December 19, 2023

SCHWARZ | Remembering Teachers Who Mattered and Are Part of Who I Am Today

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As visiting Cornell Sun columnist for 2023-2024 I have written a few columns from my perspective as a college professor in my 56th year since arriving at Cornell in 1968, but today I want to write from my perspective as a student. I am thinking of teachers who still matter to me from high school through graduate school and what they had in common.

I have been thinking about the qualities which my best teachers shared. Why did I look forward to their classes or tutorials, and why did I want to be prepared for every session no matter what else I was doing?

The teachers I will be discussing had quite different personalities. Not all were gregarious presences outside the classroom, but they all commanded complete attention in the classroom.

What these teachers had in common was the ability to raise issues and ask questions that made me think during and after class sessions. When I was in their classes, I felt that it was the most important part of my day, and they made me feel that it was the most important part of theirs. Such seriousness of purpose on their part created the desire on my part to learn. When accompanied by the teachers’ infectious enthusiasm about their subject during each session, the class became a community to which most of my peers seemed equally committed. In fact, I have checked with a number of those who shared these classes with me and their memories are similar.

Finally, these teachers personally conveyed what they expected from me in terms of quality and effort. Because I respected them, I didn’t want to disappoint them. With each of these teachers I felt a personal connection as if what they wanted from me in terms of reading, writing and thinking somehow mattered to them and me.

Let me begin with high school. I was placed in AP (advanced placement) courses when those were just beginning in my suburban high school in the village of Rockville Centre, Nassau County. In those classes I had four teachers that made a difference and ultimately had a tangible role in shaping my desire to teach.

Two English teachers saw my potential and pushed me to read and think about what I was reading. Perhaps the most compelling teacher was Kenneth Jenkins, the first African American teacher in our school district where few African Americans lived. He was a Columbia graduate who challenged me to think independently, but the most important lesson was that it was my first experience with an educated, vibrant African American with an ebullient personality and a sense of humor. Here he was teaching us —indeed inspiring us — when the community had few African Americans and the African American adults we saw were mostly women who cleaned houses. He seemed to be able to connect with every student and make every student feel special.

An Italian-American named James Perrone, was fearsome, charismatic and a tough-minded scrupulous reader of student essays. He insisted on precision, logic and clarity. He taught 12th grade AP English to seniors but also had in his morning homeroom the major editors of our high school newspaper, a group that included me as Sports Editor and columnist. By his own at times quirky and iconoclastic behavior and by his encouraging me to write independent opinion columns addressing issues in the athletic program, he opened my eyes to the possibility of being a bit bold and provocative within the rules of a school system.  Nothing I did was good enough but that only made me try harder. He would come into homeroom and throw — yes, throw — me paperbacks from his own library that he thought I should read.  I was shocked when he gave me Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade, complete with a lurid cover.

When I had a cavalier and perhaps not seriously engaged response to a poem we were assigned (I forgot which, but it may have been William Carlos Williams’ “The Yachts”), he assigned me to teach Browning’s “My Last Duchess” at the next class session; I prepared for hours and my presentation went well.  

Because of the confidence gained and the respect I received from students and Perrone, this event became a crystalizing event in my education. Perhaps even more important I learned how the investment of time in carefully reading and rereading poetry brought me great joy and made me think that, yes, I might want to be a teacher, and yes, I might want to read more poetry. Prior to this experience I was much more engaged with novels and plays. Alas, Perrone died of cancer a few years later.

Two AP American history teachers who were always prepared introduced me to the complex issues facing the United States from the beginning through the present. Robert Geise taught 11th grade history and Louise Austin taught us the more contemporary 12th grade history and prepared us for the AP exam. Just fulfilling her expectations was enough to get a “5,” the highest score on the exam.

To some extent the emphasis was on top-down history with a focus on Presidents, and we didn’t learn much about indigenous people or the historical discrimination facing women, Jews and African Americans, but we did learn about some of the historic Supreme Court cases.

Every student in these classes was expected to read the New York Times, picked up in homeroom in the morning by class time. My views were slightly left of center and one of the other more articulate students in class discussion was slightly right of center and defended Eisenhower and the status quo. Our dialogues and other exchanges in the class shaped our ability to participate in the give-and-take of democracy and help us gain a working knowledge of the US Constitution. According to my brother Robert, who went to Dartmouth, “I took two history classes and a government class at an Ivy League college, but Geise and Austin’s instruction was more thorough and more arduous than anything I found later. They gave me an understanding of constitution-based American democracy that resonates 60-plus years later.”

Another lesson learned was that the women in these classes were as capable as the men, even though many were tracked away from the more difficult science and math classes. I remember an AP chemistry class with very few women. Exposed to a world where Jews were not always welcome in businesses and social clubs, a positive for me was that many of the best students were Jews, in part because most of the considerable number of Catholics who lived in Rockville Centre, where a diocese was founded in 1957, went to parochial school.

In college, two English teachers stand out. One, Carl Niemeyer, who loved teaching literature and who introduced me to Joyce’s Ulysses in a two-semester world novel course. Spending six weeks on Joyce’s epic began a lifelong fascination that became the subject of one of my books. Before that he taught me Major British authors from Chaucer through T. S. Eliot in a two-semester sophomore course.  A shy man, he came alive in the classroom and masterfully used the Socratic method to which I responded.   What I remember is that he brought to every author he taught an implicit answer to the question, “What kind of literature did this author write?”— that is, what is special and different about what we are reading and to what genre or genres does this work belong? — and this overarching question has stayed with me in my teaching and reading.

The other, John Bradbury, twice supervised independent study including my Honors thesis on the novelist Joseph Conrad which planted the seeds of my Ph.D thesis on that subject.

Prior to my freshman year at Union College, I had been selected with about nine others to be in a special program called the Extendibles under the auspices of the Ford Foundation.

By being in the Extendible group, I could do an independent study project. As a sophomore I had a weekly tutorial with Bradbury on the Southern Renaissance in American literature; he had written one book on the subject and was writing another and that very much impressed me. I was excited that he was a published scholar and a book author.

I learned that even though I had an extroverted side, this independent study experience confirmed that I liked working alone and spending time in the library, and that has stood me in good stead. I learned intellectual rigor in making an argument from a philosophy professor named Rollo Handy who taught at Union College for only one year. He would have us write essays on such abstruse topics as a critique of Anselm’s ontological argument for God’s existence. He went on to have a distinguished career as a scholar. I was fortunate to have the pleasure of listening to the thoughts of his powerful mind.

In my Junior Year abroad my tutor Ian Gregor convinced me by intellectual example that the academic life might be for me. That I was the only American undergrad chosen for the Honors course added to my confidence. His joy in teaching and mentoring paired with his knowledge and encouraging wit challenged me to go deeply into subjects and to discuss literature and other cultural experiences, including art, films and plays. Although there were two other students in the tutorial, Gregor asked me to present at least every other week and I, not wanting to disappoint, learned how to prepare presentations. Long after as I negotiated the path from college to grad school to Cornell and to full professor, he remained a mentor.

Looking back, I realized that my literature classes from high school and college should have included more women and minorities, and both my history and literature classes should have been much more inclusive of African and Asian culture.  Nor was there awareness of gay culture even when discussing E.M. Forster’s Passage to India or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or of anti-Semitism when discussing T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

In graduate school at Brown, I learned what the pursuit of excellence and the joy of university teaching meant from both the great Milton scholar Barbara Lewalski and the Victorian scholar Park Honan. Both brought erudition, love of subject, and a sense that our having a chance to study their subjects was a shared gift. From my dissertation advisor, Mark Spilka, who I can’t say was a great classroom presence, I learned how to define a manageable and timely scholarly project and bring it to conclusion within a finite time period.

At Cornell I continued to learn from mentors, two of whom stressed rigor of thought and the need for persistence. From the great humanist scholar M.H. Abrams I learned to work every day but not all day, and that it is better to submit an article or book before it is perfect because it will never be that. From Michael Colacurcio, I learned to balance the formalism in which I was educated with historical contextualism. I conclude with an overview of qualities my best teachers shared, even if their personalities varied widely:

1) Challenging me to do my best, sometimes by telling me what to read or giving me extra assignments.

2) Helping me discover who I am and who I can be.

3) Teaching me how to listen and respond to concepts and ideas.

4) Inspiring me to love learning for its own sake and to be endlessly curious.

5) Stressing to me the value of reading carefully, thinking powerfully and critically, writing lucidly and precisely and speaking articulately and persuasively.

6) Setting expectations for me that are clear, including insisting that assignments were completed on time (which  taught me time management).

7) Connecting with me as an individual.

8) Making me understand the difference between being a good student and being an intellectual with curiosity and a broad range of interests as well as a willingness to not be confined by traditional fields or even earlier scholarship.

9) Conveying to me love of subject and the sense that what is being taught matters a great deal no matter how much or little it affects daily life.

What I am arguing implicitly and explicitly is that by watching and listening to our teachers, we discover not only our love of learning and intellectual curiosity, but we also develop communication skills that serve us in good stead whether we are in the classroom or elsewhere.

Daniel R. Schwarz is the Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English Literature and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. He is The Cornell Daily Sun’s 2023 visiting columnist. He can be reached at [email protected].

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