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?