Monday, February 8, 2016

February 8, 2016: Teacher Tributes: Alan Heimert

[For this year’s Valentine’s Day series, I decided to share some of my blog’s early Tribute Posts on teachers I have loved. Leading up to a special weekend post on a very special teacher!]
On staying in the room.

There were ten of us in the room when the first class began, a typical size for an upper-level English-department seminar. We were all juniors and seniors, all English or History or (like me) History and Literature majors, and I’m sure that we were all expecting it to be a challenging semester—the class was focused entirely on the Puritans, the books were plentiful and weighty in every sense, and the professor was one of our nation’s most esteemed authorities on the topic and a notoriously demanding scholar and teacher to boot. But I don’t think any of us were ready for what went down on that first day. There were no introductions, no “Tell us your name and House and one interesting thing about you,” no going over the syllabus; the professor and his graduate assistant came into the room and handed out a 50-page photocopied reading, the prof said that we would have about forty-five minutes to read it and then we’d have an in-depth discussion, and then they left again. And did I mention that the reading was in that old-style font, the one where all the f’s look like s’s? There were six of us in the room by the time the prof and assistant came back, and then it got really tough.

Professor Alan Heimert was a few months shy of 70 that spring, in the fifth decade of what by any conceivable measure was a monumentally successful and influential career. Few works on the Puritans, the colonial or Revolutionary eras, or religion in American identity and life have made as significant an impact as did Heimert’s Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the American Revolution (1966); his co-edited collections The Great Awakening (1967) and The Puritans in America: A Narrative Anthology (1985) remain the gold standard for teaching about and understanding their topics. He taught the Harvard English Department’s gateway course, English 70, for over thirty years, introducing untold thousands of undergraduates to the rigors and rewards of literary scholarship. He served as the Master of Eliot House for that same period, the thirty-three years between 1968 and 1991, one of the longest tenures of any Master, and in that time influenced the college experiences and lifelong successes of tens of thousands of other undergraduates. The History and Literature program bore and still bears his stamp in innumerable ways. All of which is to say that by late January of 1998, when I sat in that seminar room struggling over a Puritan primary text and awaiting his return, Professor Heimert could have been forgiven if he committed slightly less than 100% of his energies or attention to the six of us who stayed in the room.

But once Professor Heimert returned, for that remaining hour and a bit and for two hours every week thereafter, he stayed in the room with us as well, entirely and wholeheartedly. It’s impossible for me to describe the combination of emotions that I felt every week in the few minutes before he entered the room, knowing as I now did how immediately the rigorous questions and challenges and discussion would begin and how fully they would occupy my world for those next two hours. I was definitely intimidated; I’m not the type to stay quiet for two hours (a fact that I’m sure shocks absolutely none of you), but I knew that everything that came out of my mouth in there had been well-thought-out and grounded in the texts and ready to be pushed and prodded and revised and reshaped and honed into something a lot smarter than it had been. I was also excited; I could feel my understanding and analyses, not only of the specific materials and ideas but also and more meaningfully as a reader and thinker and talker and writer (I haven’t even talked about the weekly journals and the amount of red ink that they’d contain when we got them back), developing and deepening over the course of the semester, so that when I walked into the hour-long oral exam in May (an hour equaled in rigor in my college experience only by my senior thesis defense), I felt worthy to sit in that room with Professor Heimert and talk with him about some of the most important American texts and figures and ideas.

Professor Heimert passed away in November of that year, making me one of the last students to have the great fortune to take a class from him. My teaching style is about as distinct from Professor Heimert’s as you can get; my first classes feature introductions and a chance for every student to tell us a bit about who he or she is and some main highlights of the syllabus and semester and a very informal and non-threatening bit of writing. But I learned from him a lot more than just the intricacies of “saved by faith alone” and declension and the Halfway Covenant; I learned what it really means to stay in the room, to be for that time each week as fully a part of my classes’ communities as I can be.
Next amazing teacher tomorrow,
PS. Teachers to whom you’d pay tribute? Other loves you’d share?

Saturday, February 6, 2016

February 6-7, 2016: AmericanStudying Super Bowl L

[For each of the last few years, I’ve used Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some football and/or sports topics. This week, I’ve focused on five football debates I haven’t already covered in those series, leading up to this special post two complementary Super Bowl L storylines!]
Consider this a Guest Post of ours, because when it comes to Super Bowl L and its two most prominent and polarizing figures, I couldn’t possibly AmericanStudy them any better than did two scholars on the great Sport in American History blog:
Before you settle down for the spectacle, the commercials, the Coldplay, and oh yeah the football, I urge you to read those two great examples of SportsStudying.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think?

Friday, February 5, 2016

February 5, 2016: Football Debates: Banning the Sport

[For each of the last few years, I’ve used Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some football and/or sports topics. This week, I’ll focus on five football debates I haven’t already covered in those series, leading up to a special post on a few Super Bowl L storylines!]
Two of the many complex and compelling layers to a campus-wide conversation.
Throughout the Spring 2015 semester, Fitchburg State’s Center for Conflict Studies hosted a series of presentations, panels, and conversations focused on football, and more exactly on issues of violence and other controversies linked to that hugely popular sport. As I noted in this week’s series intro, I’ve blogged about football in Super Bowl series each of the last couple years, and have engaged briefly in those series with many of the issues that became part of these campus-wide conversations: concussions and brain trauma; rape and sexual violence; racism; the exploitation of college athletes. As much as I hope for this space to be conversational and communal, though, the truth is that it’s always framed and driven at least initially by my own interests, ideas, and perspectives, and so these semester-long Fitchburg State conversations about football and its debates added a great deal to my own perspective in multiple ways.
One way was through those conversations that were planned, such as a late April roundtable discussion of the highly controversial question, “Should football be banned?” The roundtable featured the kinds of interdisciplinary voices and connections that represent the best of Fitchburg State as a scholarly community, with presentations by philosopher David Svolba, Director of Athletics Sue Lauder, sociologist G.L. Mazard Wallace, exercise physiologist Monica Maldari, and my English Studies colleague Kisha Tracy. But besides the value of putting these voices and frames in conversation, the roundtable also allowed each presenter to develop a particular part of his or her identity at compelling length: Monica, for example, talked about how her discipline and her knowledge impacted her family’s decision not to let their young son play football; while G.L. highlighted how we can’t discuss football without addressing the issues of ethics, race, work and labor, and social obligations that form key parts of his teaching and scholarship.
Alongside those planned conversations, however, and offering an importantly complementary window into attitudes about and perceptions of these issues, were more impromptu debates that sprung up online. The most interesting such debate came in the wake of the aforementioned roundtable, in emails to the entire university community, and featured three voices: a Fitchburg State assistant football coach, who had attended the roundtable and offered his impassioned defense of the sport and its value; a Fitchburg State hockey coach, who had likewise attended and argued for the value of the roundtable itself as a layered scholarly conversation; and one of the event’s organizers, who followed up both emails in hopes of keeping the conversation going beyond that event and this spring’s series. These messages reminded us all that there are individuals, in our community and in every one, directly impacted by such debates and their potential outcomes and effects—the players most especially, in every sense, but lots of others as well. But they also made clear that in our 21st century moment, important public conversations don’t have to and can’t happen simply in individual places and times; they have to continue online, and I’d love for you to share any responses to help this one continue here!
Super Bowl post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?