My Favorite Teacher
The joy in life ultimately lies in relationships and in personal growth, which is also where the joy of higher education lies. That’s what makes our memories of our university experience special: the ways our world expanded and the people who blessed us, including our favorite professors. The best among our professors opened our eyes, helped us to identify the things we are passionate about, changed our direction and inspired us to live richer, better lives.
To celebrate the importance of professors, we’ve asked nine of the professional writers among CUA’s alumni to write about their favorite professor. The contributors include best-selling novelists, authors of award-winning children’s books and a monk who writes monastic murder mysteries.
As you read, perhaps you will remember your own favorite professor and be inspired to share your memory or appreciation with CUA Magazine. If so, please see Page 17 for how to submit your recollection for possible publication in our next issue. If you’ve always meant to thank one particular CUA teacher who touched your life, this is your chance.
A Distressing Journey With a Happy Ending
I chose to major in anthropology. The field intrigued me and it seemed like an inexhaustible source of creative material for a writer. But my actual knowledge of anthropology fell somewhere between Indiana Jones and Jane Goodall. In a word, I was clueless. I was older than the other undergraduates and painfully conscious of my previous academic history. My courseload had to be juggled with my work schedule, which meant that most of my classes were offered at night and were aimed at grad students. I felt woefully out of my league — at once too old and too young, overwhelmed by the demands of my job and my coursework.
I can’t recall the very first class I took with Dr. Lucy Cohen. She simply seems always to have been there, a soft-spoken, quietly brilliant presence in the front of the room. She taught sociocultural anthropology and ethnology, and I fell in love with both disciplines. She showed me that there were more worlds within our own than I had ever imagined, and also that there were ways of entering those worlds, examining them, writing about them. It was the early 1980s and I was intrigued by what were then emergent American subcultures — Dungeons & Dragons gamers and people who played video games and pinball in arcades. Cohen encouraged my interest in these offbeat informants, and — most important — she took me seriously as a writer, critiquing my papers and offering suggestions and, always, encouragement.
I didn’t become an ethnographer; I became a writer. But one of my fictional characters most beloved by readers (and myself) is a soft-spoken, gently encouraging anthropology professor (I made him a man, to suit the needs of the text) who serves as the guide and moral compass for my often-feckless protagonists. I’ve never thanked Dr. Cohen sufficiently for all she did for me, but I’ve never forgotten, either. Her encouragement and belief in my abilities outshone my own. I hope it’s not too late to say thank you.
Elizabeth Hand, B.A. 1985, edited the CUA literary magazine while an undergraduate and has since gone on to a career as a novelist, critic and playwright. She writes that her 1994 novel, Waking the Moon, “is, as far as I know, the only best seller ever set at (a very thinly disguised) Catholic University.” Named a New York Times Notable author in 1999, she has published seven novels, most recently Mortal Love (William Morrow, 2004). She has also published two short story collections as well as many film novelizations and children’s books. Her novella “The Least Trumps” was short-listed in the anthology Best American Short Stories 2003. Her one-act play, The Have-Nots, was a finalist in the London Fringe Theatre Festival in 1999 and went on to be performed at London’s Battersea Arts Centre.
A Drowsy Student’s Tribute
The title of the class has long drifted from memory, the students in it vanished from my recall … but Ron, I remember him clear as day. A graduate student at CUA, he was not much older than us, which may be why some of us did not take him too seriously at first. Small in voice and stature, he reminded me of a hobbit, very much like Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings film series. And he had a sarcastic wit that could disarm you in a second.
Ron never raised his voice. Though he had a pleasant, singsongy voice, he managed to speak in a clear, clipped, no-nonsense way. His way of handling unruly students was to knock off a grade from their latest assignments. He didn’t accept late material, simply gave you a zero for it if you didn’t have it on time. As a student, he too was loaded with assignments that he had to keep up with. He didn’t want to fall behind because of having to grade work that was past due.
I took his class my freshman year and the class was early, way too early for a student taking advantage of his first year of freedom by going to bed whenever he wanted. So a 10:30 a.m. class was ridiculously early in my mind. But after a couple of bad marks for unexcused absences and for arriving late, I soon learned Ron was not to be trifled with, so I would drag my weary carcass to his theater course.
I generally sat in the back, where I would, on more than one occasion, drift in and out of consciousness, yearning for one more hour of sleep. But Ron didn’t really appreciate naps, and whenever he saw a head bob or a shoulder stoop he’d immediately call out to the nearly napping student who inevitably would have absolutely no idea what he had been talking about.
Except for me. For some unknown reason, even when I was seconds away from settling into a deep sleep, that singsongy voice would pull me out of my slumber with a question on the latest play we were studying. And I’d answer, clearly and correctly, before my eyelids would again begin to droop.
It became a sort of sport for my classmates to wager on the exact point when my head would drop and Ron would call on me. But every time, I had an answer. Do you know why? Because it was sort of a sport for me as well. I read the assigned scripts so I’d be ready to duel with Professor Hironimus; I listened to his lectures and was never unprepped for a pop quiz. For some reason this teacher penetrated the blurred subconscious mind of a half-slumbering freshman and taught me things I remember even today.
Did I mention I’m a playwright? That would’ve made Ron smile, maybe even laugh. But I don’t think he ever knew of his teaching success as it relates to me. He passed away on June 16, 1998. But his teaching lives on. That would’ve definitely made him smile.
David L. Paterson, B.A. 1989, has published 14 of his plays with the nation’s leading publisher of plays, Samuel French Inc. Paterson’s works have been performed across the United States and in three other countries. He is also an actor and film writer/producer. His independent film “Love, Ludlow” was accepted for showing at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, one of only 20 accepted films out of a pool of 1,600 entries. He produced that movie and adapted its screenplay from his original comic play, Fingerpainting in a Murphybed. Paterson is pictured above with his sons, Carter, 7, and Decker, 4.
Brashness + Tradition
In 1985 I was a new student and had signed up for a night class called The New Journalism. My father, himself a CUA graduate, had made a great career out of journalism, first at Life magazine and then at National Geographic. I wanted to do the same.
I didn’t know what I was walking into that cool September night 20 years ago. There were about four of us in the class. Professor Lawbaugh was a tall, wiry guy with thick glasses. He was very soft-spoken. That first class he gave us the syllabus: books by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese — the “New Journalists” of the 1960s, writers who abandoned the dull old journalism to write with a more literary flair. I got my new books the next day and remember opening up the collection of Tom Wolfe’s essays. I started reading and didn’t stop until about 4 a.m., when I had read the book straight through. Here was the kind of journalism I wanted to do. Literary. Opinionated, even brash. Honest. Funny.
Our assignment was simply to write stories. I chose to do a piece on punk rock, an underground movement popular at the time. Although our teacher knew the class was about journalism that was more free than before, he knew that “free” didn’t mean sloppy. I remember him reading my piece in front of the class, delighting at how good it was — for the first half. Then it collapsed. “You kind of dropped off a cliff near the end,” he said. He was right.
He knew that even the most rule-breaking writing needed a stable, coherent base to thrive. This is where Sister Anne came in. The single most memorable and rewarding class I took at Catholic was her Shakespeare class. She has a mastery of the subject and an enthusiasm that is contagious. She also has a wonderful sense of humor.
My New Journalism class and Sister Anne’s Shakespeare course together suggested a prescription for my writing career. You could write with honesty and sarcasm, but it only worked if you had a foot planted in tradition. My career would not have been possible without these two professors.
Mark Gauvreau Judge, B.A. 1990, has written four books, most recently Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship (Encounter Books, 2003) and God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad, 2005). His writing has also appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and Weekly Standard. Pictured are Judge and his father Joe Judge, B.A. 1950, LL.D. 1988, in a photo taken in the mid-1990s.
A Lesson in Good Will
In school, Sister Anne always saw that I was invited to whatever scholarly enterprises she was invited to herself, or brought me as a guest to events in her field. She submitted my name for the secretaryship of a Catholic philanthropic society with which she was involved, was always in the crowd whenever I read or spoke at an event — whether it concerned my fiction or my scholarly work — and bought copies of my books for libraries. She tirelessly wrote letters on my behalf, and reviewed my manuscript for a book on Shakespeare based on my dissertation.
All of these instances are examples of her resolute encouragement, but it is the years after my graduation that are most noteworthy. Over those years, I have applied for numerous grants, fellowships and awards — obtaining some, losing others — and it always seems that a recommendation is required for each. I myself have a hard time keeping track of which applications are outstanding. Recently, though I had not seen her in quite some time, Sister sent me an e-mail wondering what had happened on a foundation grant she had recommended me for months earlier. I had forgotten about it altogether, and when I checked was relieved to find I was still in the running. At the end of my inquiry with the foundation, it struck me that long after I was a student of hers and long after we saw each other on a regular basis, Sister Anne took a selfless interest in what had become of my ambitions.
Of course, a college professor, and especially a professor of graduate students, should in all pious aspiration be any number of things — scholar, teacher, adviser and champion (at least in the short term) of those whose work he or she has overseen. But a professor need not be as concerned, as involved or exhibit such good will about so much, for so long. That kind of scope as an academic — indeed, as a human being — is a lesson in and of itself.
A.G. Harmon, Ph.D. 2000, is both a novelist and a full-time lecturer at CUA’s Columbus School of Law. His novel, A House All Stilled (University of Tennessee Press, 2002) was nominated for the Pen-Hemingway Award, which is given annually to the best novel by an American author who hasn’t previously published a book of fiction. A novel he recently finished, A Lifetime Burning, was runner-up for the 2005 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Award for the Novel. He has also published a version of his CUA doctoral dissertation as Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (State University of New York Press, 2004).
A Scientist With a Soul
Professor John C. Townsend taught the two most challenging courses in the program: Psychological Methodology and Quantitative Methods. These had to be taken early on and were viewed as predictors of future success or failure in the program. Not only did being in graduate school daunt me, but the daunting Dr. Townsend was one of my professors during my initial two semesters. Others spoke highly of him but encouraged hard work to absorb his highly detailed information. I did study hard, otherwise allowing myself only a weekly swim at the gym, a Spirit-filled prayer meeting on Friday evenings, and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Saturday nights.
Dr. Townsend’s material was offered in a careful and crystal-clear manner. He almost always called people by their proper title, be it Ms., Mr., Brother, Sister or Father. The magic of this was that he never came across as stiff or formal, but always respectful and encouraging. I did well in his courses (largely due to my Spartan lifestyle) and grasped the material. Much more important, I grasped the character of this fine professor.
Psychological research reveals the impact of nonverbal behavior in communication — what is “between the lines” often comes through more clearly than one’s actual words. “Ethics and integrity” is the between-the-lines phrase that came to mind when I first met Dr. Townsend, and it reverberates in my mind today as I write. He appeared quite ordinary, lectured on difficult subjects, but came across as genuinely caring about each of us and about life. Dr. Townsend was a scientist with a soul.
My time with him gave me confidence and insight about myself — that I desired to pursue a doctorate in psychology. During my two years of post-M.A. high school ministry, Professor Townsend was kind enough to endorse my applications for doctoral studies at Lehigh University and for election into the American Psychological Association.
I never knew if John C. Townsend had a particular religious affiliation, but he taught me a great deal about Christian humanism by simply being himself at Catholic University. Moral of the story: Don’t throw anything, or anyone, away.
Brother Bernard Seif, S.M.C., M.A. 1974, is a monk of the Salesian Monastery in Brodheadsville, Pa., and a clinical psychologist, board certified in behavioral medicine. He is also a doctor of naturopathic medicine specializing in a healing Chinese art known as medical qigong, does spiritual direction and gives retreats and workshops. Last but not least, he writes monastic murder mysteries set in modern times, including Office of the Dead (Writers Club Press, 2001) and, most recently, Morning Prayer: From the Office of the Dead (Bookman Publishing, 2004).
A Gentleman With a Golden Voice
He really cared about his students and committed himself wholeheartedly to teaching the art of acting, which involved good “technique.” He never fell for the extreme silliness of “method acting” afoot in those days. He knew that technique matters, especially in acting the great classics of poetic drama on stage. What good is it if one is full of emotions welling up from deep in the psyche if one can’t be understood or heard in the back row or if one sounds like Tweety Bird reciting Hamlet. He knew how to act the classics and it was productions of the great poetic and classic dramatists — Shakespeare, Congreve, Molière and Shaw — that put the department on the map and made it more highly rated than any other university drama department in the country, except perhaps for the older, more venerable one at Yale.
Professor Graham was the most cordial and welcoming of all the professors in the department. There was something expansive and kindly in his demeanor that said, “We want you to succeed here.” He never used sarcasm or chastisement, as some professors might, but rather positive reinforcement as his teaching style.
Professor Graham was a worthy administrator of the department and I always felt that it was as much to his credit as to Father Hartke’s that the CUA Speech and Drama Department flourished and produced actors like Tony Award winner Philip Bosco and Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon, as well as such Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights as Michael Christofer (who also adapted my novel, The Great American Belly, to the screen for Warner Bros.).
Professor Graham was the guiding light who had helped to found and develop the National Repertory Program. He was among the judges who chose me as a scholarship recipient when I auditioned in 1963 after completing my undergraduate work at Montclair University in English and speech and theater. I recall that I traveled to Washington, D.C., with much trepidation when I auditioned with a scene from Romeo and Juliet, playing both the Nurse and Juliet, switching voices between the two characters. Only a young, naïve actress would have dared such an audition, but Bill Graham was quick to appreciate the vocal variety and classical diction, the understanding of Shakespearean poetry it took to characterize
He would later cast me as the Virgin Mary in a recording produced by the Spiritual Rosary Society that he directed and produced in the drama department. He chose me for my mellow voice, he said. I always felt, “It takes one to know one.”
He was the most inspiring teacher I had at CUA. He taught by the principle that respect for the student garners respect for the teacher, and there’s no better way to teach.
Daniela Gioseffi, M.F.A. 1973, is the author of 11 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Nona Balakian, a New York Times book reviewer, has called Gioseffi “among the best poets of our time,” and novelist Larry McMurtry has written in The Washington Post that Gioseffi’s writing is “full of energy, humor and good spirits … the pace never slackens.” An anthology Gioseffi edited, Women on War: International Writings From Antiquity to the Present, won an American Book Award in 1990 in its first edition from Simon and Schuster, and was reissued in 2003 in a new edition from The Feminist Press. Her anthology of world literature, On Prejudice: A Global Perspective, received a World Peace Award at the United Nations from the Ploughshares Foundation.
Dozens of Discoveries
On sabbatical leave from the District of Columbia’s public school system, which had a majority of nonwhite students, I was restless; I was eager to immediately know the impact African-Americans had made upon the field of children’s literature. What had their contributions been?
By that time I had met (and read) the contemporary giants among African-American authors of children’s literature, including Virginia Hamilton, Eloise Greenfield and Walter Dean Myers, but there was much to learn before I returned to the students as a library media specialist. I wanted to give the children my best.
Dr. Roggenbuck had a course of study on school librarianship and many students to prepare. She sought balance; I sought specificity. Somehow she understood; while still standing her ground, she led me along a path of discovery.
I remember the literary journey began internationally — in Great Britain, in Germany, in France, moving toward America. Led forward by Dr. Roggenbuck, I discovered and rediscovered Randolph Caldecott, Arthur Rackham, Kipling’s The Jungle Book, the Brothers Grimm, Mary Mapes Dodge, literary theory and criticism, Swift, Defoe, Strawberry Girl, Charles Perrault, Aesop, Little Goody Two- Shoes, didacticism, John Cotton’s Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes (America’s first book published for children, in 1641), St. Nicholas magazine and Charles Dodgson.
My research path, encouraged by Dr. Roggenbuck, continued toward early, pioneering black writers who wrote for young people: Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Lorenz Graham, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Ann Petry and on and on. These were the authors who started to make a difference by creating a literature for African-American children.
There was an awakening thrust of multicultural books during the years I was at CUA, thanks in part to the influence of Nancy Larrick’s 1965 Saturday Review article, “The All-White World of Children’s Books.”
Dr. Roggenbuck, after opening the door to a wondrous garden, walked in with her students. She enlarged our understanding of children’s/young-adult literature with exactitude and crystalline clarity. She led us to believe that this precious garden was increasingly complex, ever-changing, and that it would only be nurtured by continuing scholarship.
I am forever thankful to her.
P.S. Professor Mathilde Rovelstad was also a powerhouse. She had the gale force of a magnetic, charismatic personality who made you believe that you could accomplish whatever you undertook. She was, to me, an extraordinary scholar. She was exceedingly encouraging to me concerning my published books, and went out of her way to congratulate me about them, saying, “This is the icing on the cake.” She was sincere and her remark meant everything to me.
Sharon Bell Mathis, M.S.L.S. 1975, has written many acclaimed books of children’s literature. When she started studying at CUA, she was already the author of Teacup Full of Roses, which The New York Times had placed on its list of best books of 1972 for young adults. Her 1975 book, The Hundred Penny Box, was designated a Newbery Honor Book the year after she graduated from CUA. Mathis’ biography of musician Ray Charles has won the Coretta Scott King Award, given annually by the American Library Association to an African-American author of an outstanding illustrated children’s book. In 2000 Mathis was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent (housed at Chicago State University).
A Catalog of Virtues
Dr. Preer patiently cautioned that I might not be able to handle the heavy courseload that I proposed. Nevertheless, she did not try to crush my eagerness. Instead she introduced me to the essence of librarianship. Like a reference librarian helping a patron by conducting a reference interview, she asked me questions, gently eliciting information about my background and my interests. She listened to my responses and followed up with more specific questions, gradually helping me to structure a schedule that met my goals while balancing my employer’s needs and the school’s offerings.
Dr. Preer also demonstrated the skills of a technical services librarian. She walked me through the registration process and introduced me to the library school’s computer laboratory.
Nothing in my prior education had prepared me for Dr. Preer’s quiet, persuasive manner. I had attended a prestigious university for my bachelor’s degree, mastering a system of demanding lectures, preceptorial discussion sections and seminars that stretched and pulled me — often painfully — at every juncture. Then I had wrestled with law school, struggling to complete my “paper chase,” getting stressed-out over exams, papers and classroom presentations.
Library school, though — as presented that day by Dr. Preer — was a revelation. I was introduced to professors who worked to assist me in my own education, to help me become the best student I could be.
My impressions of Dr. Preer were cemented in her hallmark course, Libraries and Information in Society. She purposely emphasized the importance of librarians in the everyday life of ordinary people. Each week we students brought in newspaper and magazine articles that discussed librarians, libraries and related concepts — an experience that continues to inform my reading of popular literature to this day. In addition, Dr. Preer had us research “Library Lights,” key figures in the history of librarianship. I still remember the details of bibliographer H.W. Wilson’s life, including how he used a lighthouse as the symbol for his database publishing company, setting forth a corporate mission that might have been Dr. Preer’s own: “To give guidance to those seeking their way through the maze of books and periodicals, without which they would be lost.”
When I started law school, instructors informed me that I would learn to “think like a lawyer.” No one gave me similar warnings for library school. Nevertheless, when I look back at Dr. Preer’s patience, at her passion and her determination to address each of her students as professionals, I realize that library school transformed me more than any of my previous educational experiences. Dr. Preer taught me to “think like a librarian,” and I use those ways of thinking every day of my professional career.
Mindy Klasky, M.S.L.S. 1996, is the author of a series of five fantasy novels set in a medieval world of kings, warriors, commoners and 1,000 gods. Focusing on a heroine who is a member of the guild of glassmakers, the novels include The Glasswrights’ Apprentice, The Glasswrights’ Progress, The Glasswrights’ Journeyman, The Glasswrights’ Test and The Glasswrights’ Master. The first of these novels was a best seller and won the Maiden Voyages Award for best first speculative fiction novel in 2000 (an award voted on by patrons of Barnes & Noble). She is also the author of the fantasy novel Season of Sacrifice. A corporate lawyer when she was studying at Catholic University, Klasky is now the library director in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Collier Shannon Scott.
Funny, Fair and Inspiring
Indeed, the times were such that my boss at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research asked me to resign. After getting my master’s, I could have become a supervisor over “his people,” and he couldn’t allow that.
In the midst of this, Dr. Eugene Kennedy — who taught outstanding courses in bacteriology and immunology — was funny, fair and inspiring. We handled virulent pathogens and infected small animals. Once [the bacterial growth medium] agar-agar from the autoclave blew up in my face. Dr. Kennedy ran to me calling, “It’ll cool fast and not leave any scars.” He was right.
And Dr. Merritt Sarles, another great teacher, knew parasitology so well he couldn’t answer any questions “yes” or “no.” It used to make me angry, but he was right, too. He taught us that there are few absolutes among hookworms, trematodes and protozoa.
All in all, my time and teachers at Catholic U. were good. I felt lucky. Years before, Catholic U. officials had refused to allow my father to attend, because according to them, coloreds weren’t ready. My father got his law degree at Howard University.
After a decade of working in bacteriology, Harriette Gillem Robinet, M.S. 1957, Ph.D. 1962, began writing children’s historical fiction while raising her family. Her dozen published books have been set during events such as the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, and the 1955–56 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and E.D. Nixon. The majority of Robinet’s books have won awards, including the 1999 Scott O’Dell Award for historical fiction for her novel Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule, the 1997 Carl Sandburg Award for her Washington City Is Burning, and the 1991 Friends of American Writers Award for her Children of the Fire.
All the D.C. universities may nominate their leading professors for the District of Columbia title, but CUA professors have won the distinction more times than the professors of any other university:
Following are the honored CUA professors and the year they were named Professor of the Year:
Revised: March 2005
contents copyright © 2005.