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Feature

Michael Dennis Browne, professor of English, Twin Cities campus.

Michael Dennis Browne, professor of English, Twin Cities campus

To be an expert and a friend

Profile of a 2005 teaching award winner

By Cass Erickson

Published April 25, 2005

Lover of life, language, and young people, English professor and poet Michael Dennis Browne is revered by both students and colleagues alike for his deep commitment to his craft. He is known for taking a genuine interest in students and engaging them on equal ground. The sum of his outstanding contributions to the creative writing profession, both locally and nationally, have made him a shining light in the field.

Browne is one of six University of Minnesota faculty members who will receive the Morse-Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Award on April 25. The Morse-Alumni Award and the Award for Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education are the University's highest recognition for teaching. Browne previously received distinguished teaching awards from the College of Liberal Arts and the College of Continuing Education on the Twin Cities campus.

"I think the students can tell that I love what I do and I love language," Browne says. "Saul Bellow said that a writer is a reader moved to emulation...you read something and you want to do that too. So if I communicate my delight in what I do, that's infectious."

"Each class is a human occasion, and that must have an improvisational quality that includes elements of play."

Browne's contributions to the local writing scene have been numerous and significant. Among them, he was a founding member of the Loft Literary Center and a former director of the University's Creative Writing Program. He enjoys writing for music and the collaboration it entails, calling it his second love.

Born into a musical family in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, England, Browne arrived in America some 40 years ago as a young graduate-student poet at the University of Iowa. He received his master of arts in literature and, in 1971, began teaching at the University of Minnesota. He never guessed he'd stay, but he found his niche and fell in love with the north woods.

"In the early sixties, I read these James Wright poems and I adored them," says Browne. "When I was at Iowa, I visited northern Minnesota, where James Wright used to go with Robert Bly, his old friend. And now [our family has] a cabin there. I love Minnesota. It's been a good home to me. And I've tried to serve it as a teacher and writer."

Browne had received his B.A. in languages (French and Swedish) from Hull University in England, followed by a year at Oxford. His Catholic high school teachers instilled in him their love of languages, which he now passes on to his students. But in the beginning, Browne didn't think he would ever teach.

"I thought I'd be an actor," he says in a marvelous voice further enhanced by his accent, which he calls Anglo-Sotan. "When I came to Iowa, I was in plays my first year. And then I thought I really wanted to be the person who puts the words in the mouths."

Browne employs his theatrical sensibilities reading around the country and in the classroom, where he insists on playfulness and humanness--without which, he says, information is dead.

"Each class is a human occasion," he says, "and that must have an improvisational quality that includes elements of play." It's his intention to be an expert who is also a friend to each student he works with.

Books by Michael Dennis Browne

Browne's principal publications include The Wife of Winter (1970), Sun Exercises (1976), The Sun Fetcher (1978), Smoke from the Fires (1985), You Won't Remember This (1992), Selected Poems 1965-1995 (1997), his first children's book, Give Her the River (2004), and Things I Can't Tell You (2005).

For more information, visit the University Bookstore in Coffman Union, see its General & Reference Books Web page, or call 612-626-0559.

Browne says he owes his success as a teacher to rapport he develops with students through empathy and listening skills. With two of his own children in college and another in high school, he says he's especially tuned in to students these days.

"It's a question of empathy, knowing what it might be like to be them...and part of the art is really listening to what they're saying and what they're unable to say, and picking up on that," he says. "There's a majority of people who, if they feel that they're being listened to, can really open up with that kind of attention." He adds emphatically: "And a lot of them have never had that kind of attention paid to them."

Graduating senior and English major Nell Kromhout says it's an honor to have studied with Browne and an even greater honor to cultivate a lifelong friendship.

"Michael nurtures the inner inquisitive mind in his students by a continuous yet gentle challenge of our comfort levels as poets and as people," Kromhout says.

Browne considers himself fortunate, too.

"It's like a garden--you like to see things grow and bloom," he says. "There are before-and-after stories of students over the years that are just lovely. And many become friends."

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