GW President Emeritus Steven Knapp now teaches a University Honors Program seminar on metaphor.
By Ruth Steinhardt
In a classroom at the George Washington University in November, Steven Knapp made an interesting discovery: Most of his students didn’t understand what it meant to sleep with the fishes.
The surprise was part of a discussion about piscine metaphors presented by Isabella Jaeger, a student in Dr. Knapp’s seminar, “Metaphor,” in the University Honors Program. The list ranged from “a pretty kettle of fish” to “fish out of water” and “big fish in a little pond.”
A classmate, Cyrus Behzadi, expressed surprise that the iconic “sleep with the fishes”—a phrase from “The Godfather” loosely meaning “to be murdered and thrown in the East River”—wasn’t on the list, especially since characters in the film use physical fish to intimidate the families of their victims.
“It’s like a physical metaphor of a verbal metaphor,” Mr. Behzadi said.
He was met with confused silence from his classmates.
“You guys haven’t seen ‘The Godfather?’” Dr. Knapp asked, sounding mildly dismayed.
“It’s hard to know what cultural references will be shared across generations,” he said later. “’The Godfather’ was first released in 1972—when I was an undergraduate! The oldest students in the class were born decades later. I think many of my contemporaries who don’t have the privilege of interacting with young people would be surprised to discover how many things we regard as cultural icons may not be, at least not to the degree they suppose.”
Dr. Knapp stepped down as GW president in July 2017 after 10 years of service in that position, and mandatory schoolwide viewing of Francis Ford Coppola’s Oscar-winning mafia classic was certainly never one of his priorities.
But Dr. Knapp’s time as president was marked by the creation of pathways for interdisciplinary research and thought at GW. Science and Engineering Hall, which opened in 2015, was designed to enable researchers from different departments to work together. Partnerships established during his tenure included those with The Textile Museum and with the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design.
His belief in the importance of making connections and his background in English literature, the subject in which he received his doctorate from Cornell University and which he taught at the University of California, Berkeley, led him to develop the metaphor class.
“I wanted to do this course because it’s an inherently interdisciplinary topic,” Dr. Knapp said. “There are metaphors everywhere—in philosophy, in science, in religion, in politics.”
The honors seminar’s 13 students hail from almost as many academic backgrounds, including architecture, biology, economics and international relations. In the first half of the semester, they learned the definition and evolving philosophy of metaphor.
“That goes all the way back to Aristotle, thinking about metaphor as a way of taking a term from one place and moving it to another place,” Dr. Knapp said. “The Greek word ‘metaphor’ means ‘transfer,’ so that kind of set the stage for thinking about metaphor as a substitution of one thing for another.
“But there are also comparison theories, or interaction theories where the two parts of the metaphor together form a new meaning. There’s the question of whether a metaphor says something that can’t be said in any other way, whether it can be paraphrased and translated, even whether metaphor is inherently a good thing or a bad thing.”
In the second half of the semester, individual students brought in examples of metaphors in their own areas of interest and led class discussions around them. Presentations included metaphors in architecture, in the work of artist René Magritte and even in DNA itself—the molecule’s code serving as a kind of language.
That day in November, economics major Natalie Morgan also made a presentation—hers about the use of metaphors for the economy. How do our associations with the words we use to explain economic operations affect our actual understanding of those operations? The word “ecosystem,” for instance, is often used to describe an economic system. But that metaphor can be unhelpful, Ms. Morgan said: Ecosystems are self-maintaining and self-balancing, while economies invite and even require intervention.
Moving from the boardroom back to the classroom has its benefits and challenges, Dr. Knapp said.
“There are certainly things that you miss, and things you don’t miss,” he said. “But that’s true with each of the transitions I made, from being a faculty member to being a dean, from being a dean to being a provost, from being a provost to being president… Administration isn’t as removed from academics as academics think it is.”
In a way, Dr. Knapp’s multidisciplinary classroom is a microcosm of GW. It might even be a kind of metaphor.
Asked if he would agree with the analogy, Dr. Knapp said he could see it. “My interest in making interdisciplinary connections was what drew me into an administrative role in the first place some 24 years ago,” he said.
But, with a scholar’s precision, he didn’t want to extend the metaphor too far. Next semester he’ll teach a class on religious and anti-religious poetry, which will be concentrated on his prime area of interest.
“My teaching in the spring will be pretty strongly focused on literature,” he said.