Like the taste of the petite madeleine in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” a phrase in Seth Godin’s Labor Day blog opened up a floodgate of memories of my favorite college professor, Dr. Edward Chalfant.
Discussing the challenge of invigorating skilled workers, Seth used the phrase “tell us exactly what to do.” I immediately recalled, with fondness, that Dr. Chalfant would give us a weekly assignment in his class – I took both Shakespeare and American Literature with him – based on the play or book we were reading. He would always say: “Just write something.”
At first, many students were askance at not being given a particular topic. Several would jump up and ask, “but what should I write about?” His response was always that we could think of something.
He wouldn’t tell us what to do
Dr. Chalfant knew that by liberating us from the constraints of a topic, he was allowing us to discover for ourselves the brilliance of a Shakespeare sonnet or the secrets of a great American novel. I remember the joy, and sometimes the writer’s block, that accompanied every assignment.
What I thought mattered. There were no right or wrong answers. Week after week, he carefully read through dozens of papers from every class he taught. Do English professors do that any more? What devotion to his students.
To this day, I remember that he would draw a rectangle around a word or phrase and hand the paper back to you and say, “You can do this better.” He would leave it to you to guess what he meant and, of course, he always zeroed in on what you already knew was the weak word or phrase. Only after you handed in the re-do would he grade the paper.
Dr. Chalfant taught me how to think and become a better writer
He taught me how to appreciate the written word.
It seemed prescient that, although I hadn’t seen Dr. Chalfant in many years, I bumped into him the day after my wedding walking along a street in Manhattan. What a joy. That meeting, too, was many years ago.
So, I just did some online research (thank you for the Internet) and found that after becoming Professor of English Emeritus at Hofstra University, my alma mater, he went on to achieve great acclaim for his three-volume biography of Henry Adams.
As Adams famously said, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
Thanks, Dr. Chalfant, for continuing to influence my life’s work.
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