To Shelton Waldrep — the University of Southern Maine’s newest distinguished professor — scholarship and teaching merge.
His classroom discussions with students have led to the creation of entire courses, and those courses have led to several highly regarded books.
“I feel lucky at USM to have had a really synergistic relationship between what I’ve taught and what I’ve written about,” said Waldrep, who began teaching at USM in 1998 and now serves as chair of the English Department.
He has taught many of the traditional English courses including Ancient Literature, World Masterpieces, Poetry Writing, Literary Studies and Creative Writing. And when he began teaching, he used his doctoral dissertation from Duke University, “Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Self-Invention,” as classroom fodder.
“Like a lot of young scholars, when I came here I was kind of teaching my dissertation and teaching things that I was researching,” he said. “After a point, I was using the classes as places to try out ideas and ultimately, write about them. The students made a huge contribution to that.”
In one particular lecture, Waldrep talked with students about David Bowie, comparing the singer-songwriter’s re-invention of himself to a literary figure. When the class ended, a student approached him.
“You have a real affinity for Bowie and explaining his work,” the student said. “You should teach a class on him.”
The remark surprised Waldrep.
“It had never occurred to me to teach him,” he said. “If he had never said that, I don’t know if I would ever have thought to tentatively start teaching a class on him, which was sort of unheard of at that time.”
The scholarly floodgates opened.
Shelton would teach Rock and Roll Cultures, an interdisciplinary studies course on David Bowie and, for many years, a class on iconic film director Stanley Kubrick. The work led to essays and books.
“You never think material through as closely as you do when you teach it, and you’re completely responsible for absorbing it and reproducing its essence for students and taking them through the process of learning,” he said.
Among the books were “The Seventies: The Age of Glitter in Popular Culture” in 2000, “The Aesthetics of Self-Invention: Oscar Wilde to David Bowie” in 2004, “Future Nostalgia: Performing David Bowie” in 2016 and the just-published “The Space of Sex: The Porn Aesthetic in Contemporary Film and Television.”
“My writing has tried to make people take seriously the important and careful analysis of popular forms,” Waldrep said. He hopes readers see Bowie, for instance,” as not just as a pop star but as a serious artist, working on various fronts, not just music but the visual arts, performance and fashion.”
Amid the pop culture work were other pieces, including “The Dissolution of Place: Architecture, Identity, and the Body” in 2013.”
The writing — stretching from film and music to architecture and sexuality — might seem awfully broad. But Waldrep is loath to limit his scholarly interests.
“I don’t ever want to write the same book again,” he said. “I am just a polymath with a lot of different interests.”
The body of work and his dedication to students have earned him notoriety. In 2014, Waldrep was named a Trustee Professor. And he was honored in Spring 2021 as a Distinguished Professor.
The role is reserved for USM faculty members who have already achieved the rank of Professor. The title “Distinguished Professor” is awarded to USM faculty who have demonstrated exceptional scholarly or creative work and instructional leadership across a broad disciplinary or interdisciplinary range.
USM Provost Jeannine Uzzi introduced Waldrep during the 2021 Commencement ceremony.
“Dr. Shelton Waldrep represents the epitome of what USM offers its students, access to the minds of brilliant faculty members doing cutting-edge research in their fields,” Uzzi said. “They could spend their career teaching at any university, but they choose to spend their careers with our students right here in Maine.”
Waldrep felt honored.
“It does mean a lot because you have to be approved by your department, then by a college committee,” he said. “You have to ultimately be approved by the distinguished professors who are currently serving. I think it’s a way to mark the importance of scholarship to the university.”
It all serves the students, he said.
He has worked to give them access to his primary sources, rather than point them to a book or a website.
For instance, he integrates his own photos and key research into his classes.
“If I am teaching World Masterpieces, I want to be able to tell them, ‘Oh, this is what Chartres Cathedral looks like.’”
“If students hadn’t been willing to go with me down these roads, I would have stopped teaching these classes and, maybe, never written about these things,” Waldrep said. “I appreciate their open-mindedness. So often, we’ve gelled about the same ideas and interests.”