Dr. Terrence Dewsnap: Feller of Tree, Quintessence of the Professoriate (A Congratulations upon the Occasion of His Retirement from Bard College)Read Now
Terry Dewsnap was my advisor at Bard College in the mid-eighties. I was an English major and a first-generation student, a term I never heard until I was anointed into the higher ed communion myself years later. Terry seemed just right to me, just what I should expect of the professoriate according to popular depictions of college. He sat in an arm chair in a stuffy, book-lined office, puffing on a pipe. His tonsure reflected just enough lamplight through the tobacco plume to effect a hazy halo. He wore a tweed jacket, a tweed jacket!, with leather sleeve patches! and later grew a full beard! Amidst the lumber of stereotypes stacked high in my seventeen-year-old mind, he embodied the quintessential professor. Bookish, smart, vaguely avuncular but never too familiar. I feel comfortable calling him Terry now, and other students did then, but to me, throughout my Bard years, he was Professor Dewsnap.
He sometimes confused me with my freshman roommate, Geoff, and would imagine he had seen one of us when only the other was present. He even cuttingly accused Geoff of never showing up to one of his classes, one in which I was enrolled (and attending) and not Geoff. Geoff and I, for the record looked nothing alike. Geoff was dark haired and I was blond--a pine and an ash. We are as bald as cypresses now, though.
Terry’s file cabinet was a wondrous contrivance. When Terry needed to hand me a text to illustrate a point, he would pull open the top drawer, always the top, and a flourishing copse of paper would instantly sprout. He'd thumb through and somehow pull just the right one, which would invariably be dogeared and slightly stained with a brownish substance. I imagined that he must once have knocked an open coffee into the drawer and ruined every sheet. He neither explained nor apologized for the condition of his offerings, and I was, nonetheless, content to receive his wisdom, howsoever ragged and soiled.
I took his class on satire and a tutorial reading Ulysses. In the classroom, Terry was somewhat unconventional. His notion of what constituted satiric literature was wide ranging, an expansiveness that influenced the satire courses I would teach years later. Terry tended to stand, swaying like a sapling, for most of the class, and, always in his tweed with patches, steadily smoked his pipe. Unlike other pipe-puffing professors, Terry had to light his pipe, it seemed, with every inhalation. This inconvenience was offset by the fact that he could immediately stow his pipe in his jacket pocket, which visibly alarmed uninitiated students, who expected him to ignite like dry timber.
While he lectured, he stood with his back to the class. This way he could doodle continually on the board. I do not recall if he ever wrote words there, but he did draw wiggly lines and looping curves while he spoke. The students were baffled and annoyed. Once, out of curiosity, I carefully copied his squiggles and found that studying them helped me recall his lecture. Or so nostalgia would have it. For an assignment in that class, I attempted to write an ill-conceived satiric parody of an epic in wooden prose. It was long, and when I showed the first part to Terry, he assumed it was complete. I told him it was only part one, and he asked, with perfect artlessness, “are you really going to continue with this?” Chopped down to size, I wisely never did.
As an advisor, Terry was most insightful. When I expressed interest in a particular professor’s course, he grumbled, “Take this other course of his instead. He at least knows something about that topic.” When I came to him to sign up for a music listening class he sighed with evident disappointment. “So, you've decided to go down the Bard path,” a statement that in a stroke sundered me from my pretense. The fact was that I just wanted to experience more varieties of music and begin to understand them. I thought I was plowing through the woods, not sticking to a route. In many ways, though, he was right--not about my motives but about the Bard path.
Terry oversaw my Senior Project, of course. It was the apotheosis of callow satiric novel writing, of course. Again, he struggled through the thicket of my prose, which was blissfully free from the fetters of talent or purpose. He really tried, was valiant in his effort, to chop through the slovenly wilderness of my mindless musings. When it was done, I gave it a title, Joe Christ. Terry hated it. I know because he told me so. Not subtle enough--a stark oak in a conifer forest. He suggested that I find a quote to use as my title, which is a grand old tradition and was a great way for him to dodge culpability. I turned to my old friend, Jonathan Swift, and found a pithy phrase in one of my favorite passages from A Tale of a Tub: “so ill to order affairs.” I had my title.
(I just realized that, to this day, despite writing a novel with that title and a dissertation on Swift, I still don't know what that phrase means.)
In spring of 1986, with buds on the branches, my graduating class was to select our baccalaureate speaker. I probably didn't even know what a baccalaureate was, but I nonetheless was present for the deliberations. Someone, it might have been me, nominated Terrence Dewsnap. I do remember giving an impassioned speech on why he should be our nominee, which I would have transcribed at the time had I known I would be asked to write this testimonial nearly three decades later. Terry handily won the laurels.
The next day I had an appointment with Terry. I was there early for whatever reason and was waiting outside his office when he showed up. I greeted him with a heartfelt “congratulations,” and he responded with wooden politeness. Inside, as we settled into our familiar seats, he looked up at me suddenly and glared darkly, cleaving me with his eyes. He barked, “what are you up to? Is this some sort of joke you are playing on me?”
Since I had no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” I was stumped.
He told me that two other seniors had said congratulations to him that day and he did not know why. He determined that we were conspiring in some sort of prank designed to fell him.
I was cudgeled. He was pissed in a way I had never seen him before, and I braced for the next blow. I explained the vote and the honor we had conferred upon him. As I talked, his face softened, and he settled back into his chair. I congratulated him again, and he thanked me again, this time with genuine warmth
When it was time for Terry to give his speech, the graduates’ excitement buzzed like a saw. Here was the quintessential professor about to expound publicly, in the chapel no less. We grew as quiet as logs. He started off with banalities but then started weaving a subtle narrative throughout his more conventional remembrances. It was tale of an event that took place our sophomore year, one in which he, Terrence Dewsnap, with one stroke, transformed the entire campus. It was the tale of a tree and an axe, or maybe a chainsaw. I don't remember. Axe is more evocative, so let's go with axe.
Oh, and a brownout.
I remember the evening well If not fondly. It was a Sunday, and I had an art history paper due the next day. I was typing it on my Brother electric typewriter when the power went out. Well, most of the power. Some lights stayed lit, but dimly, and there was not enough electricity to run a typewriter. The dorms broke into panic. It seemed nearly everyone had a paper due and nearly everyone had an electric typewriter. Even the Luddites with manual machines would find the light too faint to work. We were doomed.
Dr. Terrence Dewsnap, it seems, decided that very evening to remove a tree from his property in the woods. The nearby powerline never stood a chance.
The speech, by the way, was a triumph. It was droll, it was self-deprecating, it was satirical. It was very Bard. We loved it!
After commencement, I took my parents to meet Professor Dewsnap. For the first time I introduced him as Terry. He was awkwardly gracious, and they were overawed to meet the quintessential professor.
Posted Monday January 26, 2015 by AACU In liberal education nation
On the last day of AAC&U's Centennial Meeting, one of my colleagues on the ACAD board (American Conference of Academic Deans) told me that someone was joking about creating an AAC&U Bingo game. You know how these things work. Every time someone says a certain phrase printed on your bingo card, you mark the card until you get to yell "bingo!" Our students could (and certainly do) organize similar games around professors’ pet phrases, only theirs are more likely to involve tequila shots. The evening plenary version for AAC&U would involve, perhaps, sips of wine.
Imagine that every time a speaker said “transformative” or “learning outcomes” or “student-centered” or “global citizens,” the players in the room marked their cards and nipped their wine. If you get bingo, you win a bottle.
While the innovative (bingo!) AAC&U Bingo proposal was no doubt a harmless joke, its lightheartedness veils a cynical yet accurate observation. I will admit that few things could be as much fun or as engaging (bingo!) as a room full of tipsy academic leaders (bingo!), but what does it say about our beloved organization that its rhetoric is so predictable, so repetitive? Does it suggest just the opposite of what AAC&U preaches about good teaching practices (bingo!) and avoiding lecturing and rote memorization? Repetition saps words of their impact (bingo!), even their very meaning. They become cant phrases and jargon, and their deployment suggests a failure of creativity (bingo!) and imagination, or worse, a mindless insincerity.
But let's step back a bit for a fuller and more generous assessment (bingo!). Frankly, the only reason we can all play the game is because we are such dedicated attendees of AAC&U meetings. We are voracious consumers of AAC&U publications. We are indefatigable participants in AAC&U workshops. In short, the words and phrases we hear at AAC&U are familiar because they are woven into the principles (bingo!) that guide AAC&U and that guide many, even most of us, to be more reflexive (bingo!) and intentional (bingo!) educators. The very fact that you are reading this blog suggests that you are a devotee of AAC&U or are, at the least, profoundly AAC&U-curious.
And, therein lies the positive outcome (bingo!) of AAC&U Bingo. The phrases that form the basis of the game also form our common language, a language we hope to induce the academic and wider world to respect, a language we hope will inform the practice (bingo!) of liberal learning (bingo!) well into the future.
At the closing plenary, Brian Murphy of De Anza College (one of the four excellent speakers tapped to fill in for the ailing Freeman Hrabowski) stated that the goal of his ad hoc panel was to have the very large audience leave the packed room and return to our campuses to convey and commend AAC&U’s agenda to our colleagues. While he earned a chuckle for his humorous delivery of the line, he was quite sincere. Many of us, maybe most, could easily fill our AAC&U Bingo cards again and again, and that is a good thing—maybe even a wonderful thing.
We know the principles (bingo!) and agenda of AAC&U, and we have pretty good ideas for implementing (bingo!) them. That is our imperative: to move words into action. Bingo!
Posted Wednesday January 22, 2015 by AACU In liberal education nation
The opening sessions of the AAC&U Centennial Symposium ranged across topics, but one theme that emerged Wednesday morning had to do with the impact and importance of mentoring to student learning. One of the most cogent comments was in the form of an audience question. During the second session, someone (and I apologize that I did not catch his name or his institution), pushing against some panel commentaries about making students career ready, asked whether higher education should be about subversion rather than about training students to conform to corporate structures. In a later session, Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan, had some choice comments in a similar vein. (To read some of those, check the #aacu15 hashtag on Twitter, where his remarks were liberally documented.)
One of the panelists in the second session, Mark Lindsay, suggested that the choice the questioner framed was not so mutually exclusive, that the well-educated employee would be the one who could push against the general “flow” when it is headed in the wrong direction.
All this discussion got me thinking about my own experience with mentoring. Let me start with a confession. Jim Citrin, on the first panel, made the point that mentoring relationships are “a two-way street.” He spoke of how students need to seek and cultivate mentoring relationships.
So, my confession? I am a lousy mentee. I have never successfully cultivated a long-term, meaningful, positive relationship with a mentor at any point in my life or career. Perhaps because of this personal shortcoming, I am probably a mediocre mentor--although I have prolifically mentored students and colleagues, I am not sure how valuable many of those efforts have been. One big exception, though, is a student I started mentoring nearly five years ago. At Stevenson University, my institution, both the student population and the full-time faculty are about one-third first generation. In light of this, we started a program tin which faculty who were themselves first-generation college students mentor first-generation freshmen whom we identified as “underprepared” and “at risk” of attrition.
The student assigned to me (I will call him “Steve”) was and is hungry to learn and grow. The fact that I have been mentoring him for five years while he earns his four-year degree may suggest failure, but time-to-completion is a poor measure of impact and value. Or so I tell myself. He started as a biology major with an eye toward medical school, but he is (another confession) the one and only student I have ever advised to become a business administration major--a subject for which he has a real passion and interest.
At first, Steve talked incessantly about how he would be a huge success on Wall Street. He used to joke about naming me to his first board of directors. I am not one to discourage a young man’s ambitions, but Steve’s required some careful, uh, subversion. Despite my alarm, I needed to guide him gently toward a more critical view of the “flow.” Sometimes, such as when I gave him a book on financial scammers who ended up in the slammer, I was not so subtle. I am happy and proud to report that now, in his last semester, he no longer talks about earning an MBA in order to facilitate his ruthless takeover of Wall Street. Instead--and I must add, with no prompting from me--he plans to pursue a degree in school counseling so that he can guide high school students in a way that he feels was lacking in his own experience. He wants to “give back” to a system that did not give much to him at all. That’s called altruism.
In other words, over five years, he and I collaborated on the subversion of his dreams in order to redirect his career trajectory. Who knows where he will find himself in the future? Careers are rarely, likely never, straight lines. What I do know is that, whatever he does, Steve will stand against and even try to redirect the “flow” when he perceives it moving the wrong way. Steve is becoming one of those well-rounded and responsible citizens we tout as the ideal outcome of liberal learning.
So I share the implied concern of the questioner from the audience. The goal of liberal learning needs to involve a healthy dose of subversion rather than conformity. But I also agree with Mark Lindsay that we can, through education, help graduates become successful in their careers while nurturing in them the wherewithal to stand agains the misdirected “flow.” Critical thinking, ethical reasoning, etc., constitute the stuff of liberal learning and are at the core of purposeful citizenship. Yes, my relationship with Steve involves more intensity than anyone can broadly apply, and Steve is an extraordinary young man by several measures. But his development is a good example of what we heard Wednesday morning: the importance of intentional mentoring in preparing students to be thoughtful and successful citizens.
Now, as everyone has been pondering, how do we scale that up?
One of the challenges of being me is my propensity to express complex interrelations as reductive binaries and catchy coinages. Over time, I have compiled a list of some my oh-so clever observations regarding higher education. In total, these comprise a pretty good summary of my views of and attitudes toward various aspects of higher ed--all of them highly subject to debate. This piece is a first in a series of blog posts in which I discuss these terms and conceptions.
Academic Eschatology: A subgenre of books, articles, and studies that indulges in elucidating the shortcomings of current education, particularly higher education. Examples would include Clueless in Academe, Crisis on Campus, Academically Adrift, We're Losing Our Minds, and "Disrupting College." The emergence of this literature, most of it empirically based, at this moment in history is not accidental and may merely be a localized example of the rather apocalyptic zeitgeist or could be an entirely separate but real warning of a real threat to education. Academic Eschatology is also known as "Teoaawki," which is an acronym for "the end of academia as we know it."
Academic eschatology refers to the category of books and articles (academic and otherwise) marking the alleged "end times" of higher education and its institutions in their current configuration. Some works of academic eschatology (AE) welcome these radical shifts, but most view the future with wariness and even trepidation. In addition,some AE authors are reform minded--hoping to convert challenge into opportunity--while others offer mostly doom and gloom.
Such warnings about the systemic weakness of the American academy and its consequences have long been with us (The Education of Henry Adams, The Higher Learning in America, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Higher Education, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, The Closing of the American Mind, etc.), but the present-day hyper-proliferation of these publications and its sometimes hysterical response seems historically remarkable and more than suggests their popularity among their typical intended audience: academicians. Therefore, one cannot but conclude, that academics are peculiarly keen to read about threats to academia, perhaps out of fear or morbidity or, more positively, a desire to mitigate or adapt to the threat.
Which leaves an interesting question... Is the rise of AE the result of or a separate development from the prevalence of "end of times" narratives in the period after 9/11, through the Great Recession, and to the present day? Certainly, a correlation exists between these two trends, but is there causation? What could be the relationship between pronouncements on "the end of the world as we know it" (TEOTWAWKI) and "the end of academia as we know it (TEOAAWKI)?
I do not feel the need nor am I particularly qualified to rehearse the titles of end-times narratives in popular media--books, television programs, movies, blogs, and the like--but here is a small and rather arbitrary sample of some better or maybe just better known AE books from the last decade or so. The titles speak for themselves.
Clueless in Academe
Our Underachieving Colleges
We're Losing Our Minds
College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be
The latest and potentially the current hottest? Aspiring Adults Adrift is a follow up to Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josip Roska. In both studies, our indefatigable social scientists seek to answer the obvious but rarely articulated question, "just what value does a college add." Sadly, the answer appears to be "not much"--and Aspiring Adults Adrift makes the case that even in early adulthood there is little evidence young people have gained much from attending college. And yes, there are those who take issue with Arum and Roska's methodology, particularly their reliance on the Collegiate Learning Assessment as a measure of student progress in the first book or their general disregard of the effect of the Great Recession in the second, but no one can ignore for long the data trend they document. Broadly, college does little to prepare students for the adult world of work they will enter (or, in too many cases, pine to enter) upon graduation.
While the fascination with end times is certainly pronounced in the zeitgeist, the view that higher ed is in serious trouble or is due for transformational disruption is a pervasive--and perhaps persuasive--sub-theme. This sub-theme resounds both inside and outside the academy and has become a favorite and gleeful refrain among a certain flavor of politician and journalist, resulting in wide diffusion. Academicians ignore such criticism at great risk. moreover, hostile politicians, cynical journalists, and rabid opportunists threatening from the outside offers enough peril and demands steady vigilance and frequent rebuttal, but any internal weakness is the responsibility of higher ed professionals. As with global climate change, many may deny the cogent concerns and the mounting evidence, but denial solves no problems. Nor does overreaction. We academics excel at deliberation, and now seems--with this topic--the optimal time to exploit that talent.
It is morning-after in America.
The halftime indulgence is over, and the game clock has run out as America returns to the workplace nursing a national hangover on the day after the Superbowl. No, the blowout score is not the source of America's aching misery, nor is the gluttonous consumption of acres of lukewarm nachos and an ocean of cheap beer the cause. America's collective head aches because Bob Dylan or his music has appeared in not one but two commercials.
Let's face it. We have been here before after the Superbowl.
Dylan has directly or indirectly hawked everything from a Canadian bank to women's undergarments.
(The latter contains a sly irony.)
The 2014 Superbowl Chrysler ad isn't even Dylan's first car endorsement.
And each product endorsement to emerge from Bob Dylan, Incorporated (BobInc), engenders the same shock and outrage and mockery and cries of "sellout." It recalls the shock and outrage we full-throatedly express whenever a politician does something overtly political or whenever a celebrity appears in public inebriated. Frankly, the whole outrage thing has moved from curious to tedious to outrageous.
Yes, it is disturbing to see "the voice of his generation" busking for yogurt.
But, while Dylan was friends with the late Pete Seeger, he is not Pete Seeger and has never claimed to be so far as I am aware. Aside from the fact that it was Seeger's version of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" that shilled for the Bank of Montreal, Seeger seemed to operate on that ethereal plane where only the purists and wisemen exist. Dylan is far from pure, and I am not sure about wise. Dylan is an artist, not a political guru or symbol or movement. That has been his point for decades now. He is the proprietary product of BobInc, not the property of the residue of the 60s counterculture (or apparently the "Property of Jesus" anymore for that matter). Every one of his public moves seems so carefully calibrated or so bizarre that each appears to be part of a grand calculation. It is easy to imagine that his commercials are just another way of telling his worshipful fan base and disappointed detractors that he will do what he wants how he wants, and then he somehow makes them want it. It is some sort of schadenfreude, I suppose.
Dylan's act--on stage, on records, in interviews, in movies, in print--is largely if not totally a persona. "Bob Dylan" is a character played by one Robert Allan Zimmerman in the theater that is our culture. I am far from the first to make this point, but it is one worth reiterating. "Bob Dylan" is a postmodern construction--the creation of R.A. Zimmerman, the conceptual artist and CEO of BobInc. Furthermore, as with many of his fellow conceptual artists, there is a strong streak of the satirist in Dylan's art. Satire is notoriously difficult to define, but it always involves a mixture of what I call "critical vexation" and subversion. And, the most effective subversion is the least detectable subversion.
A thought experiment: imagine that one "Bob Dylan" is merely a conceptual iteration of R.A. Zimmerman's constructed artistic reality. This "Bob Dylan" is brilliant and talented certainly, but he is also frustrating beyond comprehension. Even those who adore him find things about him that are unbearable--his torturous religious journey, his romantic escapades, his intense privacy, his insistence on reworking his songs and lyrics, his aping of others' writing (often decried as plagiarism), his political apoliticism, his train-wreck-like movie appearances, his paintings, his voice, etc. In other words, he is most vexing, but he always seems to have a higher purpose. What if, just what if, that purpose is a critique of our culture's most strongly held assumptions and values.
The several times I taught an upper-level university course on Dylan, I ended the semester by having my students write a paper describing how Dylan challenged their cultural assumptions and/or values. Often some students in the class did not like Dylan or his music, but not once did even the most hostile or indifferent student fail to identify some internalized principle that Dylan challenged. It was an impactful way to end the semester, but the students' responses also support the suggestion in my question here: Is "Bob Dylan" largely a satiric persona designed to critically vex his audience and subvert the culture's settled assumptions?
Dylan appearing in a commercial is upsetting and uncomfortable? Look at that Chrysler ad again.
It feels weird and wooden like a parody of a commercial. It opens with the stupidest line from a TV ad that I have heard in a while (which is saying something): "Is there anything more American than America." Is there any artist working today more persistently vexing than Bob Dylan? Is there any corporation more culturally subversive than BobInc?
Posted Wednesday January 29, 2014 9:22 am by AACU In liberal education nation
By: Jim Salvucci, Dean, The School of Humanities & Social Sciences, Stevenson University
Tags: AAC&U 2014 Annual Meeting, higher education, liberal education
This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 at 9:22 am and is filed under liberal education. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Posted By AACU On January 24, 2014 @ 1:57 pm In liberal education nation
By: Jim Salvucci, Dean, The School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Stevenson University
I wrote this commentary for the Maryland Humanities Council's Humanities Connection on WYPR radio in Baltimore. Recording 1/6/14
Imagine living in a world devoid of the humanities. Many Americans--though few public radio listeners--would shrug at the prospect, indifferent to or doubtful of the humanities' benefits. But in this hypothetical dystopia without philosophy and religion, most values would be assessed according to their raw value--their price or profit. Religious faith, for instance, would be reduced to a cost-benefit analysis--say, a balance between the price of certain earthly choices and the prospect of eternal bliss--rather than an appreciation of the inherent good in certain choices or, for some, in faith itself. In this dystopia, art would be a rote thing, depictions devoid of the artists’ humanity and its complexity. Beauty itself would be measurable by tools, such as calipers or a spectrometer. Your smart phone would still have a calculator app, yes, but no YouTube.
Take the fundamental feature of all human cultures: the story. One would be hard pressed to find a person who did not appreciate a good story, but without the humanities, stories would be bland recitations of known facts without the understanding, however confounding it be, that our perceptions shape the facts we observe. We tell stories not just to relate facts but--more importantly--to convey meaning.
After all, social scientists and humanists can agree that the human mind is a meaning-making machine. We find meaning even in the mundane. But, while psychologists can discover the mechanism for that drive toward meaning, it takes the humanities to recognize and even appreciate the raw power and myriad implications of the compulsion. The drive toward meaning is at the heart of the humanities: religion, philosophy, languages, classics, and the rest. In short, many disciplines of study can identify how we make meaning and even why, and those questions and their answers are vitally important. The humanities, though, are supremely, maybe even uniquely, positioned to answer a fundamentally human question: "so what?"
That "so what?" is a driving force perhaps more powerful even than compound interest. It expresses an inquisitiveness that challenges facile assumptions and relentlessly focuses on the future. There is, then, an inherent optimism to answering "so what?” an irresistible searching that redirects the human condition away from apathy and despair.
When I was still in graduate school for English, an acquaintance who was in a residency as an emergency physician was boasting how she saved lives every day. She wanted to know what good people like me did in the world. With due respect for her noble work, I pointed out that people like me make those lives she saves worth saving to begin with, that human life bereft of humanity is bereft of meaning and purpose. It is existence, to be sure, but so what?
Yes, we can live, but the humanities help us live better.