Storyworth: Who were your favorite professors in college?

| February 28, 2022 | 0 Comments

This one is easy. Professor Louise Smith (English) and Professor David Hunt (History).

It took me 8 years to finish undergraduate college. This is one of the defining facts of my life. To this day, I’m not sure why I had so much trouble. But my problem was very specific. I could not get through Freshman English. And the reason I couldn’t get through Freshman English is that I had a pathological aversion to writing. It’s very ironic looking back, given the amount of writing I’ve done personally and professionally throughout my life. But there you go.

Here’s how it would go. I would get a writing assignment for the class and I would put it off and put it off. I might be able to force myself to write something and submit it and I would get a good grade. But that wouldn’t motivate me for the next one. Inevitably, I would fall hopelessly behind and end up either dropping the class or getting an incomplete. I think I felt that putting my thoughts on paper was too revealing. I was worried that something I would write would make me look stupid. And there was, of course, the laziness. Writing was, and is, hard work.

After multiple flameouts, I took one last shot at college when I was about 24 or 25. My freshman English teacher was Prof. Louise Smith and she changed my life. She had a teaching technique that was tailor-made for my particular pathology. About once a week, she would start the class with a writing assignment right then and there. She would throw out a topic and just instruct the class to write for 15 minutes. I would have nowhere to run and would have to just start writing. At the next class, she would read one of the papers that were submitted that she liked. She wouldn’t say who wrote it but would pointedly hand it to the person who wrote it so the class would know who it was. It was a brilliant technique. And I had more than my fair share of papers read to the class. It really built my confidence.

Confidence or no, there was a massive iceberg that loomed ahead. The final paper of the class was a twenty page research paper. I lived in fear that, when it came time to write that, my old demons would come back. How would I ever be able to write such a thing. For me, it was like War and Peace. Incomprehensibly long. But Prof. Smith also gave lots and lots of practical advice on how to write, which helped me along. And, fundamentally, I knew that, if I didn’t complete this course, a long career as a grocery clerk lay ahead. It was almost life or death and that’s what it took to force me to complete this assignment. Which I did. And got an “A.”

Writing didn’t get much easier after that. I still struggled with every paper. But I had covercome the Freshman English curse. It was one of those breakthrough moments in life and I owe it all to Professor Smith.

My other favorite professor with David Hunt who taught history. He was, and is, a committed socialist and taught a class called Revolutions in the Modern World which started with the French Revolution and finished with the Vietnam War. He opened my mind in more ways than I can describe. I took his class in my first semester at UMass Boston and flamed out due to the writing assignments (see above). But I took it again when I returned in my mid-twenties. He had a very unique teaching style, filled with intellectual curiosity and humility. He clearly had a political point of view, but he invited, no demanded, that his view be challenged by students. While he identified with the revolutionaries in all the revolutions he taught, he wasn’t dogmatic. He loved to engage students with contrary views. And he opened my mind to a kind of critical thinking that I’d never experienced before.

He spent half the class on the Vietnam War and this was only a few years after the war had ended. He used as the text for our studies The Pentagon Papers. It was actually first-hand, source materials. A fascinated approach to teaching about the war. Having broken through the Freshman English curse, I was also able to complete his course and we actually became friends. He invited me to become a teaching assistant for the course, which allowed me to take it two more times. My only responsibility was to attend classes and meet with him afterwards to tell him what he’d done wrong in the class. Seriously. That was it. He wanted unvarnished criticism of his own performance. That was pretty hard, since I was such an admirer of his. Best of all, I got credit for the course and didn’t have to write papers or take exams. Talk about a win-win.

To this day, 40 years later, I remember both Louise Smith and David Hunt extremely fondly. I am happy to say I have stayed in touch with them. They contributed enormously to the person I am today. I owe so much to them that I could never repay. Except by writing this testimonial, which I’m pleased to have the opportunity to do.


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