A soothing classical piece is playing in David Cantrell’s office, streaming from his favorite station in New York that his father-in-law introduced him to years ago. The music and mood match Cantrell’s presentation; gray hair styled neatly, a burgundy sweater topping a white shirt and dark tie, a wool blazer draped on the back of his office chair. He’s speaking of his teaching career in a voice that, though easy and relaxed, reveals also a measure of calm confidence in his words that call for only the gentlest swells in pitch. His measured pace never once hints at any desire to run wild.
The music, however, is just the slightest too loud in its peaks for him to be heard clearly, so he turns it off instead of turning it down. “I was trying to speak to the rhythms of it, but it’s difficult,” he jokes. “Maybe I should switch to a waltz.” There’s a slight smile, as measured as his speech. It lingers for just a moment as if sustained by some memory that has come to mind. Whatever it might be – if anything at all – Cantrell keeps it to himself.
Cantrell’s manner is the result of a lifetime of thoughtful and deliberate inquiry that led him from the mountains of North Carolina to destinations north and then west and, finally, back to his native state in pursuit of understanding. Along the way he earned a shelf full of accolades for his work encouraging others in their own intellectual inquiry. Now, he can add yet another award to his collection: the University of North Carolina Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching. The award, given each year by the University of North Carolina System to a peer-nominated teacher from each of the System schools, recognizes outstanding instruction in the classroom.
“It has been a humbling experience to receive this award, when so many of my colleagues are at least as worthy as I, if not more so,” Cantrell says. “Since learning the news, I have been thinking about my grandmothers, who were teachers; my great-aunt, who was a teacher; and, most especially, my late mother, who taught all her life without recognition and reward beyond the richness of her constant service. I think, too, of those many teachers, almost all of them women until [I went to] college, whose high and serious love of literature, history, and language nourished my own. I shall try to live up to this honor, as I have tried over the years to live up to their love.”
Cantrell’s days at NCSSM are spent teaching humanities courses like American Studies (which combines the study of American history and literature and is a signature element of the NCSSM Residential Program), Westerns and the West, Research Experience in Humanities, and Research in Humanities. For several years now he has also led students on an educational trip to Arizona during the January Term special instructional period.
No less than literature, and perhaps even more, it was music that first opened Cantrell’s heart to a world of thought and emotion and ideas. But not the classical he’s listening to now, decades later in his office on NCSSM’s Durham campus. Rhythm and blues and soul and gospel were the first to speak to him, not Mozart and Chopin. Each night as a child in his bedroom in the tiny western North Carolina town of Cherokee, the son of a Baptist minister and a history and Spanish teacher mother turned the dial on his radio till the signal from WLAC in Nashville came pouring through. Today the station follows a talk radio format, but in the early ’70s the music of the Black artists it played spoke to Cantrell of worlds other than his own and inspired him to search out their secrets in the years to come.
The tourists in Cherokee who drove over and through the forested mountain ridges that cradled Cantrell’s home also arrived with the metaphorical dust of other places upon them. So, too, did the nightly news broadcasts filled with reports of the war in Vietnam and the war at home over civil rights. “It was as if life’s rich and strange pageantry was drifting through the Smoky Mountains,” Cantrell says, “decamping here and there.”
If the world beyond Cherokee was whispering to him, his experiences in that small place spoke more sternly. In a school of predominantly Cherokee children, Cantrell became aware from an early age of the inequalities created by the continuing history of colonization. “I felt different,” Cantrell says, recalling his early youth. “But it was interesting. I didn’t feel the difference in racial terms. I felt it in historical terms. I had a sense that what made us different was that I had somehow been exempted from what had happened to their families and to their land. For me, it was a time of really trying to understand myself in relation to my friends and to the situation that we shared unequally.”
Already, his young mind was beginning to consider the larger circumstances that would one day underpin his career as a teacher.
The undefined and open-ended questions Cantrell wrestled with as a boy grew in their complexity as he got older. By high school, the family had moved east to a rural area between Winston-Salem and High Point that locals called Abbott’s Creek. Though music still swelled his heart, it could only go so far toward the understanding his maturing mind sought. The written word, and the expansive nature of literature, he found, was the way in. Through it, he could explore intellectually what he felt emotionally.
After high school Cantrell pursued and received a degree in English and history from nearby Wake Forest University. Given his love of language and awareness of inequality, law school seemed the next step. There, he reasoned, he could attempt to make right the things he felt were wrong. But there was one issue he couldn’t resolve; he didn’t want to study law.
“I ended up going to Harvard Divinity School instead of Yale Law School,” Cantrell says, “not because I wanted to be a minister, but because I needed to think through questions, and Harvard gave me money to do it. You could take half of your classes outside the department, and so I ended up finding myself studying literature, studying anthropology, studying philosophy, but still took enough religion classes to get my master’s degree in divinity.”
Driven to contribute something good to the world led Cantrell post-degree to work night shifts at a homeless shelter. But it was too much; the despair and hopelessness he saw there overwhelmed him. Once again, he reckoned with his future.
“I realized that what I’d really always wanted to do was to teach,” he says. “For me, the classroom became the site where I could really intervene and do work in the world.”
Cantrell flew west to Stanford University, arriving in the early fall of 1989, where – in between summers spent back in Boston where his wife, Teresa, had taken a position at Boston University – he attained an M.A. and Ph.D. in American literature, completing his research as a Mellon Fellow, and then as a Colin Higgins Fellow.
Open to change
Life on the other side of the Rockies was grand. By the summer of 1993 Cantrell and his wife were living in Berkeley as he finished up his degree. An excellent teaching gig at Stanford followed, as did positions at the University of Nevada, where he was a National Endowment for the Humanities postdoctoral fellow, and the University of San Diego, where he held appointments in the College and the School of Law. The weather was great, too. Though he often thought of home – some evenings even perusing outdoor webcams trained on the mountains and valleys of his childhood – the idea of returning to North Carolina never presented itself in any real way.
But, as Cantrell stresses to his students, what’s true in one’s heart today may not remain true in the future. Understanding that and being open to it is a core part of living a life fully realized.
“There’s a real fluidity as well as a constancy to our beliefs,” he says. “On the one hand, in order to live and to live well, we have to be able to say that this [thing] is true and to remain faithful to it. On the other hand, the truth about truth is that it changes. I can’t somehow assume that what I believe now is something I will hold as true in 20 years. If we refuse to allow our truths to change, then change becomes more like ossification. People become hard. I think our students are receptive to that.”
So, 20 years after following his own truth out of North Carolina, Cantrell was struck by a shift in thought that pointed his heart back East.
“You get to a point in your career where you can sort of see the rest of your life,” Cantrell says. “And even though life was pleasant in Southern California, I wanted to recreate myself, and so I applied to this job [at NCSSM] kind of on a lark. But I had to interview and, you know, I met the students here, and they were so delightfully compelling I thought it might be good to go back. Coming here to NCSSM allowed me to come back to a North Carolina that I wanted to exist. Seeing the rich and various diversity of students here allows you to see a world that you want to live in, and in a North Carolina that you want to serve.”
Nearly a decade has passed since Cantrell first arrived on the Durham campus. What he has found is that NCSSM students are just as capable as those he encountered at Harvard and Stanford, and he engages them as such, consistently challenging them to go beyond what they see and read on the page so they might become attuned to how that text affects the ways they see others, the way they see themselves, and how they interact with the world.
“Every class has to respect students’ intellectual autonomy, and to challenge them when they themselves are looking for ways to avoid the difficulty of thinking,” Cantrell says. “I want students to understand how to read a text, and how to read a text objectively [which means] looking at the text itself, as it exists in its freedom, and its difference from you, and trying to say what is there. In doing so, hopefully the reader will become aware of their own assumptions, their own values, their own beliefs that they bring to the piece. Encountering a textual object in that way should be a model for our encounters with other people.”
Grappling with the truth of a place or people or time requires investigating more than just the texts that reflect it. In his research courses, Cantrell leads his students into the field to consider the physical manifestations of social and historical life. Visits to sites such as nearby Stagville Plantation – a state historic site that includes remnants of one of the largest plantations in North Carolina – “creates a necessary encounter,” Cantrell says, “with the demands of lives that at once resist and require our efforts to know.”
Likewise, the saw marks in a rough-hewn piece of furniture hand-crafted by tradesmen are concrete evidence both of that craftsman’s hand and the world from which such art comes and upon which it works. That one can still explore the structures on an old plantation, or touch such a piece of furniture, connects in a real and tactile way the past with the present and in doing so opens yet another window of understanding, Cantrell believes.
In the end, though, it all comes back to the written word. Whether an encounter with a piece of literature or an object that stimulates one’s physical senses, Cantrell asks his students to capture their response to it in writing. Once they’ve created this record, Cantrell then asks them to return to it and unpack every thought and idea of their own with the same vigor they approached the primary source to determine if what they think and feel and believe to be true is genuine. In this, the study of others’ work becomes a study of one’s self.
There have been numerous other accolades for Cantrell at NCSSM besides the UNC Board of Governors Award for Excellence in Teaching, such as the award for Outstanding Teacher at NCSSM and, very recently, the John L. Sanders Student Advocate Award, which is presented each year by the UNC Association of Student Governments to members of the University of North Carolina community who have advocated unyieldingly for the best interests of North Carolina’s students. They’re part of a much longer list of Cantrell’s accomplishments and recognitions which share a common origin: the spin of a dial on a small radio years ago in the mountains. For Cantrell, tuning in led to a life of attuning students to a world extraordinary in its scope.
“I want my students to be intensely curious about the world,” Cantrell says. “I want them to come out of my class able to use their own writing as an occasion of intellectual autonomy. I want them to learn to think about the world beneath their feet, and the world from which they came. And I also want them to understand that that world didn’t have to be the way it was and that it can be otherwise. I want them to come out of here having experienced their power as intellectuals, and I want them to be hopeful that they can live lives that are worthy of them. And they do. I regularly get confirmation of that from notes out of the blue from my students. That matters a great deal more to me than any sort of official recognitions.”