Susan Shillinglaw

The Steinbeck Summer Institute

Susan Shillinglaw, SJSU

English & Comparative Literature, College of Humanities & the Arts
Sponsor: National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Education Programs 

John Steinbeck wrote many books—including classics like The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden and Of Mice and Men—that continue to resonate in classrooms across the country. For many students, Steinbeck is known as a writer of migrants and workers, but his work reflects an array of additional interests, including a passion for ecology and natural science. 

Susan Shillinglaw, SJSU professor, Steinbeck scholar, and Director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, studies the many layers of the writer’s work, and there she sees an opportunity to expand how we teach Steinbeck in the classroom. 

The three-week Steinbeck Summer Institute for middle and high school teachers, which Shillinglaw founded in 2007, explores Steinbeck’s creative, social and ecological ideas, as well as his contemporary relevance. The institute convenes annually in Monterey, combining lectures and workshops with explorations of the California landscape that inspired the author. 

The program attracts both English and science teachers, examining how science teachers can integrate narrative ideas, and how literature teachers can integrate Steinbeck’s ideas around natural science. Shillinglaw seeks to “bridge this gap between art and science.” 

“We needn’t see them as separate ways of thinking, but rather look at how teachers can integrate the written word with science, because science is a narrative. A lot of scientific endeavors are stories about where do you start, where do you end up, what happens and how does it impact us, and how does it change our understanding of the world.” 

Steinbeck’s work has also inspired Shillinglaw personally—she credits him with connecting her to California.

“As a child I lived in Colorado and we used to drive to California to visit relatives,” she explains. “So I wasn’t born here, but Steinbeck’s love of place and land and people and history gave me a great appreciation and love for the state,” she says, adding, “in many ways he made me a Californian.”

Student Research

"The Institute gave me a historical and cultural understanding of Steinbeck’s literature. Because of the Institute I have worked with students in 8th grade English, 11th grade American History, and AP Environmental Science. Students are learning how to relate to literature beyond the book; they are making connections to the region’s agriculture, marine resources, and economy."

Christina Pommer, Technology Director
Association of Independent School Librarians

SJSU Research Foundation 2018 Annual Report