Alumni Column – Marginal Education

James Allen Smith '70

The clock ticks on yet another Colgate deadline. It’s inescapable, no excuses, no extensions – one more essay due by Monday.

Precisely 40 years ago it would have been an essay for Professor Busch’s Core 15, the course in rhetoric and writing that freshmen (so-called in that era) were destined to take. Professor Busch (so-called in that era) was only seven years older than his students. In time, he would become “Fred,” a dear friend to a tight-knit cadre of my classmates (Now, a year after his death, it’s almost impossible to insert “the late” in front of Fred Busch’s name, harder still to write it before his wife Judy’s name).

I still see him in a black turtle-neck sweater, black jeans, black-rimmed glasses, black beard. He was Greenwich Village invading Lawrence Hall; Fred striding out of the 1950s and the Beat Generation into the late 1960s and our generation’s coming cultural revolution.

Professor Busch could scare us and unsettle us. Our weekly essays were usually returned without a grade. This was no act of kindness. We were undeserving. In his estimation our essays rarely rose high enough in the alphabet to merit even C’s and D’s. The margins bled red with taunts, criticisms and cryptic abbreviations.

“W.C.?” was the routine query when a particular word choice seemed dubious. Up above in the second paragraph, my word “destined” would have surely earned a “W.C.?” Now I begin to question it myself. “Fated” might be better, though both words are derived from Romance languages, evoking classical deities and their control over cause and effect. Perhaps it should be “bound,” a word with Germanic roots, suggesting constraints, a lack of choice. I’ll stick with “destined.” Confronting one’s destiny always sounds happier than acceptingone’s fate.

“W.C.?” So much of our education resides in the margins or, more precisely, in those marginalia addressed exclusively to us. Marginal comments can sting or stun or even provide a pleasant surprise. But whatever the intended effect, they usually stick. Sometimes they stay with us for decades.

Professor Douglas K. Reading – the immortal Doc Reading with hisruddy face, jutting jaw and gap-toothed leer – wrote in my bluebook margins in a flourishing script, “This is the prose of which diplomats are made.” At the time I read itas a compliment. It seemed to be the Doc’s effort to offer a few words of confidence-building praise to a sophomore. Assuming he also meant it literally, I took itas sage job advice and dutifully took the foreign service exam several years later when I finished grad school (diplomacy, however, would not become my chosen path).

Doc Reading’s words stuck with me. But in time I realized what, in all likelihood,hehadintended. He was telling me that my prose was too safe, my argumentinconclusive, wishy-washy. Face to face, he would have leaned in and said, “Take a firm stand, kid.”

Sometimes comments are destined to overflow the margins. Professor Raymond Rockwood’s often did. His neat marginal checkmarks were cued to notes carefully typed on the thinnest of airmail stationery. He had stayed in London after directing our history study group. He then mailed pages of painstaking commentary to us after we returned to Hamilton, taking extra time to read the first drafts of our honors theses. Clearly, the lasting honor was that Professor Rockwood, a serious scholar of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, had attended so diligently to our work. After our time in the British Museum and Public Records Office, he treated us as scholars. “Did you consider…?” “Perhaps you should read….” “Why don’t you expand this narrative section…?”

The margins spoke volumes. They spoke of volumes unread. They implied that we were becoming colleagues in a common intellectual enterprise.

Sometimes a single conversation with a mentor sticks in the mind as emphatically as if it were rendered in terse marginalia. Leaving Colgate for graduate school in the tumultuous Spring of 1970 — Vietnam protests, Cambodian invasion, Kent State, Jackson State — I asked Professor Rockwood whether he thought the consequences of our military misadventures in Southeast Asia could ever be overcome and our fractured body politic healed. He replied, “You’re a historian. Look back. You should have answers of your own.”

Today, in times that seem far more worrisome and troublingthan that distant Spring, I wonder what guidance we would find in the margins from a Busch, Reading or Rockwood (thankfully Jerry Balmuth is still here to weigh in, linking your era to mine).

It’s in the margins that intellectual engagement begins. It’s there that we gain the confidence to embrace doubt, to confront questioning and contradiction. It’s in the margins that great teacherspropel us toward a lifetime of critical inquiry.

So, with this essay now done, another Colgate deadline is met. But the paragraph above feels too glib; it’s too facile an ending. That last paragraph employs a very tired classical rhetorical device. This return to campus, literary but not literal, demands a second draft. But, as always happened, time’s up.

At least, let me augment my conclusion with borrowed words (Sorry, Fred, I know you’d take me to task for this self-indulgent finale as mercilessly as you did forty years ago for my very cryptic reference to Breughel and the fall of Icarus. Would something from T.S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” be relevant?):

“We shall not cease from explorationAnd the end of all our exploringWill be to arrive where we startedAnd know the place for the first time.”

And with an apostrophe appropriately inserted, Eliot’s very next linereveals what that place might be: “Through the unknown, unremembered ‘gate…” Read on.