something, where he pens this poem that we all read now in English classes. But the writing gets done when you go to your workspace every day. Regardless of whether you want to or not, you just go there, and sometimes amazing things happen and sometimes they don't. But you're always working, so the inspiration comes after you start working, not before.
“Writing is not exactly fun. You don't necessarily look forward to it. It's not like, ‘I'm really looking forward to writing today because it's going to be so fun.' You get the writing done by disciplining yourself. Discipline sounds a bit like a drudgery, but if you have a writing habit where you just show up every day, it becomes the way you live.”
The perception of writing as a drudgery, or worse, is hardly uncommon among career authors. Flannery O'Conner described the act of writing a novel as “a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”
Kurt Vonnegut once said, “When I write, I feel like an armless, legless man with a crayon in his mouth,” and according to James Joyce, “Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives.”
Caswell likens writing to physical exercise, one of life's necessary evils.
“There's a Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, who talks about how running has helped him as a writer,” Caswell said. “It's a very similar kind of discipline in that you feel better after the run, not before.”
To emerging writers, he offers the following advice:
“My first suggestion is to read,” Caswell said. “I don't know why, but that seems to get left out. If you're trying to write a short story and you've not read one, how do you know what a short story is? You can learn a great deal by reading. The second thing is, you have to develop a habit that is dependable, and you need space and time to do that. If you don't write routinely, preferably every day, at least a little bit, you're not going to get better.”
“The third thing is,” Caswell continued, “you've got to get out and about. You've got to have a life to write about. When you step out into the world, things happen to you, and that becomes the material. The difficulty is that writers are notoriously introverted and solitary types. A little bit of social interaction is plenty, so it's often hard for a writer to decide, ‘Oh, I'm going to go out and talk to people.' I mean, I don't want to do that. But you've got to make yourself do it.”
The day prior, from the comfort of a different campsite deep in Oregon's Cascade Range, Caswell had resolved to take his own advice. Overcoming his desire to remain in contemplative solitude and his natural disinclination to venture into the unknown, he broke down his camper and packed up his possessions, leaving no trace of himself, and traveled toward what remained of Blue River – ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
“I had this incredible day yesterday because I met these people, and reconnected with this landscape, and I just started to build a story because I'd bothered to leave home,” he said. “The story is out there in the world, and you bring it back.”