Saturday, July 25, 2020

What I Learned From the Class of ’61


These days a fragment of a Rogers and Hammerstein song keeps running through my aging brain.  Something about as a teacher “from your pupils you’ll be taught…”  But singing was the last thing on my mind on that September day in 1957 when I — twenty-one years old — first stepped in a classroom to face an expectant group of freshmen at Marquette University, the first of two classes to be faced that day.

Copus Hall, MU College of Journalism
That I was there was mere chance.  Bob Dufour, the School of Journalism instructor for all the school’s special English classes, had left the campus temporarily to be in residence one year at the university of Wisconsin while getting a PhD.  Bob was a terrific teacher, a mentor from whom I and others  learned an immense amount about writing.  The fabled Dean of Journalism, Jeremiah L. O’Sullivan, had divided Bob’s teaching load between two of us graduate assistants, allocating to me approximately forty students.

In our final interview, the Dean casually mentioned that I also was to be the “faculty advisor” to the forty, expected to meet with each at least twice a semester.  In other words: “The blind will lead the blind”.  Then he casually mentioned that he also was appointing me faculty advisor to Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism fraternity.  Bob had been the advisor and now no other faculty member was willing to step in.  When I expressed concern on obvious grounds that I was still a member, O’Sullivan said take the job or SDX would be abolished.  I capitulated.

The Young Instructor
That was just the tip of the Dairy Queen cone.  In addition to lesson planning, the classroom, and reading and grading forty papers weekly, I also was attempting to get an MA in journalism.  That meant going to classes where anything less than a “B” was unacceptable, studying for comprehensive exams, and beginning work on a thesis.  My personal life was also a bit, shall we say, problematic. Cooking for myself for the first time, I trembled on the brink of malnutrition.  The summer and fall had seen me emotionally torn between two young women, both of whom had invited me to meet their parents.  Finally, my usual routine included the 
11:45 PM “last call” at the bar of the Stratford Hotel.

Teaching the Class of ’61 turned out to be highlight of my days.  Although some students, particularly those with sub-par high school backgrounds, struggled at first, in time and with practice virtually all of the students improved markedly.  They had enlisted in a school where writing was paramount and seemed to understand that a new writing assignment every week, while burdensome, was important.

Being a student advisor proved to have its moments.  One young woman early came to see me to say she was having difficulties “because I am thinking of getting married.”  When I inquired whether it was someone she had just met on campus or someone back home, she replied:  “No one in particular, I’m just thinking of getting married.”  As her faculty mentor, my comment was: “Happy hunting.”  Soon after she transferred from Marquette.

When a male student handed in a piece he had written for class about the Jehovah Witnesses, I called him in to ask why he selected that topic, gently suggesting it was best to take a subject close at hand.  He rocked me by replying:  “I am a Jehovah’s Witness.”  Having checked earlier, I noted that he had said “Catholic” on his admissions form. He explained: “I am a Catholic too.  My girl friend is a Witness and I am boring from within….”  That left me speechless.  The paper earned a B.

The Teacher Makes a Mistake
As the school year ground to a close in May 1958, I had still not been evaluated for my classroom skills by a member of regular English faculty.  By the luck of the draw, the head of the department showed up, a professor I did not know.  During the class I attempted a blackboard diagram of a complicated sentence. Almost immediately hands went up and voices raised to tell me I had done it wrong.   Turning to my evaluator, I said:  “You may have thought I did the diagram in error to test the class. No, I got it wrong and they got it right. These are great people.”

That was all the Class of ’61 needed.  The kids figuratively were “bouncing of the walls” to participate in the discussion of sentence structure, paragraph formation, and the elements of style.  My subsequent rating as a classroom instructor was complimentary.  Dean O’Sullivan was pleased.

After I left Marquette for the Air Force in May of the following year, I never again taught English rhetoric and writing skills.  Or freshmen.  My subsequent experience was teaching political science to upperclassmen and post-graduates, frequently adults.  No class, however, matches my memories of the Class of ’61.  To quote Philosopher Bertrand Russell, they taught me that: “Education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water but, rather, assisting a flower to grow in its own way.”   Those “flowers” did grow.  Many of the class went on to have distinguished careers in journalism and other forms of communication. I have followed their trajectories with pride.

Note:  This post is derived from a piece I wrote following a “virtual” reunion of the Class of ’61 in late June of 2020 while the pandemic was still raging in America. Via ZOOM, I was connected with former students and others from my Marquette days, many of whom I had not seen in years.  The organizers of these reunions have been very gracious over the years to invite me and my wife, Paula, who was Dean O’Sullivan’s secretary.  We have been able to attend only one or two, and those years ago.  After the recent get-together participants were asked to contribute reminisces and the above was the result.

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