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.