Dr. Edward Chalfant, John Adams, teacher

“Just Write Something” – a Tribute to Dr. Chalfant

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 anymore? 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 to 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, occurred many years ago.

I just did some online research 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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  1. Lovely tribute, Jeannette. Ironically, I ran into a college professor yesterday near Grand Central Station. He was a magnificent teacher… intellectually challenging. You never made a casual remark in his presence. He expected critical thinking and now I can only hope that I am meeting his expectation.

  2. “Just write something” is great advice for bloggers! I often resist writing my blog or thinking of a topic… but if I truly scroll my brain and recent experiences with my clients, and/or the other articles posted on LinkedIn groups, I will always find something to write about! It usually just takes putting a few words onto a blank page, and before I know it I’ve written my next article!

  3. I agree with Brenda. I write for several article sites as a freelancer and I pour over the news for hours without finding a single thing I care to write about. So I sit. And I ponder. And then I just write. Much of it gets deleted and revised later, but when you allow yourself to just open up and write, it frees up all the clogged thinking that prevents you from even getting started for fear that it’s not good enough. A lot of my professors did that too. ‘Just write something.’ It never makes sense until later.

  4. I, too, had Dr. Chalfant at Hofstra for two semesters of American Literature. I totally agree with your tribute, Jeannette. All these years later and I still remember Dr. Chalfant as being one of my favorite professors, and I wasn’t even an English major! He was funny, thought provoking and had a completely unique charm. We did several Henry James books in his classes, including Daisy Miller. My friend and I used to discuss that book for hours trying to make heads or tails out to the story. It is true that Dr. Chalfant’s teaching techniques had us completely fascinated with the material. What an amazing teacher!

    • Joan — Thanks so much for your comment. Back in September Dr. Chalfant came upon this blog and, using my contact form, sent me a note and we had some correspondence. He’s 90 and going strong. He now lives in California. I’m sure he’d love to hear from you. I have his email and will send it to you offline in case you’d like to be in touch with him.

  5. Dr. Chalfant mastered the art of teaching. I remember being enthralled in his classes and as an English/Education major, i took as many of his classes as i could. I always wanted to know his opinion or thoughts about Hamlet or Daisy Miller or whatever we were reading, but due to his expertise in asking the perfect question, he led me to discover my thoughts and opinions. Socrates may have invented the Socratic Method, but i think Dr. Chalfant perfected it. Dr. Chalfant and Dr. Hull (another brilliant inspiring professor at Hofstra) shaped my youthful thinking.

    Does any one else remember Dr. Chalfant’s Total Democracy? I still have my copy!

    • Jeanne — thanks for stopping by and commenting. You’ve captured Dr. Chalfant’s spirit and style. He always expected you to figure it out. He was an inspirational figure in my life. I do not know about Total Democracy. Maybe it’s something I once had but I have no memory of it.

  6. Hello! I also had the privilege of taking American Lit at Hofstra with Dr. Chalfant. He deeply changed my life and his class brought me tremendous confidence in my mind and ability. Would you kindly share his email address. I hope that, as you stated, he is still going strong.