Sunday, November 14, 2010

Eight Teachers Who Left a Lasting Impression on Me

John I. McCollum, my dissertation adviser at University of Miami, struck me as the quintessential gentleman college professor, erudite, precise, even-tempered, with copious knowledge of the Metaphysical Poets (and the rest of the seventeenth century), which he was able to bring together and connect in startling fashion in a flash.  He had a reputation for severity, which was never apparent in his manners.  The semester before I took my first class with him, he had (reportedly) failed every student in the class--and this was in graduate school!  The challenge lured me (and my other classmates) in, which taught me that sometimes a large gesture is needed to attract the kinds of students one wants to teach (and can teach).  For a while I worked as his research assistant on a paper on Carpenter's Gothic churches in Florida, thus awakening my mind to architecture and local histories.  Based on a shorter paper I had written, he wanted me to write my dissertation on the 17th-century playwright Thomas Shadwell, and now I wish I had.  I wrote an arguably fine paper on John Bunyan instead--not even The Pilgrim's Progress, for which he is known, but Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, which I thought and still do think is a more interesting book.  Professor McCollum was right, always, as close to intellectual infallibility as anyone I ever met, yet the most shining example of "gentilesse" I have ever met, too.  A model of nobility and a source of wisdom as well as knowledge and sound advice.  Sadly, he died the year after I got the PhD degree.

Laurence Donovan, my poetry professor at University of Miami, nominated me as the first ever (and, at the time, only) student member of the Snarks, a literary clique of  nine (as in "muses") exceptionally talented poets, artists, and academicians--drawing, from time to time, visitors like Pulitzer prizewinners Donald Justice and Gwendolyn Brooks--who met weekly to share and critique our poems.  I got an enormous amount of encouragement as a writer--Justice said that my poem on Noah's ark, which was basically just a rhythmic catalogue of the names of every animal I could think at the time of its writing, "works, although it shouldn't"--which sounded like rapturous praise to me back then.  Donovan was also a gifted etcher, as well as a Hart Crane-mad poet--I wish I could have afforded to buy at least some of his work to have hanging in my home now, particularly a gorgeous series of prints he based on the Tarot.

Robert Miller, my English teacher at Tennessee Temple College, encouraged me to go on to graduate school.  He was a witty teacher and a gifted pianist, who built his own house with his own hands (according to his own blueprints), and while as devout a Christian as everybody else at Tennessee Temple, he could roll his eyes at some of the excesses of fundamentalist evangelicalism.  He encouraged me in my writing and intellectual pursuits--and looked askance (rightly) at my attempts to "blend in."

Dutch Mehlenbacher, friend and colleague at University of South Carolina, Salkehatchie Campus, taught art and fencing and headed the campus foreign film showings, as well as the theater and special events calendar--before I had even met the guy, I was infatuated with him.  Then, getting to know him, I developed a crush on him, of which he reciprocated only the friendship part of it--though he expressed some interest in the details of my sex life.  He lived and painted in an abandoned church in the country, without a telephone, so that, annoyingly, as his closest friend, I received the phone calls from his folks in Nashville when he needed to be contacted immediately.  An avid fan of Ayn Rand, he was an indefatigable egoist and nearly won me over to objectivism.  He played drums (backing up Jeannie C. Riley on "Harper Valley PTA") and sailed a sloop, on which we spent many a drunken weekend.  When I left South Carolina, we agreed that we would shorten the long, dragged-out process of "losing touch," by amicably agreeing never to contact each other again, giving the close friendship a proper and definite closure, celebrated wildly the week before I moved to Pensacola.

William P. Sullivan, my thesis adviser at Marshall University, who, with an offhand note on a paper I had written on the novelist John Gardner, let me know that I belonged in graduate studies in literature.  He also encouraged my poetry writing, telling me that it was good enough for the Atlantic Monthly or Harper's (it wasn't).  I had never tackled anything as monumental as a 60-page thesis before, and he gave me and the project (on Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood) close and critical attention that taught me more about the writing process than I had known in my previous 17 years of education.

Maurice Hussey, Cambridge Chaucerian and visiting professor at Marshall University while I was there, is the reason I love Chaucer now.  In one semester I learned to read Middle English at least as well as I read French (not well, but doable) and gathered a sense of the world Chaucer had been a part of.  He taught in the old-fashioned style of elite British universities, reading lecture notes to the class and then asking open-ended Socratic questions.  When nobody responded, he said simply, "And so now we have one of those long embarrassing silences," and refused to say another word until somebody would at least attempt an answer to his question.  When he returned graded papers, he would not just hand the paper to its student author but deliver a short speech detailing (from memory) the strengths and (embarrassingly) the weaknesses in each paper's logic and grasp of the material.  It was an edifying and sometimes chastening experience.

Joan Adkins, who taught me the Romantic poets at Marshall University, had me when she blithely introduced herself to the class on Day 1:  "Hello, I'm Joan Adkins," without titles, degrees, or self-serving biographical details.  A small thing, but impressive to me at the time, and to this day, my first words at first class meetings are "Hello, I'm Joe Marohl."

Ardell Jacquot, my English teacher at Dade Christian School, made a huge impression on me as a teenager, despite some really bad advice along the way--mostly on the order of not to follow my dreams, but settle for the me everybody else expects me to be.  Advice I later (wisely) spurned.  Funny, colorful, and opinionated, he was a lot of students' favorite teacher.  Today, I may no longer worry about putting my hands on my hips (he told me it made me look effeminate), but, then, come to think of it, I seldom put my hands on my hips now, so maybe I do worry.  He did say one thing that sticks with me today as a teacher:  "If anybody is going to be bored in this class, it's going to be you students, and not me"--the response I now give to students who complain that their reading assignments are boring--though I do it with a certain gay bitchiness Jacquot could only envy.


  1. Loved the catalogue, Joe. Mine read similarly, though I have a couple more crushes in mine than do you.


  2. I had a very similar experience with a professor, Middle English, and Chaucer. Dr. Michael Adams, if you've ever met him. Brilliant guy.

  3. ...weirdly, the CAPTCHA text I just had enter was "lucryce"



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...