Thursday, September 05, 2013

Remembering Professor Irving Holley: The Essence of Education

It's natural that a teacher's personal web site would include tributes to his own outstanding teachers.  Recently, I learned that General and Professor Irving B. Holley has died, when his grandson sent me a kind note about my profile of his grandfather.  Professor Holley and his message should have the widest audience possible, so here's the text of my tribute to him:
One of five books by I.B. Holley.

The opening gambit in Dr. Holley's class shook me up more than any other single thing any teacher ever did. I knew immediately that my advisor John Clum had been right: "He'll make a scholar of you." Up to that point, I'd had no idea what that meant.

He welcomed us to a seminar on the meaning of "the liberal arts," a phrase that meant nothing to me, though I'd spent six years at two "liberal arts" institutions (Westminster, Duke). We would have readings to do for our class discussions (and shame and woe to anyone who ever came to class unprepared to discuss the readings in depth!), but we would have no quizzes, no tests, and only one graded assignment, to write a research paper. The first draft would be due in December; the second draft would be due in May. My eight classmates and I had been sitting at a seminar table for about five minutes while this wiry, feisty little general with cotton-white hair and thick glasses spoke to us. According to the schedule, we would be there for the next two hours. But what would we do all that time? Then he set an 8x10 black-and-white photograph on the table.

"As we pass this photograph around, I want you to make observations. You first." He handed it to me.

"I see Civil War soldiers around a cannon," I said.

"That," he said firmly, "was not an observation. It was an inference. We'll do those later. What do you see?"

Chastened, I said that I observed what appeared to be a cannon. He nodded his approval, and I passed the picture to the student on my right. Each one of us observed a detail. The ninth student had a tough time observing something that the rest of us hadn't seen. Then the picture returned to Gen. Holley. We were relieved to have passed our first test, and waited to hear the point of it.

"Now, do it again." He passed the picture to me once more.

The picture made the rounds three or four more times, as we saw more and more details that we hadn't noticed before. Then he passed it around several more times for us to make inferences from all the details.

What we did with that picture -- noticing details, drawing conclusions -- is what we then did with facts found in our research. He said that, by making us dig deeply under a "little postage stamp-sized" piece of the history of Duke University, we would learn one most valuable lesson: how much there is to know about everything. Or, how little we know about anything.

My first draft, grandly titled "A History of Drama at Duke," was the longest paper I'd ever written. There were twenty-some typed pages, with four pages of additional notes and sources. I'd read old news articles, interviewed retired professors who remembered early plays on campus, and I'd put together what I thought was a finely-written essay.

But on the title page, Dr. Holley wrote a whole paragraph about how the title mis-represented the paper. On every page he pointed out facts not verified, inferences not based on facts, whole decades of information that I'd skimmed over. He spent more time writing the comments than I'd spent writing the paper.

Especially he asked me over and over again, "How do you know this?" And ultimately he asked, "Okay, if this is factual, then, SO WHAT?"

This paper became my obsession, and my pleasure. The final draft contained not a single sentence from the first draft, it focused much more narrowly on just one thread -- how an academic program emerged from one of the many drama clubs on campus -- and was forty-some pages long with forty more pages of notes and sources, with an appendix listing every play performed between 1920s and 1979. That paper remains in the Duke Archives, and I'm proud to see it listed in their web site, and to learn that my work has served as a resource for other researchers in the years since.

There are two other anecdotes about him that I'd like to preserve here.
  • One time we came to class prepared to discuss a sixty-page essay that he'd reserved for us in the library to read. He surprised us by telling us to take out a piece of paper for a pop quiz! He asked only one question: "Define 'belletristic.'" None of us had any idea. "Yet you came to class after reading that essay, you saw that word, and none of you was even curious as to what it meant?" He was scornful. How could we hope to learn if we skipped over what we didn't know? I never made that mistake again.
  • He taught us to be careful to keep records of every source, every idea, and to keep these labeled and dated. I went out to buy a file cabinet, I started to use folders for different topics, and my whole approach to school work, and even to play, changed. I had to laugh, though, when he called me in for a conference. After some pleasantries, we both took out pads and we each made notes about what the other man was saying! It seemed to me that we could have saved time simply by writing down our own words and exchanging pads.

In my own teaching career, I've tried to give my junior high students a sense of what General Holley gave me.

1 comment:

George said...

Dang, Scott, I wish I had known Gen. Holley!