Arts & Culture / Mosaic / October 5, 2017

From student to professor: Monica Berlin

Professor of English Monica Berlin is also the chair of the English Department. (Photo courtesy of Monica Berlin)

The life of Professor of English Monica Berlin ‘96 has not gone according to plan and she does not want it to start.

For one, according to her original plans, Berlin would not be a professor at Knox.

“No. I was never going to teach, no,” Berlin said, describing her attitudes as an undergraduate student. “I had watched my mother work her way through the Chicago Public School system as a substitute teacher­. I did not want that.”

Berlin said she takes all of life as it happens.

“It’s about making yourself available to as much as possible, and then doing whatever comes around. Just go where the wind blows,” Berlin said.

She looked at the blackboard above her desk, to somewhere near the middle of the mass of saved texts, student art, and postcards. Taped between two maps hung a note reading ‘Outside in the wind.’

When Berlin leaves her office, she sticks this note to the door, “in case a student needs to look for me,” she said.

Berlin recalled her decision to come to Knox as falling within the same philosophy.

“Everyone looked me in the eye. I thought, maybe that’s what college is supposed to be. I didn’t know what I wanted. As I was leaving town on the train, we saw a restaurant that’s no longer here. It was called The Friendly Cafe. And I thought, well, that’s the sign. This is where I’m coming to school,” Berlin said.

After graduating from Knox College in March of 1996, Berlin went on to graduate school. Just before she finished her master’s degree, she received a call from Knox College.

When asked what made her teach, she wrinkled her nose and untied her hair.

“Why did I come back to teach at Knox? Because they called me and asked,” Berlin said.

Berlin explained that she intentionally “gets lost” and that her wandering through life is an important part of her creative process.

“I want to give myself as many chances as possible to be distracted. The world is distracting; I want to be ‘caught’ by as many things as possible,” Berlin said.

She said she tries to encourage her students to adopt a similar openness to the world.

“I’ve always understood there’s a difference between what you do and who you areÉ I tell my students, find a way to pay the bills and then be a lot of other things, too. All that can go into who you are, not just the one thing that pays the bills,” Berlin said.

She said she was an example of how falling away from plans could work out for the best.

“I started teaching the second semester of my first graduate program. I wouldn’t say I loved it. It was really hard. It is still, all these years later, really hard… But [now] I love teaching,” Berlin said.

“No one becomes a professor for the money. They do it for the wall of books.”

Tricia Duke

Tags:  alumni Creative writing Monica Berlin Students teachers

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