Steinbeck bio connects students

May 2, 2005

Kettering professor's research on John Steinbeck connects engineering students to contemporary issues.

Thompson Gale recently published "John Steinbeck: A Documentary Volume" by Dr. Luchen Li, an assistant professor of Humanities and Communication at Kettering University. This work represents the culmination of a four-year research project and is an important new contribution to the study of Steinbeck's life and literary career.

This book comprises Li's critical analyses of the author's plays, novels, short stories and letters, which provide a thorough examination of Steinbeck's life through his creative activities. Steinbeck is the author of many works, such as "East of Eden," "Cannery Row, "Of Mice and Men," "Tortilla Flat," and "Sea of Cortez," among others.

For Li, a resident of Brighton, Mich., the study of Steinbeck "resonates with contemporary life," he noted. "His work deals with issues of the environment, marine biology, morals and politics-subjects that our culture and society struggle with today."

Steinbeck (1902-1968) published his first novel, "Cup of Gold" in 1929. Throughout his career, the author wrote about the economics of rural labor and our connection to the land. He is most widely known for his novel "The Grapes of Wrath," a story that depicted the life of tenant farmers from Oklahoma during the Depression who attempt to make a living from farming, fail, and eventually move to California, where they find work as migratory laborers. The first cinematic production of this book starred Henry Fonda and appeared on screen in 1940.

Li explained that his research helps enhance his teaching of Steinbeck literature because it connects directly with issues students will deal with as members of society and as professionals employed in the engineering and business fields. With the current emphasis on green engineering, defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA, as the design, commercialization and use of processes and products that are feasible, economical, and reduce pollution and risks to human life and the environment, the study of Steinbeck can teach many engineering students important lessons about protecting our world when devising new engineered products. Li also noted that he includes Steinbeck's works in his teaching at Kettering because the author is an exceptional technical writer. "His descriptions and illustrations of many marine species in 'Sea of Cortez' and his skills in conveying visual images to readers illustrate the best qualities in technical documentation that Kettering students are learning to produce in their theses and other assignments," Li said.

He noted that students in his literature and humanities classes respond favorably to the study of Steinbeck works. He attributes student interest in Steinbeck to the vivid, lush, descriptive language and characterization the author employs in his writing. These narrative techniques often convey a sense of place and character quickly in Steinbeck's work, which draws readers into the story.

Karen Wilkinson, head of the Liberal Studies Dept., said that when Li discusses Steinbeck, "you hear the passion he feels for the author's ideas and the wide variety of important issues that Steinbeck tackled. I think the best scholars are the ones, like Luchen, who really care about what they are studying and want their scholarship to do something to make the world a better place."

Li arrived at Kettering in July 2000 and recently received a promotion to an associate professor, which is effective July 1. Other related research activities he has engaged in include contributing articles and book chapters on Steinbeck studies, and serving on the editorial boards for "John Steinbeck: A Centennial Tribute" (Praeger 2002) and for a recent book titled "The Moral Philosophy of John Steinbeck" (Scarecrow Press 2005), which is a part of the University Press of America. Li co-authored the introduction with Stephen George, a leading Steinbeck scholar. Additionally, Li co-authored a soon-to-be-released book titled "Critical Companion to John Steinbeck" with Geoffrey Shultz. Li will also speak at the upcoming 6th International Steinbeck Congress in Kyoto, Japan, in June. He is a member of the John Steinbeck Society, American Literature Association, Western Literature Association, College English Association, and editor for the Michigan College English Association Newsletter.

Written by Gary Erwin