Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Last English Professor

This is not a corona virus death story.  I found out this morning that one of my undergraduate English professors, Dr. Gaillard Waterfall, had died.  I'm not sure of the cause of death, but he was 88 years old.  When I was there, he was head of the department, and I only took a few classes from him.

He had a second house in the mountains, two hours away from the campus.  He would take groups of students up to the mountains to see the houses of great American writers; both Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe had houses in the Asheville area, which was where my professor had his house.  We'd stop at my professor's house and pick apples, if we made the trek in the fall.

What a different time that was--we rode in each other's cars, including my professors' cars.  We made a trip to a secluded mountain home.  We picked apples.

Here's what's more sobering:  now all of my undergraduate English professors are dead.  I realized I wasn't sure about one of them, but the miracles of the Internet supplied the information.  My Shakespeare professor, Dr. Steen Spove, died in 2008 of pancreatic cancer.

When my favorite English professor, Dr. Gayle Swanson died in 2014, I blogged about it here and here.  Much of what I wrote about her applies to the whole English department of Newberry College when I attended.

I learned to love literature in a variety of ways through the teaching of all of those faculty members in the English department.  I learned to love a variety of works of literature.  Granted, the reading lists were traditional, but they gave me a solid grounding.

And when I wanted to explore more, to examine the women that had been left out of our beloved Norton anthologies, not one professor discouraged me--no, that would come later in graduate school.  My undergraduate professors were interested to see what I would come up with, and they let me loose on the margins of the canon.

They also nurtured my writing skills and talents--of course, you'd expect English majors to be nurtured this way, but after shepherding students for decades, I'm more in awe of this now than I was then.

When I look back, I am astounded at how open our professors were, how they had us over to their houses (and their second houses).  I'm amazed at how many cultural opportunities they made possible, both by inviting authors to come to us and by taking us on field trips to see authors and other intellectuals.

Part of me will always want that kind of teaching life for myself, the joys of a small, liberal arts college.  Part of me has this sobering realization that many of those types of schools may not survive this time of pandemic, when this old-fashioned kind of teaching, learning, and living in close proximity may not be feasible.  I know that many of the small, liberal arts colleges weren't doing well before the pandemic, and they may not have the dexterity to survive into what will be the new reality.

I am still rather flabbergasted to realize that all of my undergraduate English professors are gone.  I realize that many of us have been wrestling with issues of mortality in this pestilence spring, but this variation feels a bit different.

I have been trying to live into all the ways/values/examples that my undergraduate professors gave me.  In some ways, nothing has changed.

In so many ways, it feels so very different knowing that the whole department has passed on.

2 comments:

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Lesley Wheeler said...

Yes, I'm lucky enough to have one of these jobs and at a place with pretty deep pockets, so we'll pull through. And I love this educational model with small classes and lots of student-teacher contact. But the whole US higher ed system is on the rocks now, and places that prioritize presence, like these small colleges, are at particular risk. One of a zillion reasons to hope this pandemic has a better trajectory than we fear!