Joan DelFattore shared her experiences as a teacher, researcher and author during a University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty luncheon.

UDARF talk

DelFattore shares academic adventures, personal challenges


12:58 p.m., April 21, 2014--Faced with a life-threatening illness with few treatment options, Joan DelFattore marshaled a combination of personal determination and research and critical thinking skills to find hope in what seemed liked a hopeless situation. 

DelFattore, professor emerita of English at the University of Delaware, shared her experiences as a teacher, researcher and author during a “My Intellectual Journey” lecture sponsored by the UD Association of Retired Faculty on Thursday, April 10, at the Courtyard Newark-University of Delaware. 

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“People told me that preparing to talk about one’s intellectual journey causes you to think of insights that otherwise might not have occurred to you,” DelFattore said. “As I thought about how my intellectual journey played out, I found there were things I had never really noticed before that occurred to me in the process of doing this.”

For DelFattore, this journey was marked by several curves in the road, the first of which was choosing which discipline to pursue in graduate school.

“I was very interested in how we perceive the human experience, how we make sense of it and how we talk about it,” DelFattore said. “The two disciplines that do this are psychology and English literature.” 

Thanks to a fellowship from Pennsylvania State University, DelFattore was able to earn a doctorate in English and a master’s degree in clinical psychology. 

One of the key elements of her graduate experience was coming across Carl Jung’s theory of archetypes and the shadow figure.

“The shadow figure represents that part of our psychological makeup that we don’t care to acknowledge,” DelFattore said. “We also use a certain amount of psychic energy to push this shadow figure out of the way.” 

After coming to UD in 1979 to lead the English education program, DelFattore came to another bend in road while presenting a summer course for high school teachers. 

“I was teaching Romeo and Juliet and during the discussion, one of the teachers told me she had no idea what I was talking about,” DelFattore said. “It turned out that they were using the textbooks that they taught from in their high schools, and there were 400 lines that had been taken out of Romeo and Juliet, with no indication that anything was missing.”

The idea of what was taken out of textbooks and why led DelFattore to write What Johnny Shouldn’t Read: Textbook Censorship in America, published by Yale University Press in 1992. 

“The idea of keeping things out of high school textbooks reminded me of the idea of the shadow figure,” DelFattore said. “It’s about pushing truth out of the way because it’s inconvenient and doesn’t lead to the desired consequences.” 

In her next book, The Fourth R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools, published by Yale University Press in 2004, DelFattore traced the evolution of school prayer battles from the early 1800s to later disputes over prayer at public school football games in the 20th century.

The next unexpected curve in her intellectual journey led to writing Knowledge in the Making: Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America’s Schools and Universities (2010). The book, also published by Yale University Press, addressed issues of First Amendment rights for university professors in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2006 decision Garcetti v. Ceballos

“There had been plenty of people writing about First Amendment freedom and academic freedom before this,” DelFattore said. “Garcetti really changed that world, because some of the appeals courts, including the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the one that applied to us, treated Garcetti without question as if it did apply to professors.”

With renewed research interest in the area of academic freedom of expression, and a term as president of the UD chapter of the American Association of University Professors, DelFattore told those attending the UDARF event that life was better than ever and that she could see the road ahead quite clearly. 

The road unexpected

What she could not see on the horizon was a 2011 diagnosis of inoperable cancer with a life expectancy of less than one year.

It was here that DelFattore began what she called the research project of her life, using the University of Delaware Library’s MEDLINE database to find information on gall bladder cancer.

“I wanted to know everything I possible could know,” she said. “I really do think that whatever the attraction that made me so interested in the shadow figure back in my 20s was the same thing that made me feel that I cannot have the reality of having cancer become part of the shadow.”

With help from Cancer Support Community Delaware, DelFattore identified Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City as one of two centers with separate units for gall bladder cancer, and with surgeons and medical oncologists who claimed this as an area of expertise. 

“I did exactly the same thing with finding a surgeon,” DelFattore said. “I wanted to know from the very best if it was really possible that I was going to live less than a year without surgery.” 

Although the CAT scans confirmed the cancer as stage 4 and inoperable, her surgeon felt it was a gray area and also that surgery would be a very serious business. He also left the decision up to his patient. 

“People say that you have no choice, and that there is nothing else that you can do, but it’s really not that simple when you are in that situation,” DelFattore said. “When the probability is that you are going to live less than a year, the notion of spending a good two moths of that time in a great deal of pain and being very sick means that it’s not really a slam dunk decision.”

DelFattore credits growing up Italian in Newark, N.J., as strengthening her resolve in choosing surgery and chemotherapy as a treatment option. 

“I made it, in part, because I’m a Jersey girl,” DelFattore said. “I grew up in a family that is Italian on both sides. If I didn’t learn to stand up for myself, I would not have survived. I simply couldn’t not try.”

Nearly three years after her surgery, DelFattore is writing a memoir about her journey and the reflections on what she has experienced. 

“The reflection part is probably universal,” DelFattore said. “A lot of what I have just been talking about isn’t just the cancer diagnosis, but it’s also about the spirit of life.” 

DelFattore closed her talk with lines from a poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -

And sore must be the storm -

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -

And on the strangest Sea -

Yet – never - in Extremity,

It asked a crumb - of me.”

Article by Jerry Rhodes

Photo by Ambre Alexander Payne

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