Robert Bell - Acceptance Speech

Outstanding Baccalaureate Colleges Professor of the Year
Robert Bell
Professor of English
Williams College

"Sheer Morning Gladness at the Brim"
by Robert H. Bell

Significant moments in education, I've learned, may be conspicuously undramatic. Recently, teaching Richard Wilbur's poem "The Writer," I asked my students, what is appealing about the speaker's attitude toward his daughter? One student, Anne Dwyer, said softly, "His respect for her." Respectfulness also characterizes the teacher's attitude toward the material and the students. Simone Weil said, "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity." In my teaching I strive to demonstrate the efficacy and pleasure of generous attention to literature, to encourage disciplined, imaginative responses to language, and to give pure, sustained attention to the student's reading and writing. Carefully evaluating students' writing is grueling but gratifying, for it verifies the importance of critical thinking. I encourage students to take words and ideas seriously by responding thoughtfully to their ideas-and to their words.

I vigorously maintain the pleasure of verbal virtuosity and literary analysis. As Robert Frost insists, "All the fun's in how you say a thing." Though it is hard work to think precisely, lucidly, logically, it is also enormously invigorating. I believe in fun, unabashedly advocate excitement, and bear witness to joy. I experience joy quoting poetry, watching plays, analyzing texts, reveling in felicities of language. I want to convey the enthusiasm of reading, thinking, dramatizing, revising, correcting, speculating.

This semester, I'm teaching Williams freshman a course on modern poets, including Robert Frost. Frost was a marvelous teacher as well as a great poet. Stubbornly practical, distrustful of dogma, a granite-ribbed skeptic, Frost spoke astutely and cannily about teaching. He believed in "Education by Poetry." Frost warns, "unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere."

My teacher Reuben Brower had been a student of Robert Frost. When Reuben Brower was a freshman at Amherst, Frost asked him to recite a poem to the class. When young Brower finished, Frost gazed at him and said, "I give you A for life."

Brower justified Frost's benediction. As an Amherst professor Brower devised a rigorous year-long introductory course in reading and writing-papers every day! Moving to Harvard in 1953, Brower brought with him his undergraduate course in close reading and regular writing-a course to explore and define imaginative uses of language. Brower's Humanities 6 course-Hum 6-has shaped my life. My wife was taking Hum 6, reading Yeats and George Eliot, when we fell in love. Variously inspired, I became a Hum 6 section leader.

Brower lectured to scores of Harvard undergraduates once a week. Twice weekly we section leaders met with our small discussion groups. Just like a lowly third year grad student, Brower taught a section and commented on endless student essays. Only later did I realize how amazing it was that this renowned scholar and critic devoted so much of his life to teaching beginning students.

Brower was a marvelous mentor. Every week he met with his Hum 6 staff, assistant professors and graduate TA's. We planned strategies, devised writing exercises, contemplated challenging exam questions. Brower was a magnificent teacher of teachers. By precept and example, he demonstrated that we were part of an important, exciting enterprise.

Brower was the least dramatic or performative teacher one could imagine. He could be amusingly other-worldly. When I was invited to apply to the Williams English department, I asked Brower whether he thought Williams would be a good place for me. [Subtext: will you recommend me for a job at Williams?]

"Oh, yes," said the old Amherst grad and professor, "Williams is a fine, fine school. Of course it's not Amherst."

"No, no, of course not," I agreed.

"But I've been there, and it's a fine department . . . O my goodness!" he exclaimed, as he flew to the window. "Is that a golden-breasted cockle thrusher?"

"I . . . I'm not sure," I stammered,

"It would be quite late for a golden- breasted cockle thrusher, I must say! What, what, was I saying?"

"Williams College and my, uh, application, I think."

"Oh yes. I would certainly be happy to . . . oh good heavens! I think it IS a golden-breasted cockle thrusher! How extraordinary! Where were we?"

"You were saying you'd be happy to . . ."

"Ah yes, Williams. A fine old college. Don't be surprised to find yourself being interviewed on campus by the President. They take teaching very seriously at these schools."

Since that autumn afternoon with Brower, I've been teaching at Williams for 33 years. Encouraging students to respect the work and enjoy the play of language, to become more at home in the metaphor. My most passionate enthusiasm, second only to undergraduate teaching, is to the mentoring program I started ten years ago. Advising and encouraging young faculty, I remember the example of Brower. Working with some of the most gifted, idealistic, and committed teachers imaginable, I regularly experience the double pleasure of teaching and learning. I never thought I could love any work more than teaching Williams students; now, it seems to me, the only comparable gratification is teaching their teachers.

Though I've never actually spotted a golden-breasted cockle-thrusher, I regularly experience "sheer morning gladness at the brim"-- like Frost in his poem, "The Tuft of Flowers," and never more fully than on this deeply heartening occasion. I can almost imagine being touched by Frost-if not with an "A for life," perhaps a B+ at the brim.