Thursday, November 12, 2015

Tributes to My Teachers:
Dr. John Clum, Writer, Dramatist, Scholar

Dr. John M. Clum at Duke University showed me a deeper way to enjoy literature when he became the first English teacher to ask me a question I couldn't answer. 

"Don't you see the structure?" 

I was puzzled. "You mean, how many chapters the book has?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. "You mean, whether it's in first person?" Yes, he said, that's part of it. I ran out of ideas then, but I spent the rest of my semesters at Duke trying to find out what he meant. 

For the first time, after years of getting an A for essays that simply stated what was obvious to me, I started to use every essay assignment as a challenge to work out ideas that were new to me. I took risks, and, all of a sudden, the student who knew everything about art realized that he had barely begun to appreciate it (for the same lesson applies to music and visual arts). 

Dr. Clum led me to the right destination following the pivotal wrong turn in my life, the very same day it happened. Nothing in my freshman year had excited me or challenged me so much as "Music 101-102" taught by the university chapel's gentle and jovial organist Fenner Douglass. On the first day of classes in my sophomore year at Duke, I took my seat in "Music 103," anticipating that I would declare a music major and pursue a career in music composition. Then the head of the Music department entered and announced, "If you're interested in composing music, get out now: this department is for scholars and performers only." I stood, walked out, and phoned Dr. Clum to enroll in his class as a drama major. Years later, I had to recognize that music was my true love, and I still regret not withdrawing from Duke right then and transferring to some school where I could have pursued music composition. 

I may have made a wrong turn, but Dr. Clum led me to the same destination anyway. (As Sondheim wrote it in a song: "I chose and my world was shaken / So what? / The choice may have been mistaken, / The choosing was not. . .") Besides the insight about "structure" in art, Dr. Clum taught me these lessons:
  • Following a monologue that I performed for his class, using all the actors' tricks I knew, he gently pointed out that I was "acting" instead of trying to communicate what was specific to the text. That was the first of many times that he confronted me with how much more I had to learn about things I'd thought I knew.
  • When he cast me as the husband of the heroine in the nineteenth-century classic Hedda Gabler, he created a seminar for the cast so that we could study the social and artistic context of that play. Rehearsing and studying for four months, I experienced depth in a role for the first time.
    Another experience I had for the first time in that course: He gave me the first grade lower than "A" that I ever received on a paper about literature. I was indignant. In a conference, he said, "Lord knows, it's a good paper. I just expected more from you."
  • That "B" actually precipitated a crisis for me, and Dr. Clum was again there to help me towards the right goal. After I'd calmed down, I recognized how right he was. After eight years of secondary education, I'd never had to think in a literature course. All of my work had been reporting or describing what was obvious to me. I went back to Dr. Clum, who was also my academic advisor, and asked him about that. His answer was simple: Enroll in a certain unusual course taught by General Irving B. Holley, and that course redeemed all the others, and became the basis of everything I've taught my students in history and literature courses ever since (read more about General Holley).
  • He did me a favor by casting me (for a class performance) in a play by Pinter. I hated the play, I hated the role, I didn't understand it, it seemed stupid, it seemed sordid -- and then he helped me to understand how the words could say one thing but mean another, how characters can use words for weapons (or defenses). Then his question, "What animal is your character like?" got me to think about a cat, with its caution, its alertness, its laziness, its hedonism. Portraying that part in that play taught me the main lessons that I've been imparting to my drama students ever since.
  • In a playwriting seminar, I treasure above all the conference I had in his office on the top floor of the old Carr building. My play about a busybody secretary named "Lotty" was going nowhere. It was a true-to-life depiction of real experiences I'd had in a summer job at a department store -- but, just like real life, it had no direction. "What can I do?" I asked him. Without speaking, he rose from his desk and closed the door to the hallway. Then, smiling, leaning up against the door, he said in a low voice, "Kill Lotty."  I laughed. First, it was such a shock, and it felt like a real conspiracy. Then, I saw pretty quickly that he was right. Murder would be an exaggeration of what we all felt, and that would make our feelings more clear than my accurate report of actual events. I'd learned how something can be more true than actual.
The academic program in Drama that he created now thrives. The story of his struggle to raise drama from a club activity to an academic discipline was the subject of my researched paper for Dr. Holley, which can be found in Duke's archives -- listed on the archives web page. I hear from Dr. Clum that my history "Dramatic Changes" stands today as a reference for researchers.

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