Sunday, March 3, 2013

Teachers Who Matter

The first time I met Bruce MacLaren was the spring of 2002. I was a pre-frosh, dual-enrolled for some college classes as a high school senior, and checking out the Honors Program as a possibility for my time at my alma mater.  I don't often remember the first encounters I had with professors, but I remember this one, because I was introduced to the word defenestration when Dr. MacLaren cheerfully offered to throw me out the window.

I think that day's Civ class, which my group of prospective students was sitting in on, was going over the Thirty Years' War and the Prague Defenestrations (either that or when James II threw the Earl of Douglas out the window, I don't quite remember, but there are only so many famous historical defenestrations to discuss).  But I do distinctly remember the encounter and having a new word added to my vocabulary.  I also remember thinking I have to sign up for the section of this class that he teaches.

I had not been a freshman long before I was pulled into Dr. MacLaren's orbit.  He has a tendency to collect students around him.  If students are wandering asteroids, then some will get find themselves inevitably drawn in by Dr. MacLaren's gravitational pullI was suddenly on the quick recall team, where I found, much to my chagrin, my trivia knowledge not nearly as good as I thought it was when I played Jeopardy! at home, and where practice sessions would immediately become derailed when Dr. MacLaren and Dr. Messerich began telling stories. 

He calls me Elf Shu.  My handwriting--at least my signature--is abominable enough that my name looks remarkably like Elf Shu.  There were tons of stories about him that were told and retold from well before I'd matriculated, including one about him looking at Mrs. Dr. MacLaren (also a professor in her own right) and trying to get her to let him have a piece of chocolate pie.  He and Dr. Messerich would always find a nice restaurant and get a good steak when we were on honors trips, if I remember correctly.  And he never minded the fact that I would sit in the back of the classroom and harass him from afar.  In fact, I think he liked it.

I had two semesters of Honors Civilization with Dr. MacLaren.  So have both of my brothers. But I think I perhaps learned more out of class, because Dr. MacLaren ate lunch in the cafeteria almost every day.  Others of his colleagues were often there--some of our other Civ professors, for example--but rather than sit at a small table, sequestered away from students, Dr. MacLaren held court at one of the long tables and facilitated discussions that ranged from Lord of the Rings to existentialism.  And while we all knew that Dr. MacLaren had his own political viewpoint--which he had no problem sharing at the lunch table--I, for one, never felt like my own, which did not always line up, was under attack, even when it was being questioned.  Dr. MacLaren is, however, the master of the uncomfortable question.

It wasn't until graduate school, when I started teaching, that I realized what Dr. MacLaren actually did.  He played devil's advocate in the classroom at every turn, challenging us to move beyond what we thought we knew and asking us to explain what we believed, rather than simply spout off the same drivel we'd been indoctrinated with through high school.  It didn't matter so much what we believed as that we could clearly articulate why we believed it.  It's something I've striven for in my own teaching.
It wasn't until I started my Ph. D. program that I understood what Dr. MacLaren actually did as an academic.  He is one of those rare souls who is a historian of science.  In the back of my mind, I think I'd always known this.  Going into his office (a magical place larger than any other office on campus, including the president's, filled with books and plants and a giant cardboard cutout of Einstein and which smelled of musty books, coffee and ink), there was never any telling what kind of books would be on his shelves.  (I wish now that I'd paid more attention.  I'm sure I would be green with envy at some of the volumes he stored in his office.) 

I had been sitting in Milton, reading Paradise Lost, specifically looking at a section where Milton is describing two different conceptions of the universe.  I think I'd gone to the library to look up an article on the section for an assignment and had thrown a minor fit. 

It wasn't right.  It simply wasn't right.  The academic in question simply had no idea what they were talking about.  The more I got into my research, the more I realized just how much literacy scholars often have no idea what they are talking about when it came to science.  Calling Milton's conception of the universe Ptolemaic was entirely oversimplistic. But would it make a good seminar paper?

In the back of my mind, I heard a deep voice with a Minnesota accent say "Why not?"

And so, not indirectly, Dr. MacLaren became at least partially responsible for my direction in academia.  If one can be a historian of science, then why can't one be a literarian of science?

(This is where, I think, he would probably apologize.  I should also apologize for coining the word 'literarian.')

My dissertation now traces Tennyson's anxieties about art in relation to scientific anxieties emerging in Victorian culture which Tennyson also wrote about in his poetry.  My youngest brother has to occasionally report back to Dr. MacLaren on what I'm doing.  Dr. MacLaren posts book titles that I need to read on my Facebook.  I want to get my doctorate and take a picture of my diploma and send it to him, because I want him to laugh and be proud of me, remembering that skinny, gangly teenager who asked him what "defenestration" meant and then looked at him with wide-eyes when he suggested practicing it on her.

This is Dr. MacLaren's last semester.  He's retiring after finals, and I can't say that I blame him.  There have been a lot of changes at my alma mater, and not all of them have been good.  I'm very grateful that my youngest brother was able to experience Civ with Dr. MacLaren like the rest of us were. 

There are teachers you remember.  Then there are teachers who change your life. Bruce MacLaren is one of the latter.

No comments:

Post a Comment