Amherst Magazine

Amherst English: An Appreciation

By Rand Richards Cooper ’80

The number kept changing. Was it 374 years, as President Biddy Martin stated in her congratulatory remarks? Or 421 years, as listed on the invitation? Or some other figure?

Any way you tally it, the collective amount of time notched by the members of the English department who were formally retired last spring is daunting, and a grateful appreciation of their service—its quantity and quality—brought scores of former students to the Lord Jeffery Inn in May to celebrate and thank Professors Cameron, Chickering, Guttmann, O’Connell, Peterson, Pritchard, Townsend and von Schmidt.

The teaching careers of the most senior retirees go all the way back to 1958—the year I and my now middle-aged mates in the Class of 1980 were born. In the America of that distant year, Eisenhower was president, Beatles were pests in your garden and Vietnam was an obscure French colonial struggle. As for Amherst, it was 900 white males in ties, Saturday classes, compulsory chapel and a student handbook containing such urgent directives as “Freshmen are forbidden to wear preparatory school insignia; sweaters carrying such insignia may be worn inside-out.”

I am lucky to have known this cadre of retiring Amherst English professors unusually well. I took classes with four of the eight (plus David Sofield, not yet retiring but taking practice swings in the on-deck circle) and enjoyed acquaintanceships with the others when I returned in the early 1990s as visiting writer. Their individual differences are many, yet most shared certain assumptions about reading and writing, assumptions that shaped those of us who sat in their classrooms.

The Amherst English my generation experienced traces its lineage to the reign of Professor Theodore Baird and the legendary freshman composition class he created in the 1940s and ’50s. English 1 had no reading list. Students wrote for every class, assignments in which such seemingly simple writing prompts as “How do you operate a machine or play a game, and what does it mean to ‘play’?” traced issues of epistemology or ontology (“though we never used these words,” Baird explained years later). Class time was devoted to dissecting the student responses—often pitilessly.

Robin Varnum’s excellent 1996 book, Fencing With Words, a history of writing instruction at Amherst under Baird, describes the “boot camp” ethic of a “pedagogy modeled on combat,” in which “conflict served as a spur to learning.” Instructors sounded a frequent note of sarcasm, even belittlement; a friend of mine from the Class of 1964 recalls Baird contemptuously scattering an entire set of papers on the classroom floor. Yet for every student who felt bullied there were three who felt challenged to rise to the occasion, spurred on by what one student called “this ‘we-are-tearing-you-down-so-that-you-will-put-yourself-back-together’ attitude.”

By the time I arrived at Amherst in the mid-1970s, English 1 had given way to English 11. The course now had a reading syllabus, and its belligerent pedagogy had been toned down, but still it aimed to shake you, wake you and remake how you had learned to write about books in high school. “In The Grapes of Wrath,” I’d written in one typical high school paper, “John Steinbeck portrays a family whose experiences mirror the economic hardship of the 1930s and delineate a universal theme: the spiritual dislocation of man.” There was something presidential about sentences like that, I thought, like a miniature Rushmore.

Recently I unearthed my old English 11 papers from the attic to see how, bit by bit, Amherst English chiseled away at my Rushmore. My teacher, John Cameron, rejected the dutiful trotting-out of literary terminology in my response to a Tennyson poem, advising me to stop being “fussy about imagery, personification, etc” and try instead to “move with the poem—for the sake of the reading.” All fall he filled the margins of my papers with questions and proddings. Cameron wanted me to be less secure, less certain that I fully understood the text in question. And more personally invested. “Though you read these poems with some attention to detail, it is not really clear just what you want to say about them. What particularly interests you in them?”

John CameronJohn Cameron

My reeducation culminated junior year with Professor Bill Pritchard ’53 and his course in modern satire. The class was held in a crowded Red Room, where I sat up in the rows with Michael Gorra ’79 (now an English professor at Smith), the two of us trying to grasp a lecturing style that presented no extended argument, but rather a series of noticings, pointings-to and questions.

Considering a passage, Pritchard would summarize a conventional-wisdom reading and then ask, “Is there more to it than that?” The “more” was an invitation for us to comment on a writer’s style. Paper assignments worked likewise, posing various questions that were really one question: What interests you in this writer? An assignment on Samuel Beckett’s novel Murphy instructed us to inspect a specific scene and asked: “What is the pleasure of reading Beckett?”

My pleasure in writing those papers verged on the illicit. Quickly I discovered that you could do anything in a Pritchard paper, bring in anything—jokes, parodies, strange comparisons, song lyrics, advice your mother gave you—if it helped you describe a writer and his or her effect on you. Paper after paper came back graced with approving exclamation marks in precisely those places I felt I had pushed the limits.

I thought I was getting away with something. But really I was learning something. All good writing, Amherst English taught, was a performance that captivated and surprised; the challenge in responding to it was not to squash that performance with the steamroller of what Pritchard called “grad-school English,” but rather to keep it in play a little longer. Good writers were never boring, never dull; why should you be? You had to answer style with style. Pritchard encouraged students to “put a high premium on literary performance as something to admire, both in works of art and in the critic’s sentences about those works,” as he reflected years later in his memoir, English Papers.

For me these were revelations of lasting consequence. Would I have ended up becoming a writer and critic had I not experienced the supremely writer-friendly training provided by Amherst English? I’m not sure. I do know that the lessons we learned describe precisely what one does when setting forth to review a book: 1) read locally rather than globally, slowing down to spend time in this line or that passage; 2) begin our sentences with “Joyce wants…” rather than “Stephen Dedalus wants…”; and 3) focus our attention on “the experience of reading” the text in question. We also were taught to write with a certain experimental pragmatism. As Dale Peterson, who arrived in 1968 at the very tail end of English 1, once put it, an Amherst student learned that “what really mattered was what works. Try this, try that, try something else.”

Dale PetersonDale Peterson

One classmate of mine who became an English professor calls the kind of literary approach we encountered at Amherst “too much geared toward sensibility-training and too little concerned with knowledge and method.” And it is true that you could be a successful English major and never consult a secondary source. Yet a few years after graduation, when I asked Michael Gorra—then in grad school at Stanford—how well Amherst English had prepared him, he answered that while he felt behind in critical theory and breadth of reading, he was way ahead as an active critic. “I know how to read a novel,” he said, “and respond to it.”

Of course, most of us were being prepared not to be scholars or writers but lifelong civilian readers. We were being trained to think on our feet and to pay attention to the words on the page—a helpful habit, as Peterson reminded Varnum in Fencing With Words, when “compositions out there in the world have designs on us.” Most of all, we were learning to become thoughtful human beings. Such assignments as “Describe your interest in this passage” seemed deliberately vague to some, no doubt. But such a question challenges us in a deep way; it implies, it demands, the existence of a self who can be interested. Who were you, reading this book?

 

William Pritchard '53William Pritchard '53


The only retiring member to speak at the Jeff that night in May was Pritchard, who, with characteristic wryness, quoted a late writing of William Dean Howells on old age and its consolations (“[W]e are at least not dead, and there we are at least equal with younger men”). New members of the department were introduced. Their youthful and notably casual presence signaled the historical sweep of academic and pedagogical history contained in the room. The Amherst English experienced by my cohort emerged, during the long Baird era, from the mists of premodern practices—the bookman ethic of genteel cultivation, lectures on literary history, belletristic rhetoric, philology. And Amherst English since our time has changed drastically, reflecting the balkanization of the discipline (English 11 fell apart in the early 1990s, when the department could no longer agree on what books to teach or how to teach them). The focus once placed on style, voice and performance has shifted to cultural criticism and various approaches grounded in social, historical, theoretical or political concerns.

Just as important are big changes in the way faculty members in today’s colleges see their role. A vastly increased emphasis on research and publication; a steady reduction in classroom hours; much more travel to conferences and other external commitments: it all amounts to a de facto shift of emphasis away from the total involvement in campus life presupposed by the old, boot-camp approach. Amherst remains a place where teaching is highly valued. But times have changed. Imagine today’s professors (or students) confronted with Saturday classes and a composition course requiring 30 short papers per student per term! In 1980 our teachers still bore the imprint of that earlier era and its expectation of an extensive, demanding and intimate involvement with teaching first and foremost.

So in the end it’s not only the years put in that impress, but the hours within those years. Will future generations of American students, watching their professors remotely via MOOCs and other still hardly imaginable modes of distance education, marvel at what we experienced, seeing in it another form of craftsmanship that has gone out of the world? I am grateful for the artisanal education in reading and writing we received at Amherst. As Baird said to Varnum, looking back at what Amherst English aimed for with its students: “I would say the purpose of our course was to make their lives richer.”
Thanks for that.

Rand Richards Cooper is a film critic for Commonweal and a restaurant reviewer for The New York Times.