LiberalArtsOnline

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Volume 5, Number 2
February 2005

This month LiberalArtsOnline shares the remarks Robert Bell, professor of English at Williams College, made upon being named the 2004 Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year. This award is part of the U.S. Professors of the Year program, the only national initiative specifically designed to recognize excellence in undergraduate teaching and mentoring, sponsored by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Winners exhibit extraordinary dedication to undergraduate teaching and demonstrate excellence in four areas: impact on and involvement with undergraduate students; scholarly approach to teaching and learning; contributions to undergraduate education in the institution, community, and profession; and support from colleagues and students. The Carnegie Foundation and CASE websites note, "Bell’s approach is marked by his personal connections with students and exploration of literature through alert attention to details of language. He extends his influence across the Williams campus through the Project for Effective Teaching, a mentoring program for new faculty he founded in 1994 that brings teachers together for weekly discussions, symposia, and conferences."

As I read Bell’s speech, I could clearly see the joy he finds in teaching and mentoring others. We recognize Professor Bell in LiberalArtsOnline for his outstanding work with students and faculty. As Lee S. Schulman, president of the Carnegie Foundation, remarks, "In honoring [the U.S. Professors of the Year], we not only recognize the individuals but also maintain the importance of teaching to our nation’s future." We extend this tribute to faculty everywhere who are dedicated to teaching, motivating, and inspiring undergraduate students.

--Kathleen S. Wise, Editor 

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Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim
by Robert H. Bell
William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English,
Williams College;
2004 Outstanding Baccalaureate College Professor of the Year,
US Professors of the Year Program

This semester, once again, I’m teaching Williams freshmen a course on reading, writing, and literary analysis. Our subject is modern poetry, including poems by Robert Frost. Frost was a marvelous teacher as well as a great poet. Stubbornly practical, distrustful of dogma, a granite-ribbed skeptic, Frost spoke astutely and cannily about teaching. He believed in "Education by Poetry." Frost warns, "unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere."

My teacher Reuben Brower had been a student of Robert Frost. When Reuben Brower was a freshman at Amherst, Frost asked him to recite a poem to the class. When young Brower finished, Frost gazed at him and said, "I give you ‘A’ for life."

Brower justified Frost’s benediction. As an Amherst professor, Brower devised a rigorous year-long introductory course in reading and writing—papers every day! Moving to Harvard in 1954, Brower brought with him his undergraduate course in close reading and regular writing—a course to explore and define imaginative uses of language. Brower’s Humanities 6 course—Hum 6—has shaped my life. My wife was taking Hum 6, reading Yeats and George Eliot, when we fell in love. Variously inspired, I became a Hum 6 section leader.

Brower lectured to scores of Harvard undergraduates once a week. Twice weekly, we section leaders met with our small discussion groups. Just like a lowly third year grad student, Brower taught a section and commented on endless student essays. Only later did I realize how amazing it was that this renowned scholar and critic devoted so much of his life to teaching beginning students.

Brower was a marvelous mentor. Every week he met with his Hum 6 staff, assistant professors and graduate TAs. We planned strategies, devised writing exercises, contemplated challenging exam questions. Brower was a magnificent teacher of teachers. By precept and example, he demonstrated that we were part of an important, exciting enterprise.

Brower was the least dramatic or performative teacher one could imagine. He could be amusingly other-worldly. When I was invited to meet with the visiting chair of the Williams English Department, who was seeking an eighteenth-century specialist, I visited Brower in his Belmont home. I asked him, awkwardly but probably poignantly, whether he thought Williams would be a good place for me. (Subtext: Will you recommend me for a job at Williams?)

"Oh, yes," said the old Amherst grad and professor, "Williams is a fine, fine school. Of course, it’s not Amherst."

"No, no, of course not," I agreed.

"But I’ve been there, and it’s a fine department . . . Oh my goodness!" he exclaimed, as he flew to the window. "Is that a golden-breasted cockle thrusher?"

"I . . . I’m not sure," I stammered.

"It would be quite late for a golden-breasted cockle thrusher, I must say! What, what was I saying?"

"Williams College and my, uh, application, I think."

"Oh yes. I would certainly be happy to . . . oh good heavens! Look! I think it IS a golden-breasted cockle thrusher! How extraordinary! Where were we?"

"You were saying you’d be happy to . . ."

"Ah yes, Williams. A fine old college. Don’t be surprised to find yourself being interviewed on campus by the president. They take teaching very seriously at these schools."

Since that autumn afternoon with Brower, I’ve been teaching at Williams for 33 years. Encouraging students to respect the work and enjoy the play of language, to become more at home in the metaphor. Though I’ve never actually spotted a golden-breasted cockle thrusher, I regularly experience "sheer morning gladness at the brim"—like Frost in his poem, "The Tuft of Flowers," and never more fully than on this deeply heartening occasion. I can almost imagine being touched by Frost—if not with an "A for life," perhaps a B+ at the brim.

Significant moments in education, I’ve learned, may be conspicuously undramatic. Recently, teaching Richard Wilbur’s poem "The Writer," I asked what was appealing about the speaker’s attitude toward his daughter. One student, Anne Dwyer, said softly, "His respect for her." Respectfulness also characterizes the teacher’s attitude toward the material and the students. Simone Weil said, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." In my teaching, I strive to demonstrate the efficacy and pleasure of generous attention to literature; to encourage disciplined, imaginative responses to language; and to give pure, sustained attention to the students’ reading and writing. The hardest part is evaluating students’ essays and weekly journals; the task is grueling but gratifying, for it verifies the importance of critical thinking. If a student is to take words and ideas seriously, she must perceive that the teacher, her reader, is responding thoughtfully to every idea she has—and to the words she uses to express it.

I vigorously maintain the pleasure of verbal virtuosity and literary analysis. As Robert Frost insists, "All the fun’s in how you say a thing." Though it is hard work to think precisely, lucidly, logically, it is also enormously invigorating. I believe in fun, unabashedly advocate excitement, and bear witness to joy. I experience joy quoting poetry, watching plays, analyzing texts, reveling in felicities of language. I want to convey the enthusiasm of reading, thinking, dramatizing, revising, correcting, speculating.

My most passionate commitment, second only to undergraduate teaching, is to the mentoring program I started to help young teachers. Here too I remember the example of Brower. Working with some of the most gifted, idealistic, and committed teachers imaginable, I regularly experience the double pleasure of teaching and learning. I never thought I could love any work more than teaching Williams students; now, it seems to me, the only comparable gratification is teaching their teachers.

Direct personal responses to rbell@williams.edu.

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Apply Now to the National Study of Liberal Arts Education

The Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts invites institutions of higher education to participate in the National Study of Liberal Arts Education, a large-scale, longitudinal study of the effects of American higher education on liberal arts outcomes. Application forms and participation information are now available on the Center of Inquiry website. We encourage research universities, regional universities, liberal arts colleges, community colleges, and other higher education institutions to apply for participation in this groundbreaking study. Our research will help colleges and universities improve student learning and enhance the educational impact of their programs. We will explore not only whether and how much students develop because of their collegiate experiences, but also why and how this development takes place.

The National Study of Liberal Arts Education is a collaborative effort among the following research teams: the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College, led by Dr. Charles F. Blaich; the University of Iowa, led by Dr. Ernest T. Pascarella; Dr. Marcia Baxter Magolda from Miami University (Ohio); and the University of Michigan, led by Dr. Patricia M. King.

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Direct responses to lao@wabash.edu. We will forward comments to the author.
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The comments published in LiberalArtsOnline reflect the opinions of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Center of Inquiry or Wabash College. Comments may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author(s), LiberalArtsOnline, and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College.

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Submit Proposals for Asheville Institute on Liberal Learning 2005:
Teaching Islam in the Undergraduate Curriculum

The University of North Carolina at Asheville, in cooperation with Mercer University, invites proposals for Asheville Institute 2005: "Teaching Islam in the Undergraduate Curriculum." This two-and-a-half-day conference will take place June 2-4, 2005 on UNC Asheville’s campus. The conference will feature papers and panels proposed by the participants, as well as several distinguished plenary speakers. The schedule will also include luga’at—small-group, guided conversations on specific topics. Textbooks, supplementary readings, and other materials will be on display. Proposals should be submitted by March 15, 2005. Visit the Asheville Institute’s website for more information on this conference, including proposal submission and registration details.

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