Dickinson, Derrida, and Frost, Oh, my!

I know that a lot of the folks who are writing this today are talking about teachers from K-12 who influenced them in some way, but if I’m utterly honest about who I am and what I’ve become, then I am forced to admit that I was more influenced by two college professors than I was by anyone else in my entire academic career. Irv and Dr. Figg could not have been more different. Just the way that I refer to them indicates that.

I had my first course with Dr. Figg when I was a sophomore in college, and I was scared to death. He had a reputation as a GPA killer, and I wasn’t sure my GPA could take that kind of death blow. But, I have never been one to back away from a challenge, and so I registered for the class and braced for it. Several of my friends were taking organic chemistry that term and set up study times for that. I horned in for the quiet. I made notes of notes and worked my butt off in that class. Then we got to Jonathan Edwards and I nearly died. I could not make any kind of meaning come out of that reading. I didn’t get it and I was pretty sure the situation was hopeless. I finally broke down and confessed to him in a quiet voice that I just didn’t get it. I knew I was going to fail the next test because Edwards not only didn’t make sense, but I’d spent so much time on trying to get it that I wasn’t caught up on the rest. I expected impatience at my slowness or irritation that I was keeping him from his afternoon, but instead Dr. Figg stopped, turned around, and went back to the chalkboard. He started drawing pictures (rather crude drawings; a great artist, he wasn’t) and tried to make the link come alive for me. He spent two hours at this before a very small glimmer of light came on. I realized there was a connection between what we were reading and Plato’s theory of forms. I’m not sure who was more relieved that I got it, but I did get it. He helped me because I was trying, and I’ve never forgotten that. It’s a principle I apply in my own teaching. I will do what it takes to help someone who is making a legitimate effort, but woe to those who don’t try and expect me to hand over the goods.

I took several more classes with Dr. Figg over the years, and I loved them even when I struggled. I figured out that while he was a tough instructor who had incredibly high standards, he was also, at heart, at least as committed to helping his students learn as much as they could. He was a teacher and a true scholar of his discipline, but if you search for articles by him, you won’t find many. The sad truth is that he would not survive the publish or perish academia of today, and I consider that the greatest loss. He was amazing. He had more depth of knowledge on a wider range of subjects than any other professor I ever had. I absolutely adored him.

He also had a wicked sense of humor, just wicked. He knew that I knew his son from high school, in that general way that you know people in a class of over 500, and he was pretty sure that his son didn’t recognize me. More than once he’d see his son coming from over my shoulder and ask me to give him a hug and walk away, just to give his son something to grumble about. Dr. Figg would invariably show up in my office the next day laughing about his son’s supposed outrage at the young girls hanging on his dad. Based on how easily he recognized me at his dad’s funeral, I’m guessing that the outrage was more to humor his dad, but it was fun anyway.

And then there was Irv. I still have a hard time talking about Irv. If there was ever a man I would have considered leaving my husband for (aside from George Clooney, of course), it would have been Irv. He opened my mind to possibilities. He helped me understand the utterly unstable nature of discourse and to privilege written text over just about every other medium (except film and television). He helped me find the words for the questions that I didn’t even know I wanted to ask, and helped me to find the courage to ask them.

When I took my first class with him, we watched “The Trouble with Tribbles.” For someone with deep Trek roots, this was an awesome experience. I do not know how to explain how much I adored him. He was always willing to listen and willing to listen to my nutty ideas. My fondest memory is from that first class. Poor Irv was so totally open-minded, except for one thing, he hated Star Wars. Despised it. Couldn’t stand it. So, let’s guess what I wanted to write my paper on. And the amazing thing was that he let me. Not only did he let me, he forced himself to watch the movies so that he could adequately respond to my paper.

There are many, many students who have benefitted from Irv’s insistence that literature is more than books in Middle English, more than Byron, Keats, Shelley. More than Dickinson and Frost. I have taught everything from Rap to rock, from Star Trek to The Matrix. He gave me the courage to start teaching Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael (public service note, if you haven’t read this book, you absolutely must find a copy and read it). It was thanks to Irv that I believed it was important to teach The Laramie Project in the Deep South. I did these things because he convinced me that the point of literature is not just to read but to be challenged in some way by what you read.

He taught me that what the critics think is important, but what I think is at least as important. The reader’s experience of a piece of writing trumps the writer’s intent for the piece of writing. My son is learning this at four. Can you imagine the havoc he would create in the average classroom?

So Irv’s legacy is alive. It’s in my kids and in the students I teach and it’s in how I approach the world. At the end of the day, when I meet my maker, I firmly believe that Irv will be there and he’ll be asking, did you make a difference? Because that’s what his kind of teaching, reading, and learning does. You can’t help but make a difference once you understand that absolutely nothing is as it appears and everything is subject to interpretation.

These men made me the teacher that I am. They made me the parent that I am. They made me the person that I am. I’m eternally grateful to both. I miss them both.

Oh, why the title? My favorite class that Dr. Figg taught was Dickinson and Frost. He made these two authors, as opposite as they were, fit together seamlessly. And, Derrida? Well, Irv was always a sucker for a good French theorist.

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5 thoughts on “Dickinson, Derrida, and Frost, Oh, my!

  1. Those sound like two awesome teachers ^_^. Just goes to show how much of an impact an educator can have on a student’s life.

    Hard to believe there is a person out there who doesn’t like Star Wars lol….

    • Heh. Irv just never appreciated it the way I thought he should. I managed to convince him, though, that it was more like his beloved westerns than he realized. The paper I wrote for him showed how the three movie arc followed the pattern that he identified in westerns.

      I was persuasive enough to get him to see that. Not persuasive enough to get him to love the movies.

  2. I love that long-standing feud between Trekkies and Star War…sies. I love how passionate they get about one another’s “wrongs”. I can imagine it made for some very interesting discussion!

    • Eh, I straddled the fence. I love Star Trek: TOS and TNG and DS9. Also love the original three Star Wars movies.

      His problem was that he couldn’t see the through arc and wasn’t convinced there was any merit to them beyond the production technology that Lucas developed.

  3. It’s funny. I was at the gym yesterday in the cardio cinema watching the movie “Rudy”. It’s one of my favorite inspirational films ever! I was thinking about the most influential person in my life. It was my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Pelletier. He challenged me to work harder and push beyond my “limitations”. He uncovered many strengths that I never knew I had. I am in the educational field today because of his influence. Sadly, he passed away about ten years ago from cancer. I was able to see him again about two years before he died. I told him how much his love and guidance meant to me. We reminisced about the good ole’ days. He was a ROCK STAR who burnt out before his time. I miss him.

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