Submitted on Thursday, 11/8/2012, at 12:23 PM

By Katherine Duke ’05

One of Amherst College’s biggest departments is undergoing a big change. In the past four years, nine out of the 10 most senior faculty members in the Department of English have retired or entered phased retirement. On Oct. 25 in Pruyne Lecture Hall, the department held a panel discussion in honor of these professors’ combined “421 Years of Teaching English at Amherst.”

During the event—which also included a slideshow of old faculty photos—eight of these professors took turns at the podium, each sharing reminiscences of his own career and of the English department of decades past. (The only recent retirees not in attendance were Andrea Rushing and Helen von Schmidt.)

English department faculty, 1961

William Pritchard earned his bachelor’s degree at Amherst in 1953 and returned as a faculty member five years later. He recalled being one of seven new hires who drank and smoked together and became known as “The Seven Dwarves.” Pritchard described a department that was, at that time, entirely white and male. He also recalled that era’s famous New Curriculum, with English 1 as a required course for all students.

“I had never intended to be an English teacher. I intended to be a creative writer,” said John  Cameron, who—after enrolling in graduate school at Yale, being drafted into the Korean War and then finishing his graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh—also joined the Amherst faculty in 1958. “I simply loved literature and was stumbling along in my life. Amherst was a great place for me to end up.” Cameron enjoyed teaching English 21 and 22: “Introduction to Literature” and having “very live, personal discussions” with his colleagues, noting, “We had enough in common to disagree openly and freely about literature.”

Allen Guttmann, by contrast, said he “didn’t fit in very well” with the Amherst English department when he arrived from the University of Minnesota in 1961; most of the other faculty members had been educated at Harvard. Esteemed longtime professor Theodore Baird even told him, “You have no future here.” “That was a downer,” said Guttmann. But, he added, “I always admired the intelligence, humor and dedication of my colleagues.” And, eventually, he dedicated one of his books to Baird.

Robert “Kim” Townsend joined the faculty 50 years ago, just as the 1960s’ race-, gender- and draft-related tensions and controversies raged around the country and on campus. He described teaching literature with “a sense of the pressures of history” and getting involved with Vietnam War protests and teach-ins.

Howell “Chick” Chickering came to Amherst in 1965 with a wife, three children and a warning that “if you go there, you’ll never be heard from again.” Once here, he said, he got “on-the-job training” in teaching Chaucer and Donne. Chickering recited Robert Frost’s poem “Neither Out Far Nor In Deep,” which he’s known by heart since he first taught it, in painstaking detail, decades ago.

Dale Peterson arrived in 1968, when Amherst was “about to change into a different Amherst.” Here, he said, he was “confirmed as a generalist”; he found that he and his departmental colleagues could be, in the topics they studied and taught, “more diffuse than we ever would have been if we taught at a university.” “At a place like this,” he remarked, “you can actually be an advanced freshman.”

Though he has a Ph.D. from Harvard, Barry O’Connell said that Amherst “really was my graduate school.” He fondly recalled the late Elizabeth Bruss, with whom he joined the English department in 1972 and with whom he helped to push the college toward coeducation. O’Connell said of Amherst English, “It’s often been a disagreeable department”—in many senses of that word, not all of them bad—and that he appreciated the “freedom to teach what you want to teach.”

Professor Barry O’Connell in 1972, the year he joined the Amherst faculty

The professors received a standing ovation and took questions from the audience, which included their current and former students, other faculty members and President Biddy Martin.

“What a great room to be in,” tweeted English major Soo Youn ’96 from California, when she learned of the event, “but there goes a huge brain trust if all these English profs are retiring.”

Indeed. But Alicia Christoff, who has started her career in the department just as they prepare to depart, said later that she mainly feels “really lucky to have overlap with that generation.” Older faculty members, she noted, have welcomed her warmly, inviting her and her husband over for dinner and giving her their thoughts on her graduate work on Victorian literature.

“There’s so much to think about, going forward, with the English department: how to balance everything that the department has been and will be,” Christoff said. “It’s exciting, but it’s a big challenge.”