Spent the morning unpacking after our vacation back East (I don’t want sympathy, exactly, K-Lo, but have you ever unpacked for five children?), then devoted the afternoon and evening to digging through bills, junk mail, and other assorted detria that had piled up while we were away, with the result that I only just now read your request for advice on what you might say to the students you’ll be addressing tomorrow (or, as it has already become in your time zone, today). I’d tell them to draw a very sharp line between their activities inside and outside the classroom. My model? Jeff Hart.
On the faculty when I was at Dartmouth, Jeff was flamboyantly conservative, a man who delighted in outraging liberal sensibilities. The faculty senate might pass one resolution after another calling for cuts in the budget of the athletic department, but Jeff would attend every home football game with relish, wearing a racoon coat and celebrating touchdowns by passing around a silver hip flask. Each year he’d give a lecture entitled, “A Valentine for the British Empire, or Uganda was Better Off When the English were Running the Place.” On the rare occasion when he attended a faculty meeting, he’d take with him a wooden mechanical device that was shaped like a human hand–Lord knows where he got the thing– set it on a desk, and then demonstrate his boredom by turning a crank that drummed the fingers. One day stickers appeared on the light switches in Sanborn House, home of the English Department, urging students to conserve energy by turning out lights; the next day notes appeared on the stickers, in Jeff’s handwriting, that read, “Conserve energy? Produce fuel!” And while other members of the faculty drove Volvos and Fiats, Jeff tooled around Hanover, New Hampshire in a second-hand limousine that Bill Buckley had given him, merrily getting all of about eight miles to the gallon.
But all that took place outside the classroom. Inside the classroom, by contrast, Jeff never so much as mentioned politics, instead giving himself entirely to Shakespeare, Dr. Johnson, Boswell, DaFoe, Pope, Dryden, Hemingway, Fitzgerald. The text–the text was everything. “Engage in a close reading of John Donne or Andrew Marvell,” he’d remark, “and you’ll find that it’s difficult to work in a mention of the Vietnam War or the Equal Rights Amendment.” He was the best teacher I ever had.
Outside the classroom, politics, the more outrageous the better–why waste youth?–but inside the classroom, the life of the mind.